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UN, Morocco and the Polisario: a symbolic withdrawal

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The North Africa Journal: February 27, 2017: Morocco is to withdraw some troops from Guerguerat, in the contested Western Sahara region. The move is a bid to deescalate tension after Moroccan soldiers breached into the buffer zone established by the UN to keep Morocco and the Polisario from full confrontation. Sources in Rabat say the decision came as a request from the new UN chief Antonio Guterres, who spoke to King Mohamed VI last week.  King Mohamed’s acceptance of Guterres request is in sharp contract with the era of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who Rabat considered biased and on the side of the Polisario Front. There is a glimmer of hope now that the UN could use soft diplomacy to convince Morocco and the Polisario to find a solution that works for both.

The breach took place in early 2016, threatening a truce that has kept the conflict dormant. The Polisario Front, which wants Morocco out from all the Western Sahara territory, calls the withdrawal a case of much-ado about nothing. In a statement, the Polisario Front says “the Moroccan decision to withdraw its troops near Guerguerat by a few hundred meters is window dressing.”  While being contested by both Morocco and the Polisario, Morocco has a direct presence on some 60% of the Western Sahara territory.

But the UN task of finding a compromise will be difficult. Morocco remains determined to annex the Western Sahara, making this issue its central, maybe even the only foreign policy initiative under King Mohamed. Indeed all events, strategies and tactics rolled out by Morocco on foreign affairs are meant to gather support for the Kingdom’s pursuit of its Sahara initiative and undermine the Polisario. Mohamed VI has been traveling non-stop to African capitals seeking support, strategically using Moroccan investment and aid to convince more African nations to support its claim.  The latest support it received comes from South Sudan.  Meanwhile, and likewise, the Polisario continues to erect road blocks against Morocco in Africa, even though Morocco succeeded in rejoining the African Union. The latest from the Polisario is confirming Mozambique on its side, while convincing European courts to remove fish and agricultural products produced in the Western Sahara from the EU-Morocco agricultural trade agreement.

All in all, we do not anticipate any major movement on the political front and so this low-intensity conflict will continue for the time being.

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The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at www.MEA-Risk.com.