Drumbeat in The Maghreb Amidst Escalating Tensions
Three Algerians were killed in the Sahara in a military strike that destroyed the trucks they were driving. According to the Algerian President’s office, the trucks were traveling from the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott toward the Algerian city of Ouargla as part of “normal commercial exchange” when they were targeted. However, Akram Kharief, editor of Algerian website Mena Defense, said that “the Algerian truckers were killed in Bir Lahlou”, a town in the part of Western Sahara contested by the Polisario Front which raises the possibility that this was a targeted killing of Polisario leadership.
Morocco has not officially commented on the incident, but an informed source from the Kingdom told Al Jazeera today that the Moroccan government “has never targeted and will never target Algerian citizens, regardless of the circumstances and the provocations.”
The incident comes amidst tensions between Algeria and Morocco that have been escalating now for almost a year. In November of last year, the Polisario ended a three-decade cease fire, vowing to win independence for the Western Sahara from the Moroccan government. The Algerian government backs the Polisario despite international recognition of Morocco’s claim to the region. In August of this year Algeria broke off diplomatic relations with Morocco and closed its airspace, citing a range of reasons that included an accusation that the Kingdom was responsible for a series of recent wildfires that had ravaged the Algerian countryside. That same month, two Moroccan truck drivers were killed in Mali under circumstances that pointed to possible involvement by the Algerian government, leading to accusations and counter accusations in the Moroccan and Algerian press. Then at the end of October, the Algerian government announced it would shut its gas pipeline which runs thorough Morocco to Spain.
Meanwhile, the position of the Algerian government has become increasingly precarious against a domestic backdrop of precipitous economic decline, political unrest, and international isolation. ” Indeed, Morocco’s GDP is now almost level with that its much larger neighbor. This contrast in fortune, exacerbates animosity between the two countries that goes back almost 50 years.
The Moroccan intelligence service, which has proven in the last few years to be extremely capable, continuously uncovers evidence of Algerian support for the Polisario, which is then publicized by the Moroccan government, and flatly denied by the Algerians. Algeria’s backing for the militant group arises from its desire to control the Western Sahara, and thus the country’s only access to the Atlantic. It is likely that it was the Algerian government that prompted the Polisario into taking a more aggressive stance at the end of last year, perhaps with the incentive of distracting popular attention from domestic ills.
It is possible too that Algeria feels empowered by its partnership with China, from whom the government has been purchasing an armory of high-tech weaponry – another point of concern for observers of the region who point out that Algeria is China’s bid for influence in the Maghreb. China may now be having some concerns about the stability of its client state. A recent statement from the UN Security Council about tension in the region, was clearly a thinly veiled warning to Algeria against further escalation – a warning delivered with the consent of China, and subsequently slammed by Algeria as being “fundamentally unbalanced.”
Morocco is among the most consistently moderate and stable of North African governments a contrast that became evident in the aftermath of this latest incident. With typical bellicosity, the Algerian government said that the incident would “not go unpunished.” Most experts, however, say that war in the Maghreb is unlikely simply because such a war would be inimical to the interests of all involved. Such predictions, however, are based on a view of the world that is rational. One can only hope that the Algerian government also subscribes to such a view – but the indicators are not good. More By The Author