The 16th congress of the Polisario Front, which took place in Dakhla from 13 to 17 January, marks a significant turning point in the relationship between the Front and Morocco. This is especially true in light of recent developments in the Western Sahara file, including developments on the military front after Morocco’s withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement signed between the two parties against the Guerguerat crisis and developments on the diplomatic front after the recognition of Morocco’s autonomy initiative by some regional and international parties.
Perhaps, after garnering increased international support, this Congress will send escalatory messages to Moroccan policies on the Sahara issue. The congress’s slogan, i.e. Intensify Fight to Expel the Occupier and Achieve Complete Sovereignty, and denial of any other routes to independence and the liberation of Sharawi lands may be a hint. The Polisario Front was scheduled to elect a secretary-general at this conference.
Shifts in the Field and Political Situation: Since the Trump administration announced in December 2020 that it would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for the resumption of Moroccan-Israeli relations, the Western Sahara file has undergone a series of cumulative strategic shifts. Multiple regional, Gulf, African, and European powers subsequently recognized Morocco, with Spain’s prime minister announcing his country’s support for the autonomy initiative adopted by Morocco on 8 June 2022. This set a precedent, as Madrid had previously supported the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Another indicator of the imbalance in this file may be the establishment of a diplomatic mission by about 19 countries in El-Ayoun, compared to a decline in the number of countries recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic to about 28 countries, from 84, which is viewed as a qualitative shift in the midst of the crisis that placed the Polisario Front in diplomatic exile and established a pressure point for secessionist movements.
Military Collaborations and Expansions: Other factors that contributed to this development include the diversification of the Moroccan armaments base following the restoration of relations between Morocco and Israel and the purchase of drones for use in obstructing the activities of Polisario Front members, particularly in light of the signing of a defense agreement (on 24 November 2021) between Morocco and Israel, which covers intelligence, industrial cooperation, and military training. Under this agreement, Morocco will purchase cutting-edge Israeli security gear, enhancing Moroccan military capabilities against the Polisario Front.
On the other hand, the Polisario Front, according to conflicting reports, has acquired drones from Iran and Algeria and is now utilizing the siege tactic through the Algerian gate as well as Mauritania. This was demonstrated by the visit of Omar Mansour, interior minister of the Sahrawi Republic and member of the Polisario Front, to Mauritania in early October 2022, as well as his statements on the use of drones.
This happened at the same time that the Polisario Front appointed nineteen new military leaders who are members of the hawks wing, the Front’s most hardline faction, including primarily Hamad Al-Wali A’kik, who was named chief of staff of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army and is one of the old guard who took part in the open war against Morocco for 16 years.
Overthrowing UN Resolutions: Between the Polisario Front’s fifteenth congress, which was held in 2019 before Covid-19 and the latest congress, a number of significant developments took place, including military transformations brought on by the Guerguerat crisis, the opening of open armed confrontation options between the two parties, and the Polisario Front’s declaration of its withdrawal from the cease-fire agreement signed with Morocco in 1991, and the subsequent statements by the Secretary-General of the Front that peace, stability, and a just and lasting solution to the Moroccan-Sahrawi conflict are impossible without Morocco’s withdrawal from expansion in the region and the refusal to recognize the right to self-determination, at a time when Moroccan forces penetrated beyond the berm following the military operation conducted by the royal forces at the Guerguerat crossing.
Internal Rifts Within the Polisario Front: These rifts were demonstrated by the resignation of the Polisario representative in Europe, Abi Boucheraba, from his position on 14 December 2022, following what he described as profound disagreements with the Front’s leader, Ibrahim Ghali, let alone the current state of internal unrest and the emergence of popular tensions within the camps.
These factors might make it less likely that the previously passed UN resolutions on holding a referendum and approving the right to self-determination will be put into effect. As such, the Polisario Front’s movements are motivated by field work and the continuation of the armed struggle against Morocco, as stated multiple times by the Front’s Secretary-General in addition to what was included in the Front’s 16th congress, which is currently underway.
Multiple Objectives and Messages
Cohesion and Legitimization of the Polisario Front: By increasing momentum on the Western Sahara file, the Polisario Front aims to adapt to political and field developments, as evidenced by the Polisario Front’s eagerness to ensure diversity of delegations participating in the Tindouf congress, which drew 370 people from foreign delegations.
Rejection of Political Approaches to the Crisis: One of the messages of the Polisario Front’s current congress is the rejection of any strategy intended to deny the Sahrawi people their right to self-determination and independence, as well as the activation of the principle of armed struggle to defend this people’s right and its sovereignty over the Western Sahara territories. This was confirmed by the National Secretariat of the Polisario Front in a statement issued prior to the start of the congress.
The National Secretariat even urged the African Union to take immediate action to stop aggression against its territory and to take the necessary precautions to secure its borders. Some media outlets have reported that Algeria is leaning on its ties to Russia, specifically the Russian Wagner Company, to bolster the Polisario Front in order to counter the Moroccan tide in the Sahara, to increase the Front’s military capabilities so that it can launch a preemptive strike against Moroccan forces, and to assess whether or not the Front’s elements need training in the use of the Iranian kamikaze planes and the Iranian missiles that the Front has obtained in light of the menacing situation in the region, given the meeting between Algerian Army Chief of Staff Said Chengriha and Wagner Company cadre Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Domestic Employment and Re-Cohesion: The current momentum of the 16th conference comes in light of the internal recruitment of the leaders of the Polisario Front in light of the various schisms within the Front and the state of despair and frustration among the Sarawi people, especially since the Front has not made significant progress since announcing its withdrawal from the ceasefire, and perhaps this conference comes in light of the Front’s leaders’ aspirations to strengthen the militarization of the Front.
Overall, this congress increases momentum surrounding the Western Sahara issue and serves as a review of organizational capabilities and front mobilization. Although the 16th Congress’ work was dominated by the escalation of rhetoric toward Morocco and the threat of using force and armed conflict, it will actually only serve as a stage of mobilization for the Sahrawi interior, with an emphasis on the continued support of regional and international actors for the idea of the right to self-determination and the referendum for the Sahrawi people.