Algeria’s ‘Punishment by Proxy’ Frays Ties With Spain

Algeria’s ‘Punishment by Proxy’ Frays Ties With Spain
A supporter of the Polisario Front and Western Sahara waves a flag reading “Free Sahara,” Logrono, Spain, June 8, 2021 (AP photo by Alvaro Barrientos).
On June 8, Algeria suspended its Friendship and Neighborliness Treaty with Spain, in response to Madrid’s recent alignment with Morocco on the Western Sahara conflict. While the suspension of the treaty so far excludes contracts for gas, of which Algeria is Spain’s biggest supplier, it could jeopardize relations with the European Union. But with the change in Madrid’s position, Algeria felt it had to act to send a message, even if it comes at considerable cost. At first glance, the tensions might come as a surprise. Algeria should be riding high from the recent increase in global gas prices that has left the country flush with cash and reinforced its value as the third-largest gas exporter to Europe. Yet, this represents the single bright spot among a litany of challenges the country faces on both the domestic and regional fronts, with the latter stemming from a string of Moroccan advances in the geopolitical arena. Among these is the recognition by the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020 of Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara territory; a series of alleged drone strikes carried out by Morocco against the Polisario—the independence movement that opposes Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara—which have caused Algerian causalities; and most unsettling of all to Algiers, Morocco’s burgeoning relationship with Israel. Algeria has struggled to find a suitable response to all of these challenges. To be sure, Algerian foreign policy concerns extend beyond Morocco, to include an unstable Sahel region, political crisis in Libya, tension with France and ties with Russia—especially in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the country’s leadership has consistently seen its national security as threatened by Morocco and interwoven with the Western Sahara. As a result, Algeria’s foreign policy discourse betrays a preoccupation with Morocco that appears to overshadow these other priorities. And despite the superiority in resources and capabilities Algeria enjoys compared to those of Morocco, it finds itself strained by the development and trajectory of Rabat’s foreign policy. As a result, Algeria has now jeopardized its own ties with Spain and potentially the EU in an attempt to counter Morocco’s efforts to sway more European partners closer to Rabat’s line on the Western Sahara issue. Nearly 47 years since the start of the conflict in Western Sahara, and after endless rounds of negotiations, the dispute is unlikely to be resolved by the United Nations framework that oversees the process. Furthermore, in November 2020, Morocco and the Polisario broke the cease-fire the U.N. had brokered and had been monitoring since 1991. Spain, the former colonial power of the Western Sahara, has long since relinquished its role in the territorial conflict that now pits Morocco’s sovereignty claims, and de facto control, against the Polisario’s own claims over, and efforts to regain control of, the territories. Under the auspices of U.N. negotiations, Morocco has been pushing an autonomy plan for the area, while the Polisario wants the process to deliver a promised referendum with an option to vote on independence. Morocco, however, has wholeheartedly rejected any vote since 2007 and continues to do so. Spain has borne the brunt of both Morocco and Algeria’s pressure on the issue, and Algeria’s suspension of the 2002 treaty that serves as a framework of bilateral relations reflects tensions that had been building for some time. Since the Trump administration’s announcement of its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Morocco has been pressuring other partners to show more explicit support for it on the issue. In March, Spain did just that, declaring Morocco’s autonomy plan “a serious and credible” path out of the conflict. Prior to this announcement, Madrid had supported the U.N. process.

Algeria has jeopardized its own ties with Spain and potentially the EU in an attempt to counter Morocco’s efforts to sway more European partners on the Western Sahara issue.

Although gas deliveries have so far been unaffected, the suspension of the treaty affects most of Algeria’s trade with Spain and could also affect travel between the two countries. The Algerian political establishment seems to support the decision, despite its potential costs. These could rise steeply if the European Union determines that the move violates the Partnership Agreement governing trade between Algeria and the entire bloc. By risking such an important relationship, Algeria is signaling the extent to which it has run out of options to counter Morocco on the Western Sahara issue. Since the height of the Western Sahara conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, Algeria has supported the Polisario, in part because its revolutionary ideology and experience was consistent with that of Algiers. But the group has also helped contain Morocco by keeping it embroiled in regional conflict. Algeria’s position has its historical roots in the Sand War in 1963, when Rabat, driven by the narrative of a “greater Morocco,” invaded Algeria less than a year after its hard-won independence from France. Though it lasted less than five months, the Sand War would help shape Algerian military and foreign policy doctrine, while presaging decades of hostility, mistrust and tensions with Morocco that engulfed the entire neighborhood and shaped the lives of millions. Algeria’s support for the Polisario would become the basis of Morocco’s own narrative of grievance toward the Algerian military and civilian establishment. From Morocco’s perspective, Algeria’s support is the only thing keeping the Polisario alive as a representative of the Saharawi people and a party to the conflict. From Algeria’s standpoint, however, Morocco is still an opportunist neighbor with expansionist ambitions that represents a constant threat to its national security. And seen through this prism, the extent to which Morocco’s recent bilateral ties with Israel have progressed is alarming, particularly the prospect of increased cooperation on military and cyber security issues, potentially including arms sales. Morocco is also alleged to have launched several drone attacks on Polisario targets, one of which has caused Algerian deaths. Prior to that, Morocco was allegedly involved in a spying scandal targeting Algerian and European leaders facilitated by the Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus spyware. All of this, coupled with the Moroccan establishment’s tendency to deploy a transactional foreign policy, plays into Algerian fears. In short, geopolitically, the scales are shifting to Morocco’s advantage. While the Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s territorial claims over Western Sahara—in return for Morocco signing onto the Abraham Accords, the administration’s crowning Middle East achievement—did not resolve the issue, it did create a path for more international support for Morocco. And since Morocco normalized its relationship with Israel, the burgeoning bilateral ties could portend a shift in the regional balance of power. Algeria seems to have found little recourse to these perceived threats. The country broke off already long-strained diplomatic relations with Morocco last August, severing the few remaining commercial links between the two countries, from flights to gas flows through the pipeline that supplied Spain via Morocco. Yet, it is not clear what Algeria’s end goal is. With the message sent, the question remains to what extent will Algeria continue to jeopardize its own interests in what amounts to punishment by proxy. But Spain is not likely to reverse its March announcement on Morocco’s autonomy proposal, as doing so will resolve the crisis with Algeria only to start a fresh one with Morocco. Without good options, Algeria has made it clear it will not hesitate to consider extreme ones, injecting greater uncertainty into the region’s outlook.

Intissar Fakir is a senior fellow and founding director of the North Africa and Sahel program at the Middle East Institute. She was previously a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she was also the editor-in-chief of the online journal Sada. Follow her on Twitter at @IntissarFakir.

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