Foreign chancelleries in the two capitals of the central Maghreb, Rabat and Algiers, are insistently questioning the possibility of war between Algeria and Morocco, which some believe could break out in 2022.
The accumulation of crisis factors between the two countries, the arms race in which they are involved, and the contradictory and largely antagonistic interests of the two countries raise concerns and fears of a possible large-scale armed conflict in North Africa.
However, the war hypothesis seems to be ruled out, despite the alarms that have been raised, largely fuelled by the powerful international lobbies of the arms market.
In order to understand what is at stake, it is worth reflecting on several points:
- First, for there to be a war, there must be two opposing camps, either alone as countries or in coalition with other allies. In the case of the Maghreb, both sides have been told by "sources close to power" - the Moroccan Royal Court and the Algerian armed forces - that they do not want war, "but if it is inevitable, they say, they are ready". However, the "sources" are anonymous, which leaves a certain amount of uncertainty. No official source takes a clear position on the military crusade, either for or against.
- Secondly, in order for the war to come to a confrontation, there are several stages to go through. Only the last of these leads to the outbreak of hostilities, because once the machinery of war has been set in motion, turning back becomes very difficult, if not impossible.
- Some of these stepping stones to armed conflict have already been completed: severance of diplomatic relations; total cooling of economic and trade relations; cancellation of contracts of joint ventures operating in both countries; suspension of the bilateral contract for the joint use of the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline linking Algeria-Morocco-Spain and Portugal; ban on Moroccan civilian and military flights over Algerian airspace; cancellation of international meetings of a multilateral nature in which both countries could be present (absence of the Moroccan and Algerian ministers at the Union for the Mediterranean meeting in Barcelona; suspension of the Russia-Arab World meeting in Marrakesh, to which the Algerian minister was invited; harsh dialectical clashes between the two diplomacies in various United Nations forums).
- In any case, and despite the fact that bridges are being broken one by one in bilateral relations, the strategic interests of the two countries do not clash at the moment. Each has its own plan that is working and is not hindered by its rival.
- In order for bilateral military confrontation to occur, there are different patterns that have to be reached:
o War is the ultimate instrument for the defence of the country's strategic interests, which include national security and the country's projection as an international actor. But before this last step, there are others through which Algeria or Morocco defends its vital interests. Morocco maintains its programme of strategic alliances and its projection on five continents intact. Algeria does the same, and talks with its allies that revolve largely around the Western Sahara issue, as well as negotiations with countries focused on the sale of hydrocarbons, gas and oil, are not at all affected by the crisis with Morocco.
o The impossibility of successful international mediation. Different capitals allied to both countries are trying: Washington, Moscow, Paris, Beijing, Djeddah, Abu Dhabi. So far, no mediation has been successful, but both capitals do not close their doors to mediators. Although Rabat is more open to dialogue than its neighbour Algiers, mediation is at a standstill.
o The accumulation of war material must reach a level at which victory over the enemy is conceivable. In the event of a balance, as is currently the case, neither will dare to take the first step. So far, and despite the magnitude of annual arms acquisitions ranging from 6.5 per cent of GDP for Morocco to no less than 10 per cent of GDP for Algeria, these huge arsenals are not solely for the purpose of confronting each other, but are part of the geo-political rivalry between the two countries in North Africa and the Western Mediterranean. Military doctrine in both countries is based on the consideration that "in order to carry weight on the international geopolitical stage, it is necessary to have modern, high-quality armed forces".
o On the other hand, given the geographical, historical and socio-political considerations prevailing in each of the two countries, the invasion of the adversary's territory by ground troops is excluded. Neither army is in a position to sustain a ground incursion into the other for long, except for small incursions into the border area. The warlike contest, if it were to take place, would be limited to the use of navy, aviation or ground defence to attack the adversary's positions from a distance.
o Neither country has a fifth column within the enemy. Despite the fact that important sectors of public opinion and political groups are opposed to the outbreak of hostilities, in the event of conflict it is foreseeable that there will be "patriotic unity for the defence of the country".
o The media campaigns being waged in both countries, laden with accusations and insults, are more about the need to divert public attention from the real internal problems that exist in each country, caused by the effects of the pandemic, the growing socio-economic difficulties or the poor management of the economy, which is one hundred percent dependent on oil in the Algerian case, and on tourism and agriculture in the Moroccan case.
o The legal limbo in terms of international legality, in which the Western Sahara conflict finds itself, is not the cause of the crisis between Morocco and Algeria, although it is an aggravating factor. In previous times, for example, during the so-called War of the Sands in 1963, the war clashes in 1976, and in the 1980s in the midst of an armed confrontation between the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario Front guerrillas, which resulted in thousands of deaths, wounded and prisoners, diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco were maintained. For foreign chancelleries, there are no compelling reasons for the unilateral severance of diplomatic relations decreed by Algiers on 24 August. None of Algeria's traditional allies, neither on the African continent, nor in the Arab world, nor on a global scale, such as Russia, China, Cuba, South Africa, Syria or Palestine among them, have given their support to this rupture. All major international players are calling on both countries to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, including a pragmatic and definitive political solution to the situation in Western Sahara based on the proposal for advanced autonomy for the region under international guarantees.