Already exhausted in the Syrian mediation efforts, Staffan de Mistura, has just been appointed, by the United Nations Secretary-General, as his envoy to Western Sahara’s decades’ long dispute. Mr. de Mistura has served, in more or less the same job, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. He has been with the UN for decades, but his track record is pretty dismal. His last assignment as UN Envoy was in Syria, where he spent four years before stepping down in 2018. During those years he made little progress to solve the Syrian conflict. In fact, there is no outstanding achievement Mr. de Mistura can be remembered for, even before his Syrian tenure.
Such failure might be justified by the fact that the UN Security Council, the ultimate decision-maker in the organisation, where veto-holding powers ready to kill anything any of them does not like, has been divided over Syria. Indeed, the Council never managed to agree on anything of substance towards solving the Syrian conflict, particularly after Russia, a veto power, became a party to the conflict, launching its first air strikes in September 2015, targeting what it called “terrorist” positions. Since then, Moscow has been a reliable ally to Damascus.
The UN statement, announcing de Mistura’s appointment, praised his former work for the world body, highlighting his “40 years of experience in diplomacy and political affairs,” without mentioning any of his past failures. The UN, usually, sidelines its envoys’ failure as a way of encouraging them! Just, as usual, it does not fire them, either, when they fail!
The man came with all his compounded failure following him in a long trail from Geneva all the way to Moscow and Astana—locations where he led, facilitated and sponsored dozens of meetings tackling the Syrian conflict, to no avail.
In his new role, Mr. de Mistura is to lead the UN’s Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) which was established by UN resolution 690, adopted by the Security Council in 1991.
The ultimate goal is to find a solution to the conflict over the strip of desert south of Morocco, along the Atlantic Ocean. The conflict is essentially about sovereignty and power—who rules that difficult desert. While Morocco claims the area as part of its territory, Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (POLISARIO), helped by Algeria, disputes that claim. Since its eruption in 1975, the conflict has passed through different phases marked by violence and warfare between, mainly, Morocco and POLISARIO and its Algerian ally.
However, in 1991 MINURSO made a breakthrough after the parties agreed to a referendum by asking the inhabitants of the area if they want to be an independent state or be part of Morocco with wider self-rule. Major military operations almost stopped opening the door for political negotiations over the details of the referendum and who has the right to take part. But recently, there are signs that military confrontation is just around the corner.
Whatever Mr. de Mistura’s plan, if he has one, he is yet to spell it out. Earlier this month, he toured the region, starting from Rabat and ending in Algeria. He also visited Mauritania, bordering the Western Sahara, and Tindouf in Algeria, home to thousands of Sahrawi refugees.
In Algeria the country’s Foreign Minister told him that Algeria wants open direct negotiations among the parties, in good faith and without preconditions. This is a little less than what any UN envoy would like to hear. Ideally for Mr. de Mistura, if the parties would agree to narrow their differences by moving on into the details of the promised referendum in which the little over half a million people living in the area decide what they want—the very essence of resolution 690. But the referendum, as a way of settling the conflict, has become a difficult business and its details have been a contentious debate. In the past, major powers, including the United States, France and others were supportive of any UN agreed plan, while remaining largely neutral. But this has changed recently, making de Mistura’s job a little more difficult.
Just weeks before he left the White House, former President Donald Trump, on 10 December 2020, took the unusual decision of recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara to encourage Rabat’s normalisation of relations with Israel. Mr. Trump is a strong Israel supporter. This ended the long American neutrality in the conflict. It also means that, whenever the issue comes back to the Security Council—including if Mr. de Mistura, magically, makes serious progress—the US is no longer neutral and its veto could derail everything.
The presence of the Israeli factor has also impacted the difficult bilateral relations between Rabat and Algiers. Algeria is very upset about the Moroccan-Israeli rapprochement, partially blaming it for its decision, last year, to sever all ties with its neighbour, Morocco. Algeria is also nervous about the fact that Morocco, its regional rival, has been making military hardware deals with the Israelis. Rabat is said to be talking to Tel Aviv about purchasing missiles and other air defence systems, including military drones. Algeria, already suspicious of the Israeli factor in the region, views the issue through the eyes of the Palestinians, who reject any form of Arab-Israeli normalisation while Israel still occupies their land, demolishes homes and subjects them to apartheid laws.
The Moroccan-Israeli ties could also push Algeria to seek stronger ties with Iran, which is also not happy about the Israeli presence in North Africa. This adds more complications to de Mistura’s mission.
Against this background, it is doubtful that Steffan de Mistura could really deliver any tangible results in terms of ending the conflict in the region. The Algerian President and his government will be very hesitant to indulge in any talks or compromises with Morocco. Algerians are overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian and they would not like to see their government talking to Morocco, as long as Rabat maintains its Israeli connection.
If anything, Mr. de Mistura is about to add another fiasco to his long record of failure.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.