Why the Fight Over Western Sahara Is Heating Up Again
Tensions are rising in Western Sahara, a large strip of desert stretching along the Atlantic coast north of Mauritania. Formerly a Spanish colony, the area has been claimed for the past half-century by both Morocco and the independence-seeking Polisario Front, which each control part of it. In November 2020, the Polisario ditched a 30-year cease-fire with Morocco. The severing of diplomatic ties in August between Morocco and Algeria, Polisario’s historic backer, could escalate the tension. A ruling by a European Union court in September enforcing the bloc’s legal positions on Western Sahara as a separate and distinct territory from Morocco served to highlight the importance of finding a political solution to the crisis.
1. How serious is the escalation?
Polisario’s armed forces have claimed daily attacks on Moroccan military bases and outposts since the cease-fire collapsed; the Moroccan army hasn’t confirmed or denied any attacks. Even so, Moroccan soldiers have extended a section of walls along the border with Algeria to make it harder for the group’s fighters to cross over.
2. What sparked these tensions?
They’ve been building for a while. The cease-fire that ended the Polisario’s 16-year insurgency included the promise of a UN-organized referendum with the option of independence, but it hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, Morocco, which controls 80% of Western Sahara, has been reinforcing its claim to the territory, spending heavily to promote it as an international trade hub, including through the development of a major port in Dakhla. Things came to a head in October 2020 when Polisario supporters began a blockade of a Moroccan-built road leading to the El Guergarate border crossing inside a UN buffer zone. The road serves as Morocco’s main conduit for overland trade with sub-Saharan Africa. The next month Morocco deployed troops to end the sit-in and sealed off access to the border crossing to prevent another one. Polisario described the act as an expansion of territory using military force. Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the state the Polisario have declared in Western Sahara, announced a resumption of hostilities.
3. What’s the background to the conflict?
Spain colonized the territory once called the Spanish Sahara in 1884. In the mid 1970s, as Spain prepared to pull out, Morocco claimed it and moved in, leading to armed conflict starting in 1976 with the Polisario Front. The front presents itself as the main movement representing the Sahrawis, the region’s indigenous people. It had first emerged in 1973 to battle the Spanish colonists with a goal of an independent state. Morocco bases its claim on history. As recently as the 17th century, the kingdom of Morocco stretched from Tangier to Timbuktu, including large parts of the area now called Western Sahara. Morocco’s government insists that the territory, which it refers to as its southern provinces, has been a part of the country “since the dawn of time.” The kingdom disputes Polisario’s legitimacy and says Sahrawis living under its sovereignty accept its rule and are represented in parliament and local councils. At the same time, it does not tolerate opponents of its claim voicing their views, whether in the street or in local media. And it restricts the access of independent and foreign news outlets to the territory.
4. What’s Algeria’s role?
The leaders of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic are based in Algeria. More refugees of the conflict live in camps in southwestern Algeria than in the 20% of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario. For years, Morocco has accused Algeria of supplying the Polisario with weapons, ammunition and military training, a charge it has never confirmed nor denied. Algeria has certainly lobbied countries to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, looking to capitalize on a positive outcome for Polisario that would secure it strategic access to the Atlantic coast. The dispute over Western Sahara is widely seen as the main embodiment of a decades-long rivalry between Morocco and Algeria for dominance and influence in the broader region.
5. Who supports the different sides?
The biggest base of support for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is the African Union, where it’s a member. The republic has been recognized as an independent country by 84 UN members, though several have recently withdrawn or frozen their recognition after lobbying by Morocco. Among them are India, Colombia and Jamaica. The U.S. became the first country to recognize Morocco’s claim to sovereignty in Western Sahara in late 2020, under President Donald Trump. The endorsement was part of a deal in which Morocco agreed to restore low-key diplomatic ties with Israel, which were severed in 2000. No country has followed the U.S. move, and Germany questioned it at the UN, calling on the U.S. to “act within the framework of international law.” That angered Morocco, whose Foreign Ministry subsequently suspended ties with the German government over unspecified “deep misunderstandings.” The Sept. 29 EU court ruling annuls two trade deals with Morocco covering farm products and fish because they were agreed without the consent of Western Sahara’s people, effectively challenging Morocco’s decades-long drive to win international support for its sovereignty claims over the territory.
6. What’s the significance of the EU court ruling?
The ruling threatens to upset the bloc’s diplomatic ties with the government in Rabat, which is key to taming the flow of irregular migration and intelligence sharing in the fight against terrorism. It will also affect the EU’s trading relations with Morocco and Western Sahara. For Polisario, the ruling could pave the way for legal proceedings against private European firms and the EU itself to seek compensation for business dealings in the Moroccan controlled parts of the territory. The ruling might embolden the government in Algiers to take a harsher stance in talks on renewing the transit agreement for the GME link, which brings gas from Algeria to Spain and Portugal through Morocco and is due to expire at the end of October. The court said the annulment of the two trade deals will take effect only after the two-month period for lodging an appeal, or after a ruling if an appeal is filed.
7. Is anyone trying to mediate the conflict?
After repeated efforts, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in September succeeded in getting Morocco and the Polisario to agree to the appointment of a new special envoy for the conflict, Staffan de Mistura. UN-led discussions had been stalled for two years after the resignation of the previous envoy. Resuming direct talks would be a significant achievement in the current context.
8. What’s at stake?
Stability. Heavier fighting could be triggered by anything from increased weapons transfers to the Polisario to a shift in the movement’s tactics. That would likely further destabilize North Africa just as authorities in both Morocco and Algeria face varying degrees of anger at home over rising unemployment, corruption and weak economies. The diplomatic divorce between Morocco and Algeria will sharpen focus on the latter’s influence with and support for the Polisario, and heighten already deep mistrust between the two archrivals. Cornered for almost a quarter of a century by Algeria’s decision to close its land border, Morocco has been staking a harder claim to the Western Sahara since the collapse of the cease-fire and adopting a more confrontational, tit-for-tat approach with Algeria. For foreign businesses, there are concerns over the security of overland trade through the disputed territory to sub-Saharan African markets. The three-week blockade in November 2020 impacted prices of fresh produce in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, media reported at the time.
The Reference Shelf
- The International Crisis Group reports on the situation in Western Sahara.
- John Ruedy’s book, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, gives useful background.
- Bloomberg Opinion’s Bobby Ghosh writes about the German-Moroccan spat.
- A European Council on Foreign Relations report looks at how EU governments could relaunch a viable UN-led peace process.
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