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 for now. In November, the Polisario ditched a 30-year cease-fire with Morocco and has since claimed daily attacks on Moroccan military personnel.

Why the Fight Over Western Sahara Is Heating Up Again

1. How serious is the escalation?

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, which backs the Polisario, to make it harder for the group’s fighters to cross over from there. In early March, the International Crisis Group, an independent organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts, urged the United Nations to appoint an envoy to mediate a deescalation, saying the situation was volatile and could rapidly worsen.

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 still 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. In November, 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 of the area, Morocco claimed it and moved in, leading to armed conflict starting in 1976 with the Polisario Front. The front is 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.”

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 either confirmed nor denied. Algeria has certainly lobbied countries to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. 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. That 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.”

6. 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 anger at home over rising unemployment, corruption and weak economies. 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 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.

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