A forgotten conflict on the fringes of the Sahara Desert is heating up – and Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the contested Western Sahara is poised to worsen it.
The recognition by the United States of the claim of the territory by Morocco – in exchange for the normalization of Morocco’s relations with Israel – risks aggravating the fighting between the Polisario Front, which wants the independence of the region, and the Moroccan troops occupying a 2,700 km-long fortified sand wall that divides the desert land, diplomats and analysts say.
“I think we can say with certainty that this decision makes resolving the current violence much more difficult,” said Riccardo Fabiani, director for North Africa at International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank. . “It will also make young Sahrawis more angry, mobilized and committed to resolving the conflict by force.”
Fighting resumed last month after the end of a 30-year ceasefire. The Polisario said it was returning to war because Morocco violated a 1991 ceasefire agreement by sending forces into a demilitarized buffer zone. The purpose of the incursion into Morocco was to eliminate Sahrawi protesters blocking a key trade highway to sub-Saharan Africa.
“We are now in a state of open war,” said Sidi Omar, the Polisario representative at the UN. “We are shooting at static Moroccan targets along the wall. Our main objective remains the liberation of Western Sahara. We did not want this war, but Morocco was emboldened by the inaction of the international community.
Hostilities could spiral out of control, leading to a full-fledged war that could even draw in neighboring Algeria – the main sponsor of the Polisario Front. This would exacerbate instability in an already troubled region, where Libya is embroiled in a civil conflict that has attracted mercenaries and foreign powers and where Mali has fought a jihadist insurgency in the Sahara, diplomats say.
“For now, this is a low-intensity conflict but it could get worse,” said a Western diplomat. “Algeria could at some point join the battle to support the Polisario. We are talking here about the risk of regional conflict. ”
For its part, Rabat, which has received a huge boost from the backing of the United States, denies that there has been any fighting. “This information is unfounded,” a Moroccan diplomat told the Financial Times. “Morocco is committed to the ceasefire and to the political process.”
About 600,000 people live in Western Sahara, a desert about the size of the United Kingdom. When Spain, a former colonial power, withdrew from the territory in 1975, Morocco took it back. The Polisario engaged in a 16 year war with the kingdom which ended with a ceasefire and a referendum plan on independence. This process has been stalled for decades because the two sides failed to agree on who is eligible to vote.
The kingdom controls more than two-thirds of Western Sahara and all of its main urban centers, with the Polisario Front controlling the mainly uninhabited fringes near the borders with Algeria and Mauritania. Morocco extracts phosphate in the territory and has invested billions in housing and infrastructure. About 180,000 Sahrawi refugees are living on international aid in dark camps in southwest Algeria, where the Polisario has set up the government-in-exile of its self-proclaimed democratic Sahrawi Arab Republic.
Analysts and diplomats attribute the return of the fighting to the Polisario’s frustration with the lack of a political solution on the horizon.
Moroccan officials have claimed for years that the referendum plan is obsolete and in 2007 offered autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, an option rejected by the Polisario. The kingdom has been supported by powerful allies like France, and a growing number of countries have recognized its sovereignty over the territory by opening consulates in Western Sahara under Moroccan administration, most recently in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Fabiani stressed that the language used in recent UN Security Council resolutions spoke of “a pragmatic and realistic resolution of the conflict – a coded way of supporting Morocco’s plan.” He said the Polisario realized that the peace process no longer existed and that international attention was waning. Blocking the road to Mauritania, he noted, deprived the kingdom of its only land link to African markets which have been the target of its economic expansion in recent years.
“The road through the buffer strip has never been part of the ceasefire agreement and the Polisario is angry that the security council says it must be protected,” Fabiani said. “They see it as a fait accompli which was authorized without negotiation.”
Morocco rules the vast expanses of Western Sahara that it administers with a tight grip. Amnesty International noted last month that access to the territory for human rights monitors and independent journalists has become increasingly difficult. Amnesty also quoted organizations present in the territory, saying that the Moroccan authorities had launched a crackdown on peaceful protesters after the recent fighting.
An activist from the Nushatta Foundation for Media and Human Rights, a group of citizen-journalists, speaking from inside the territory, told the FT that around 35 people had been arrested for participating in demonstrations and that two members of his group had gone into hiding because police raided their homes.
The Moroccan diplomat said it was “fake news” and denied that there had been a crackdown. “We are convinced that this does not exist,” said the official. “Despite the actions of certain individuals, the Moroccan authorities are showing immense restraint.”
For the activist, who describes his group as pro-self-determination, the US announcement was yet another overwhelming claim that the referendum would never take place. “I am deeply sad and frustrated because I see clearly that no way of peace has been left to my people apart from the armed struggle”, he declared.