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North Africa’s Frozen Conflict

By Hannah Rae Armstrong
A Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, March 2016 (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

In December 2020, in one of his final acts in office, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a unilateral proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over a 100,000-square-mile territory that has been disputed for half a century: Western Sahara. The United States had long remained mostly neutral in the standoff between the Moroccan government, whose forces exercise de facto control over most of the territory, and the rebel group that seeks Western Sahara’s independence. But with the stroke of a pen, Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy, endorsing Morocco’s territorial claim in exchange for its normalizing relations with Israel and joining Trump’s Abraham Accords. This tradeoff caused the collapse of a cease-fire agreement, leading to renewed fighting and growing tensions in the region.

The United Nations is trying to relaunch a political process that would overcome the current impasse; Morocco has rejected implementing a UN-backed popular referendum that would determine Western Sahara’s status and has instead advanced its own proposal that would grant the territory a form of limited autonomy. The disagreement remains intractable. Buoyed by U.S. recognition of its claims, an overconfident Morocco is unlikely to make needed concessions, such as allowing human rights monitoring in the territory or compromising on the full sovereignty it seeks to retain over Western Sahara, while the Polisario Front, the group that has for decades fought for the territory’s independence, is convinced that the process is rigged against Western Sahara. Decades of UN talks have made little progress toward a resolution, kicking the can down the road while Morocco cements control over nearly all the disputed territory.

U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to review his predecessor’s recognition of the Moroccan claim, and he has endorsed the relaunching of the UN-led peace process. His administration wants to arrest the rapid thaw of the conflict and put it back on ice. But such measures will only prop up a dysfunctional status quo. Biden should use the real leverage he has over Morocco and some key Moroccan allies to not just freeze the war but to end it altogether.

A TIGHTROPE

The Western Sahara dispute dates back to the chaotic Spanish withdrawal from this sparsely populated, resource-rich coastal strip of desert land in 1975. The territory’s northern and southern neighbors, Morocco and Mauritania, moved in to claim chunks of the territory. The Polisario Front, which had formed to resist Spanish colonial rule, redirected its struggle against the invaders. Fighting continued for over 15 years, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, with the Polisario Front forcing Mauritania to withdraw in 1979 but steadily losing ground to Morocco through the 1980s. In 1991, both parties agreed to a UN-brokered cease-fire that promised a referendum on the territory’s status. The cease-fire effectively froze the conflict, but the referendum never took place. Having advanced a proposal for the territory’s nominal autonomy in 2007 that delegates limited decision-making power to authorities within Western Sahara that are friendly to the monarchy, Morocco has refused to entertain any discussion of the vote that the Polisario Front, operating out of refugee camps in southern Algeria, thought they had secured for Sahrawis.

For nearly half a century, Washington walked a tightrope when it came to Western Sahara. The Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination is enshrined in a series of UN General Assembly resolutions and international legal rulings, but Morocco is one of the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East and Africa. Successive U.S. administrations refused to recognize the Moroccan claim to Western Sahara while still seeking to preserve strong relations with Rabat. But that balancing act was upended by Trump’s moves at the end of 2020. The Biden administration is now in a bind; if it walks back Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Rabat could renege on its normalization of ties with Israel. That could jeopardize the Abraham Accords, which enjoy wide bipartisan support.

Biden should use the leverage he has over Morocco to end the conflict in Western Sahara.

In an April 2021 phone call, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reassured Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita that the Biden administration would not reverse Trump’s policy. In exchange, Morocco agreed to fully normalize ties with Israel and to accept the appointment of a new UN envoy for Western Sahara. In October, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Staffan de Mistura, an Italian-Swedish diplomat, as his personal envoy for Western Sahara, charging him with finding a political settlement for the dispute.

The Biden administration does face pressure from U.S. lawmakers to change course. On February 17, a bipartisan group of members of Congress led by Senators Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, and Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, urged Biden to withdraw recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, warning that it “undermined decades of consistent U.S. policy.” White House officials have resisted doing so, opting instead for an ambiguous position; they have refused to publicly endorse or revoke recognition. Meanwhile, the State Department continues to use a new map unveiled by the previous administration that includes Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

Piqued by the administration’s inaction, Congress has slapped new restrictions on supporting Morocco. For the first time ever, this year’s appropriations bill places Western Saharan–related provisions under a separate heading (rather than under the section on Morocco, as in previous versions), explicitly separating the two entities in legislation. The bill also blocks the building of a U.S. consulate in Western Sahara. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act, meanwhile, limits the use of funding for any military exercises with Morocco unless the country “has taken steps to support a final peace agreement with Western Sahara.” These measures reflect growing concerns among members of Congress that accepting Moroccan sovereignty over the territory flouts international law and sets a dangerous precedent—especially as Russia is seeking to redraw borders by force in Ukraine.

A BAD DEAL

It didn’t have to be this way. The United States paid an unreasonably high price in exchange for winning Morocco’s participation in the Abraham Accords. Trump’s agreement with Morocco was not so much a deal as a giveaway. Trump granted Morocco recognition of the disputed territory so that it would establish formal relations with Israel. But unlike Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates—countries that had minimal, frosty relations with Israel prior to the Abraham Accords—Morocco has quietly maintained close political, security, cultural, and religious links with Israel for decades.

During World War II, when the Vichy regime ruled Morocco as a French protectorate, the Moroccan King Mohammed V protected Moroccan Jews from persecution and deportation. His son, King Hassan II, who ruled an independent Morocco from 1961 to 1999, worked closely with Israel on a range of issues, including facilitating Moroccan Jewish migration to Israel and sharing secret recordings of Arab leaders that helped Israel win the Six-Day War in 1967. In turn, Israel fed Hassan II information about a plot to overthrow him and, according to The New York Times, helped Moroccan intelligence agents assassinate Mehdi Ben Barka, a leading opposition figure, in Paris in 1965. In the 1980s, Israeli advisers assisted Morocco in building the berm, a 1,700-mile-long line of fortifications that walls off roughly 80 percent of Western Sahara. In recent years, up to 70,000 Israeli tourists—mostly of Moroccan ancestry—visited the country each year, completing pilgrimages to beautifully preserved Jewish shrines. Inside Israel, Moroccan Jews, an estimated ten percent of the population, have come to compose a strong domestic lobby, making Moroccan politics a matter of domestic Israeli concern. This rich history of close ties between Israel and Morocco suggests that Rabat’s participation in the Abraham Accords was a natural fit, and could have been secured without trading away Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.

A Polisario Front soldier in Tifariti, Algeria, February 2011
A Polisario Front soldier in Tifariti, Algeria, February 2011 (Juan Medina / Reuters)

The public rapprochement between Morocco and Israel has had destabilizing consequences in the region. It alarmed Algeria, which does not recognize the state of Israel and perceives it as a hostile actor, especially as reports emerged last August that Morocco had used the Israeli spyware program Pegasus to surveil senior Algerian political and military officials. Algiers severed ties with Rabat that same month and closed its airspace to Moroccan civil and military aircraft the following month. At the same time, Algeria, Europe’s third-largest gas supplier after Russia and Norway, halted gas exports through the Maghreb-Europe pipeline, which runs to Spain via Morocco and serves as a crucial supply source for Morocco and Europe. In November 2021, a visit by the Israeli defense minister to Rabat produced Israel’s first-ever defense memorandum of understanding with an Arab country, making it easier for Israel to sell arms to and share intelligence with the kingdom. Algerian officials said that the agreement “targeted” and threatened to “undermine” Algeria. More worrying, that same month, Algiers accused Rabat of using “sophisticated weaponry” (possibly referring to an Israeli drone) to carry out a fatal attack on three Algerian civilian truck drivers crossing through the Polisario-held zone of the Western Sahara. Morocco denied responsibility for the strike, but both countries have hiked military spending and deployed forces along their shared border.

The Polisario Front persists amid this brew of tensions. Diplomats describe the Sahrawi group as the world’s most well-behaved rebels. Enduring a protracted peace process that has left them to bear children and grandchildren in Algerian refugee camps, Sahrawi refugees have embraced legal means of resistance and worked at building democratic, inclusive state institutions. Inside the disputed territory, Sahrawi advocates for self-determination are continuously subjected to abuse by Moroccan security forces, which have singled out women such as the activist Sultana Khaya for special forms of torture. Since placing her under de facto house arrest in November 2020, Moroccan security forces have repeatedly entered her home, assaulted, and sexually abused her, her sister, and her elderly mother, according to human rights groups Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders.

A NEW STATUS QUO

Western Sahara remains one of the world’s most intractable crises, owing to Morocco’s stubborn refusal to allow a referendum or to countenance any challenge to its control of the territory, as well as a lack of political will among Moroccan allies, such as France and the United States, to encourage the country to change course. In March, Spain followed the United States in switching its stance from neutrality to support for the Moroccan autonomy proposal, a move that came under heavy criticism and was opposed by a majority of Spanish lawmakers. Since 2007, Rabat has refused to consider any option other than its autonomy proposal. It has lashed out at partners who put any pressure on Morocco or resist its demands. In 2012, Morocco declared UN envoy Christopher Ross persona non grata after he denounced Moroccan abuses in the disputed territory. In 2013, when the United States tried to introduce human rights monitoring into the mandate of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara—its only peacekeeping mission without such a mandate—Morocco abruptly cancelled a planned joint military exercise with the United States, and Moroccan state media suggested that the military might organize joint exercises with the Chinese and Russian navies instead. In 2020, when Spain admitted Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, for COVID-19 treatment, Rabat loosened border controls, launching 8,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa toward the Spanish border. Spain’s decision to support Morocco’s position on Western Sahara was an effort to restore relations in the wake of this fiasco.

Morocco’s refusal to negotiate carries a steep cost. The ongoing conflict fuels instability in the wider region. Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, the founder of the militant group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and his deputy, Abdelhakim al-Sahraoui, were born in the disputed territory in the early 1970s. Former friends and classmates say that the political injustices they witnessed under the Moroccan occupation led to their radicalization. Between 2018 and 2021, under their leadership, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara killed more than 500 members of Malian and Nigerien security forces, and massacred hundreds of civilians on both sides of the Malian-Nigerien border.

Decades of UN-led efforts have yet to deliver a lasting settlement but they have laid some groundwork for peace in Western Sahara while also working to manage tensions between Morocco and Algeria. The United States has so far opted not to reverse Trump’s unilateral recognition of the Moroccan claim, so it should do more to contain the fallout of this decision. Washington should seek to convince Rabat that the costs of the status quo outweigh the benefits.

Western Sahara remains one of the world’s most intractable crises.

Morocco spends roughly half its military budget on the territory; sinks billions of dollars into infrastructure and subsidies to lure Moroccan citizens to the “southern provinces”; and still does not have the legal right to exploit its resources or attract investment to it. (Morocco’s exports of fish, agricultural goods, and phosphates from Western Sahara face mounting legal challenges, especially in Europe.) The economic and political losses accrued by not cooperating with Algeria, especially during an energy crisis, are towering—Algeria has shut off natural gas flows to Morocco, and warned Spain that it would cut Spain off, as well, were the European country to reexport Algerian gas to Morocco. Rising energy and food prices in Morocco have sent living costs soaring, sparking nationwide protests. There are also troubling security risks posed by the military buildup along the Moroccan-Algerian border, the potential for unpredictable forms of escalation in the buffer zone east of the berm, and the possibility that more young men disaffected by the conflict may be vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups.

Alongside this persuasion, Washington should urge Paris to soften its rigid pro-Moroccan stance on the conflict. The United States provides substantial intelligence support to French counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. In return, it should insist that France stop using its veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the UN from monitoring human rights abuses in Western Sahara. Meanwhile, the State Department should appoint a new U.S. special envoy to the Sahel, a post that has been vacant for more than a year, while ensuring that this new envoy has a track record of impartial North Africa expertise. International actors tend to underestimate how interlinked the Sahel and North Africa are; an envoy could help to streamline and coordinate different forms of U.S. aid at a time of regional upheaval and as states seek to diversify their foreign partnerships. This would help to ensure that U.S. policies in the Sahel do not inadvertently inflame tensions in North Africa, and vice versa.

These measures—coaxing Morocco to reconsider the costs of its current course, better monitoring human rights violations in the disputed territory, and more closely coordinating U.S. policies in the broader region—could help to undo some of the damage done by the Trump administration. But Washington must refuse to settle for restoring a status quo in Western Sahara that only ever worked for one party.

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Dive Deeper:
Netherlands backs Morocco's Western Sahara autonomy plan- statement
The Netherlands views Morocco's plan for autonomy for Western Sahara as serious and credible, it said on Wednesday, moving closer…
Israeli ambassador to Morocco is challenged with fighting anti-Israel narratives
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Spain, Morocco agree to reopen African land borders after two-year closure
The land borders between Morocco and Spain's north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla will reopen next week, the authorities…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
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The land borders between Morocco and Spain’s North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla will reopen next week, Spain said…
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Get all your news in one place