A forgotten conflict on the fringes of the Sahara desert is heating up — and Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory is set to make it worse.
The US recognition of Rabat’s claim to Western Sahara — in return for Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel — risks aggravating fighting between the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the region, and Moroccan troops manning a 2,700km-long fortified sand wall that divides the desert land, diplomats and analysts say.
“I think we can safely say that this move makes the resolution of the current bout of violence much harder,” said Riccardo Fabiani, north Africa director at International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think-tank. “This will also make Sahrawi youths more angry, mobilised and committed to resolving the conflict through force.”
Fighting resumed last month after the end of a 30-year ceasefire. Polisario said it was returning to war because Morocco had breached a 1991 ceasefire agreement by sending forces into a demilitarised buffer strip. The purpose of the Morocco incursion was to clear Sahrawi protesters blocking a key highway for trade to sub-Saharan Africa.
“We are now in a state of open war,” said Sidi Omar, Polisario’s representative at the UN. “We are firing at static Moroccan targets along the wall. Our main objective is still the liberation of Western Sahara. We did not want this war but Morocco has been emboldened by the inaction of the international community.”
The hostilities could spiral out of control leading to a full-blown war that might even draw in neighbouring Algeria — the main sponsor of the Polisario Front. This would deepen instability in an already troubled region, where Libya is embroiled in a civil conflict that has drawn in mercenaries and foreign powers and Mali has been fighting a jihadi insurgency in the Sahara, diplomats say.
“For now, this is a low-intensity conflict but it could escalate,” said a western diplomat. “Algeria could at some point join the battle to support Polisario. We are talking here about the risk of a regional conflict.”
For its part, Rabat, which has received an enormous boost from the US endorsement, denies there has been any fighting at all. “These reports are unfounded,” a Moroccan diplomat told the Financial Times. “Morocco is attached to the ceasefire and to the political process.”
About 600,000 people live in Western Sahara, a desert roughly the size of the UK. When Spain, the former colonial power, withdrew from the territory in 1975, Morocco took it over. Polisario engaged in a 16-year war with the kingdom that ended with a ceasefire and plan for a referendum on independence. That process has been stalled for decades because the two sides have failed to agree on who is eligible to vote.
The kingdom controls more than two-thirds of Western Sahara and all its main urban centres, with the Polisario Front controlling the mainly uninhabited fringes near the borders with Algeria and Mauritania. Morocco mines phosphate in the territory and has poured billions into housing and infrastructure. About 180,000 Sahrawi refugees live on international aid in bleak camps in southwestern Algeria, where Polisario set up the government in exile of its self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Analysts and diplomats attribute the return to fighting to Polisario’s frustration with the absence of a political solution on the horizon.
Moroccan officials have been saying for years that the referendum plan is obsolete and in 2007 offered autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, an option dismissed by Polisario. The kingdom has been supported by powerful allies such as France, and an increasing number of countries have recognised its sovereignty over the territory by opening consulates in Moroccan-administered Western Sahara, most recently Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr Fabiani pointed out that language used in recent UN Security Council resolutions spoke of “a pragmatic and realistic resolution to the conflict — a coded way of supporting Morocco’s plan”. He said Polisario had realised the peace process did not exist any more and international attention was dwindling. Blocking the road to Mauritania, he noted, deprived the kingdom of its only land link to African markets that have been the target of its economic expansion in recent years.
“The road through the buffer strip was never part of the ceasefire agreement and Polisario is angry that the security council says it needs to be protected,” said Mr Fabiani. “They see it as a fait accompli that was allowed without negotiation.”
Morocco rules the vast swaths of Western Sahara it administers with a tight grip. Amnesty International noted last month that access to the territory for human rights monitors and independent journalists had become increasingly difficult. Amnesty also cited organisations in the territory saying that Moroccan authorities mounted a crackdown on peaceful protesters after recent fighting.
An activist with the Nushatta Foundation for Media and Human Rights, a citizen-journalist group, speaking from inside the territory, told the FT that about 35 people had been arrested for taking part in protests and two members of his group had gone into hiding because police had raided their homes.
The Moroccan diplomat said this was “fake news” and denied there was a crackdown. “We are positive there is no such thing,” said the official. “Despite the acts of some individuals, Moroccan authorities are observing tremendous restraint.”
For the activist, who describes his group as pro-self determination, the US announcement was yet another crushing affirmation that the referendum would never happen. “I am deeply sad and frustrated as I am clearly seeing that no way of peace has been left to my people but the armed struggle,” he said.