Things are heating up in Western Sahara

The tea was highly caffeinated, but the mood was dour. As the night wore on, the sound of artillery could be heard in the distance. Fifteen or so Sahrawi soldiers had set up camp under one of the rare thickets in the Western Saharan desert. The youngest among them, looking no older than teenagers, scoured the sky for surveillance drones. “War is the only way,” said one. A little before midnight a radio operator received news that Moroccan batteries were opening fire. Then came the thunderous echo of falling missiles.

The decades-old conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement seeking independence for Western Sahara, is heating up again. Over the past year Morocco has logged with the un more than 1,000 “incidents” of Polisario firing on its units, though Polisario says it has staged more attacks than that. The fighting has mostly involved artillery duels along the world’s longest frontline—a 2,700km (1,700-mile) wall of sand, or berm, built by the Moroccan army and sown with mines. Polisario commanders say a dozen of their soldiers and as many civilians have been killed. Morocco officially denies that the war has resumed.

But the war is affecting the wider region in ways that are undeniable—most notably by feeding the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, which supports Polisario. The conflict in Western Sahara contributed to Algeria’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Morocco in August. Algeria has since stopped supplying natural gas to the kingdom through the Maghreb-Europe pipeline. That may hurt Spain too, which also receives gas from the pipeline and is in the midst of an energy crisis. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been tied in knots by Donald Trump’s decision in 2020 to break the international consensus and recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Decades after the fate of the disputed territory was to have been decided, it is still causing no end of trouble.

Broken promises

Morocco and Polisario began fighting around the time Spain, the colonial power, withdrew from Western Sahara and Morocco annexed the territory in 1975. In 1991 the two sides agreed to a ceasefire and a un-sponsored peace process designed to conclude with a referendum on independence in the territory. But the vote never happened, thanks in large part to Moroccan obstructionism. The kingdom wants to use a vague offer of autonomy as the basis for new negotiations. Polisario dismisses that suggestion and says the ceasefire is over. As things stand, Morocco controls nearly 80% of Western Sahara. Polisario runs the remaining part (see map).

The feud between Morocco and Algeria goes back even further. They fought a brief war over their border after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. Algeria’s support for revolutionary movements around the world has always made Morocco’s monarchy uncomfortable. But Algerian officials claim Morocco is fomenting unrest in their country by backing armed groups, such as Islamists during Algeria’s civil war. That prompted Algeria to close the border in 1994 (it remains closed). This year it was reported that Morocco had targeted the phones of Algerian officials with spyware. Algeria also said the kingdom supported groups allegedly involved in starting fires in northern Algeria, and blamed it for a bombing that killed three Algerian truck drivers on November 3rd.

Polisario’s actions come with the blessing of Algeria, which hosts the group’s leaders and many humbler Sahrawi refugees. “We are facing a war situation,” says an Algerian diplomat. The country has a habit of backing guerrilla movements. Algeria hosted Che Guevara, trained a young Nelson Mandela and invited Yasser Arafat to address the un in 1974, shining a spotlight on the Palestinian cause. Last year Algeria railed against Morocco for establishing diplomatic ties with Israel as part of the deal that saw America recognise Moroccan control of Western Sahara.

Algeria’s motivations are also strategic, though. If Polisario controlled Western Sahara, Algeria would gain access to the Atlantic and easier routes into west Africa, while Morocco would be hemmed into the north-west corner of the continent. Instead it has watched Morocco exploit the territory. The kingdom’s portion of Western Sahara comes with phosphates, oil and fishing rights. It has sought to cement its hold on the territory, offering Moroccans who move there generous subsidies. This policy may also help to sway the vote if Morocco is ever forced to hold a referendum on Western Saharan independence.

The kingdom has spent billions of dollars fixing up Western Sahara. Many of the buildings in Laayoune, the capital, look as if they have been built rather recently, including the consulates opened by a growing number of African countries. The city of Dakhla, on the coast, was a fishing hamlet four decades ago. Now it is a burgeoning resort, packed with kite-surfers. A large port, aimed at supplying west Africa, is being built. Lorries ply the coastal road connecting Western Sahara—and thus Morocco—to the wider region. The kingdom’s deployment of troops into a un-patrolled buffer zone to clear the road of protesters last year helped spark the current fighting.

Morocco has long been a low-cost manufacturing hub for European firms. Lately it has tried to cultivate allies and trade links in sub-Saharan Africa. After boycotting the African Union for 32 years over its inclusion of Western Sahara, Morocco returned in 2017. King Mohammed VI has opened dozens of new embassies and consulates on the continent; most of Morocco’s foreign investment goes to sub-Saharan Africa. This has paid off: less than half the au’s members now recognise Western Sahara. In general, Morocco’s influence in Africa is growing—as Algeria’s wanes. When two Moroccan truck drivers were killed crossing the Sahara earlier this year, jihadists were blamed. But Western diplomats suspect Algeria, trying to thwart Morocco’s push south, played a role.

The situation in Western Sahara complicates Morocco’s foreign relations elsewhere. In September the General Court of the European Union annulled fishing and agriculture agreements between the eu and Morocco because they included the territory. (An appeal is pending.) Earlier this year the kingdom allowed thousands of would-be migrants to descend on Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, because Spain had admitted Brahim Ghali, the leader of Polisario, for treatment for covid-19. Morocco also fell out with Germany over its “negative attitude” towards Western Sahara.

In October the un Security Council extended minurso, the un‘s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, and called for the resumption of talks. A new un envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has been appointed for the territory. But America’s position is confusing matters. The resolution extending minurso called for “self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”, a phrase added by America, reportedly at the request of Russia. That would seem to conflict with America’s official position of recognising Moroccan control. President Joe Biden has yet to say whether he will maintain that stance, which critics argue sets a dangerous precedent.

Channelling their anger

Polisario leaders, based in refugee camps near the Algerian city of Tindouf, say that Morocco’s manoeuvring left them no choice but to break the ceasefire. But they were also under pressure at home. The 173,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria are growing restless. They say it hasn’t rained in Tindouf in years and that their herds have been struck by disease. International aid has fallen. Yet Algeria seems intent on keeping the Sahrawis in the camps so that they don’t abandon the struggle. Polisario worries that the frustration could boil over or lead to radicalisation. “The situation is like a volcano which could erupt,” says a Sahrawi journalist.

The fighting has bought the leadership time. But young Sahrawis now want to escalate. “They don’t feel that we are in a true war yet,” says Bachir Mustapha, an adviser to Mr Ghali. Malainin Lakhal, a Sahrawi diplomat, agrees. Young Sahrawis “want attacks”, he says. “They want prisoners. They want to see big operations like in the 1970s and 1980s.” Many of them have signed up for military training. Sahrawis living abroad have made gruelling ten-day trips through the Mauritanian desert to link up with Sahrawi forces and skirt Algeria’s covid-related travel restrictions.

The war has put wind in Polisario’s sails for the first time in years. What comes next, though, is not clear. Mr Mustapha promises a “second phase” of fighting. “All the leadership is for this,” he says. But Polisario’s military capacity declined during the ceasefire and is nowhere near that of Morocco. It is normal to see Sahrawi officers well into their 70s commanding soldiers in their early 20s. Algeria’s support would be essential if things were really to kick off. Polisario hopes Algeria will see the war as a chance to revitalise the country’s drifting foreign policy.

Some in Polisario want to pursue other tactics, such as attacking deeper in Moroccan-occupied territory. It is “much more than a possibility”, says Mohamed Wali Akeik, who was recently named chief of staff of the Sahrawi army. “Companies and consulates, airlines and other sectors” are all potential targets, he says. Much of this may be bluster. Polisario likes to claim that its artillery barrages and raids are undermining Moroccan morale. It hopes any escalation will make Morocco uncomfortable enough to make concessions.

Morocco’s troops, though, are digging in along the frontline. Its surveillance drones patrol the skies over Western Sahara; in September it received a first batch of Turkish combat drones. Morocco’s military spending rose by 29% last year. Algeria fears it will work with Israel to impose its will on the region. Moroccan officials voice support for Algeria’s Berber separatists and suggest that its ruling generals should return to the barracks. Algeria, in turn, has moved troops to the border. Diplomats say it is working with the Wagner Group, a controversial Russian security firm.

There is little chance that Polisario will achieve its dream of independence for Western Sahara. Some observers think that is for the best. Without the support of Morocco, an independent Sahrawi state might struggle. It would have help from Algeria, which is richer than Morocco thanks to abundant hydrocarbons. But Algeria itself is in turmoil. Efforts to wean the economy off oil and gas have faltered. Big protests in 2019 led to the president’s resignation. The public, though, sees the new one as a puppet of the army. The state is preoccupied with cracking down on groups associated with the pro-democracy Hirak movement.

Nae to autonomy

Morocco is better prepared for the future. It is home to Africa’s largest car and plane manufacturers and its fastest trains. Over 60% of Moroccans have received two jabs of covid-19 vaccine, compared with 10% of Algerians. More than a third of the country’s energy comes from renewables. Yet Sahrawis on the Moroccan side have plenty to be unhappy about. Those who talk of independence say they are denied jobs. Activists are hounded by the police. As for Morocco’s offer of autonomy, Sahrawis point to the repressive monarchy. It would not be like Scotland in Britain, they say.

Of course things are worse on the other side of the berm, where many Sahrawis have spent their whole lives in dusty camps. Some took part in the Hirak—and have thoughts about Polisario’s leadership. Mr Ghali is 72. Yet Polisario’s greying leaders seem disinclined to hand over to a new generation. For now, anyway, the focus is on the war. No one trusts the un to find a just peace. In the Boujdour refugee camp a young Sahrawi woman says renewing the old ceasefire is out of the question: “We would not allow that.” The mood is the same on the frontline, where a fighter called Omar stands armed and ready. “If there are negotiations in the future, it will be under the sound of guns,” he says. ■

source the economist

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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