This article discusses the sparsely populated area of desert that is the main point of contention between Morocco and Algeria. This area is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), more commonly known as Western Sahara. In 1975, Morocco annexed the land from Spain’s colonial holdings and continues administrative control of the region, spurring a war between Morocco and Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), a Western Saharan organization that remains active today for independence. This low-intensity war ended in a United Nations-sanctioned ceasefire in 1991. After several rounds of failed rapprochement talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Western Saharan conflict seems intractable, as recent events with Iran and Hezbollah, the European Union (EU), and United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) all demonstrate. Morocco is firm in its territorial sovereignty and claim over the region, and its Autonomy Plan lays out in clear detail its determination to ensure the Western Sahara remains apart of Morocco.
Northern African Dimensions of the Conflict – Algeria, Mauritania, and the UMA
Moroccans strongly believe that the territory is rightfully theirs from pre-colonial time due to the linguistic, historical, and cultural influences of the Amazigh population in Morocco’s national identity – it calls the Western Sahara its southern provinces. Although Algeria and Mauritania also have significant populations of Berber identity groups like the Amazigh and Sahrawi, Morocco has the strongest claim to this land given its geographical contiguity. This enrages Algeria and is the basis for most of the diplomatic quarrel between Morocco and Algeria. Algeria’s continued support of the Polisaro Front throughout this conflict is in order to remove Morocco’s control. Algeria has provided financial, military, and diplomatic aid to the Polisario Front in order to reduce Morocco’s grip over the region. Furthermore, Polisario Front headquarters are in Tindouf Province, Algeria, as a government in exile. In Tindouf, there are several refugee camps since 1975, with its residents living there stateless for 40+ years.
The other country that claimed territory is Mauritania, but due to its weak economic status, has remained neutral and supports the United Nations (UN), especially the MINURSO. MINURSO was created as a part of the ceasefire in 1991, and works to maintain the peace in Western Sahara. Although there has been little bloodshed since the ceasefire, negotiations have effectively reached a stalemate. Additionally, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), an economic organization between Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, and Tunisia, has not met since 2008 over disagreements between Morocco and Algeria largely revolving around Western Sahara.
Apart from the land disputes with Algeria, Morocco’s control over the Western Saharan territory is contested due to its phosphate mines. Morocco owns 85% of the world’s phosphate mines, an estimated 50 billion metric tons, and it constitutes much of its export and GDP revenue. The majority of the mines are located in the territory that Morocco controls in the Western Sahara, making the negotiations over this territory more intractable. Morocco will not willingly give up a huge portion of its GDP revenue to an area it deems as its southern provinces.
IGO Dimensions – the UN and AU
The UN considers Western Sahara to be a colonized territory – accordingly, Algeria has advocated for a resumption of peace talks through MINURSO. Algeria’s championing of self-determination in discussing Western Sahara is largely seen as an extension of their support of the decolonization of this area. Algerian support in all of its aspects is crucial, but also one-sided and thus Polisario Front is advocating to the African Union (AU), a council of 55 members – 54 countries and the territory of the Western Sahara. In 1982, the African Union recognized the independence of the Western Sahara, giving them a delegation to the organization. Two years later in 1984, Morocco officially left the organization until 2016 where Morocco formally announced its wish to rejoin to African Union. The African Union is still committed to holding a self-determination referendum for the people of Western Sahara.
With the continual destitution from the refugee camps, the ineffectiveness of MINURSO pre-2020, the UMA’s lack of concrete collaboration, the AU’s stalemating, and the increase in phosphate production, it seems as if the Polisario Front is stuck fighting for independence on several fronts. In addition to the uphill battle for the Polisario Front, on May 31, 2016, Mohamed Abdelaziz, its secretary-general, passed from illness. He was one of the main leaders of the fight for the independence of Western Sahara, and his death has reinvigorated the movement’s struggle for freedom. It has led to recent speeches in the African Union and on the UN floor to revisit this issue.
Since Morocco’s rejoining of the AU, the status quo of Morocco/Algeria/Western Saharan relations remained the same, tense relationship. Although Morocco was engaging more directly in AU discussions and forums, its stance on self-determination for its southern provinces remained firm in opposition. On April 29, 2018, Morocco voiced its satisfaction at a UN Security Council Resolution 2414 endorsing a peace initiative in Western Sahara alongside a new MINURSO peacekeeping mission. However, Morocco insists that its sovereignty over this territory, deemed as a part of the kingdom, cannot be challenged. Resolution 2414 does little to end the conflict, as Morocco’s Autonomy Plan showcases Morocco’s unyielding resolve to maintain the status quo.
Morocco voted for Resolution 2414 for two reasons: to show its interest in negotiation internationally on this issue, and its emphasis on peace. However, 2414 does not have any binding language or decisions other than the MINURSO peacekeeping mission, which alone does not have enough sway power. Thus, in Morocco’s eyes, its Autonomy Plan has not been overridden or superseded by Resolution 2414, only enhanced. Its plan is comprehensive in its details on how the SADR can govern itself, but its language and intent is quite clear – it always was and forever will be a region of Morocco.
Regional Dimensions – Iran and Hezbollah
Quite rapidly, Morocco’s relationship amongst the Muslim world greatly changed as it cut all diplomatic ties with Iran in May 2018 over Iran’s alleged military and financial support to the Polisario Front via the Iranian embassy in Algeria. The Moroccan government accused Iran of training and arming fighters of the Polisario Front with surface-to-air missiles as well. Although Iran rebuked these accusations, Morocco closed its embassy in Tehran, and expelled the Iranian ambassador in Rabat. Morocco and Iran never had the strongest of relations before these revelations, so the ending of diplomatic ties was not a huge shock to Morocco. Like most of Iranian actions, its support of the Polisario Front exemplifies Iranian interest in solidifying its presence and impact it the MENA region.
Furthermore, Morocco claims that Hezbollah was instrumental in training the Polisario Front alongside Iran on urban warfare tactics and weaponry. The pattern of Iranian actions in the Western Sahara is similar to the pattern of Tehran’s actions in other places where it is involved and trying to acquire influence. Iran uses Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah in Syria, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Morocco’s allegations against Hezbollah shed light on its presence and activity in Africa under Iranian auspices, with many analysts believing that Hezbollah has been maintaining a smuggling network in West Africa since the turn of the century. Hezbollah wants to solidify its own impact outside of the Lebanese/Syrian context it is currently known for so the Polisario Front provides a potential new partner for expansion of its influence.
Tying the Polisario Front to Hezbollah has allowed Morocco to paint the Polisario Front as a similarly minded organization not interested in solving conflicts through diplomacy and striving to destabilize Africa and the Middle East through its unwillingness to seek a peaceful settlement. Morocco’s recent allegations against Iran, Hezbollah, and by extension Algeria have not only escalated tensions between all parties, but also hindered the prospect of a peaceful resolution of the Western Sahara conflict.
International Dimensions – USA, EU, and Israel
The increasingly hostile rhetoric of the United States administration towards Tehran may have propelled Morocco to pick a side. Given its own degrading relationship with Iran, Morocco is mindful that backing the United States and its longstanding Gulf allies will eventually benefit its efforts to garner support at the UN for its Autonomy Plan in Western Sahara. The Gulf countries welcomed Morocco’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Iran—especially Saudi Arabia. The Arab League and most Muslim countries (except for Algeria and Iran) also backs Morocco’s plan and claim to the region.
In addition, Israel has seen an opportunity to increase its support amongst the Arab world against Iranian influence. Israel is pushing the United States to negotiate a scenario that would have the United States recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territories in Western Sahara if Morocco would move in the direction of normalizing relations with Israel. Although no traction with this plan has been made, it showcases the potential for a broader rapprochement between Morocco and Israel.
Most recently, on February 5, 2020, the European Commission became intrinsically involved in the politics of the Western Saharan conflict by specifying that all products originating from Western Sahara must be labeled as such. The EU has recently secured trade deals with Morocco that span the Western Sahara amid an intense Moroccan-centric lobbying campaign. However, this labeling degrades the sovereignty claim from Morocco, so this move will likely to stoke a backlash from Morocco.
As Iranian-Morocco relations continue to degrade while simultaneously reigniting the tensions over the region, the possibilities of Western Sahara becoming Africa’s 55th country seem to diminish. Hezbollah’s connection to the Polisario Front has resurged Morocco’s loud and continual claims to the area. Furthermore, the UN SC Resolution 2414 alongside MINURSO’s reinstatement showcases a potential pathway to peace, but not independence. The African Union has become the SADR’s only outlet to advocate for its self-determination, which now that Morocco has officially rejoined, can rebuff its claims.
Until a major change to the status quo occurs, which most likely will only come in the form of a surge in violence, Western Sahara will stay in a state of limbo. Its global plight is undermined by other major areas’ self-determination claims – Palestine, Kurdistan, Kosovo, Catalonia, Taiwan, and Kashmir – all of which dominate headlines due to their intractability and violent history/present. SADR has overcome its violent past and must depend on the AU and the UN to attempt and diplomatically change their situation, an unlikely outcome given Morocco’s powerful voice on both those bodies.References
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