How a Lengthy Insurgency Performs Into Trump’s Transfer on Morocco
President Trump’s decision to approve Moroccan control of Western Sahara puts the United States at once again at odds with world opinion as it is the first time in a decade-long struggle to take sides when this conflict threatens to revert to open war.
Even when Spain controlled Western Sahara, Morocco, to the north of it, claimed sovereignty over the region. In 1975, Spain withdrew from the area, a huge, arid area in northwestern Africa that is larger than Britain but has fewer than 600,000 people.
Moroccan forces marched in while the Polisario Front, a separatist movement of the Sahrawi ethnic group, declared the independence of Western Sahara and referred to it as the Arab-Democratic Republic of the Sahara. They waged a 16-year war that ended in a 1991 ceasefire, with Morocco owning most of the territory.
Last month, Morocco launched a military incursion into the UN-controlled buffer zone between the two sides, and Polisario subsequently rejected the ceasefire and suggested a return to armed conflict. So far, however, this has not happened.
Here is a look at the longstanding dispute and what it means for the region.
How much support does each side have?
Dozens of countries, most of them in Africa, have officially recognized the Sahrawi Republic – although the great powers of the world and the United Nations have not – and many more have expressed varying degrees of support.
Above all, Algeria, which borders both Morocco and Western Sahara, has actively supported Polisario and is home to more than 100,000 Sahrawis who live in refugee camps. and Mauritania, which has the longest border with Western Sahara, is also on the side of the Sahrawi Republic.
Despite this recognition, Morocco controls most of the country, including the entire 500-mile Atlantic coast, while Polisario only occupies parts of the desert interior.
In a UN resolution of 1979 the right of the people of Western Sahara to “self-determination and independence” is recognized, Polisario is regarded as their representative and the Moroccan occupation is “deeply deplored”.
While many countries have tacitly recognized Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, experts in the region say they have not officially done so so far.
Since the 1970s, Morocco has encouraged its people to settle in Western Sahara, which dramatically changes the demographic balance – and presumably local public opinion. Much of the world believes this resettlement is illegal.
The 1991 ceasefire agreement contained the referendum on independence that Polisario had called for, but this never took place despite repeated UN-brokered talks about holding a vote.
How dangerous is the situation?
Another war could involve other countries and lead to regional conflict. And instability and war could create openings for violent Islamist groups operating in West Africa as in several other countries.
The United States, France and others have worked with countries in or on the border of the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel to combat these insurgencies. A war in Western Sahara, especially if neighboring countries competed against each other, would seriously hamper these efforts.
However, it is by no means clear how eager Polisario and Morocco are to resume fighting, or how willing other countries are to get involved.
War or not, Mr. Trump’s action is particularly likely to create friction with Polisario’s most important ally, Algeria, said Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program.
“I think this will seriously jeopardize US relations with Algeria – at least until January 20th,” she said when Joseph R. Biden Jr. is about to be sworn in as president. “For now, this is just a statement, so Biden could easily say his government disagrees with this statement and supports a UN-negotiated deal, not a unilateral declaration of a lame duck management.”
What is Morocco getting out of the deal?
King Mohammed VI Like his father Hassan II, von Morocco has been campaigning for the international recognition of Western Sahara as part of his country for decades. Receiving this support from the United States first is an increase in prestige and may raise Moroccan hopes that other countries will follow.
“Symbolically, it’s very important,” said Dr. Yerkes. “Basically, it’s an” I told you “for the international community.”
In addition to recognizing Morocco’s claim to sovereignty, the Trump administration announced on Thursday that Morocco had agreed to normalize relations with Israel.
Morocco could benefit from normalized trade with Israel, but Western Sahara itself has few natural resources that can be used.
Some countries have sought improved relations with Israel to use its intelligence on intelligence and high-tech weapons. Azerbaijan’s success in the recent war with Armenian forces relied heavily on the use of sophisticated drones supplied by Israel.
But Morocco and Israel have worked closely together on military and intelligence matters for decades, even though they have no official relationship.
Ruth MacLean and Ronen Bergman contributed to the coverage.