Escalation in Western Sahara

Morocco benefits from Polisario provocation
Frauen demonstrieren in Gibraltar für eine unabhängige Westsahara.
Frauen demonstrieren in Gibraltar für eine unabhängige Westsahara. © © picture alliance / NurPhoto | Fermin Rodriguez

There have been repeated skirmishes and disputes between the Moroccan armed forces and the Frente Polisario liberation movement in the past. However, the fact that one party no longer wants to respect the 1991 cease-fire agreement marks a new level of escalation and is a major cause for concern in the region.

Morocco has claimed the territory of Western Sahara for itself since the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1975. The Frente Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro), on the other hand, has been fighting for the independence of the 260,000 km² coastal strip with political and military means since 1973. In 1976, it proclaimed its own state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (DARS), which has so far been recognized by only about 40 African countries. The territory is controlled by Morocco, however, with the exception of two desert areas in the remote east. Both sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1991, which has since been monitored by a United Nations mission (MINURSO).

The "R" in MINURSO also stands for a referendum on the independence of Western Sahara, which, according to the original plan of the international community, was to be organized under the aegis of the United Nations. However, the organization of such a referendum repeatedly failed because of the question of defining who was entitled to vote - and not least because of Morocco's resistance. After almost thirty years, not even the United Nations seems to believe that a vote will ever take place. The most recent United Nations Security Council resolution extending MINURSO's mandate in October makes no mention of the referendum for the first time.

From now on, the United Nations is counting on a negotiated political solution. In concrete terms, this could mean that Western Sahara would become a recognized province of Morocco with far-reaching autonomy rights. Some international observers believe such a solution would be beneficial because Morocco would be better able to control the territory and effectively combat terrorism and drug smuggling in the desert. The Polisario vehemently oppose such a solution. However, their worldwide lobby is visibly dwindling in the face of increasing pragmatism in the international community.

It is precisely this change of attitude in UN rhetoric that may have triggered the current escalation. For after the drafts of UN Security Council Resolution 2548 were first leaked, Polisario supporters entered the demilitarized buffer zone in the south of Western Sahara in mid-October, occupied the border crossing with Mauritania and partially devastated the border station and road.

The Guergerat border crossing is of great strategic importance to Morocco, as it is the kingdom's only open road link with the rest of the continent. The borders with Algeria have been closed without exception since 1994 due to tensions between the two countries. By comparison, Germany, which is of similar size, has several hundred open road links with its neighbors. It is therefore easy to imagine the importance of this road for Morocco's intra-African trade.

As a result of the occupation of the border road, markets in Mauritania quickly reported supply shortages. Several hundred trucks were stranded on both sides of the border for several weeks. After hesitating for some time, Morocco then decided to advance its forces into the demilitarized zone on November 13 and clear the blockade. A violation of the cease-fire agreement, which it justified by maintaining free trade. "The Polisario and its militias have occupied the area since Oct. 21 and are practicing acts of banditry, blockade and harassment of U.N. military observers," the Moroccan Foreign Ministry said.

The Polisario, on the other hand, condemned the deployment of Moroccan forces. Their leader Brahim Ghali announced: "the Sahrawi people are at war and will continue their struggle until the day of victory.

According to the United Nations, there were exchanges of fire during the clearing of the border road, but nothing is known so far about possible casualties. The Moroccan armed forces used the operation to bring the section of road within the demilitarized zone under their control and secure it with a wall. Whether this ends the renewed escalation will depend above all on whether the Polisario react with retaliatory actions, for example by attacking Moroccan soldiers. Algeria, which has granted the Polisario asylum in its province of Tinduf and thus exerts considerable influence on the militias' actions, plays a key role in this.

In any case, this latest chapter in the decades-old Western Sahara conflict is likely to play into the hands of Morocco in particular, which has declared international recognition of Western Sahara as a Moroccan territory to be the most important goal of its foreign policy. On the way to this goal, the kingdom has already celebrated several diplomatic successes this year. For example, a total of 15 African states opened consulates in Layoune, the largest city in Western Sahara. With the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, even two Arab states are now following this example.

In the current conflict over the border road, Morocco has successfully presented itself as a guarantor of order and a guardian of free trade. The EU's foreign affairs representative Josep Borell expressed his views accordingly, calling on both sides to observe the ceasefire, but at the same time reminding them of the importance of open borders and free trade for peace in the region.

In the coming months, Morocco will try to find further support for its ambitions in the international community. In doing so, it will try to play up its strategic importance vis-à-vis Europe, because the country is sitting on very long levers, especially in migration and energy policy.

Many Moroccans celebrated the events of Guergerat on social media as a diplomatic and military success for their country. Moreover, they rejoiced over a virtual breakthrough: on Google maps, a dashed line no longer separates their country from Western Sahara. This success is relative, however. Anyone who calls up Google maps outside Morocco will still find the demarcation line. So the world's largest search engine seems to want to contribute to conflict resolution with relative facts, showing everyone the world as they like it. But for the dotted line to really disappear from the map, Morocco will still have to invest considerable political capital and seriously address the concerns of the Polisario and its supporters.