Western Sahara returns to war

Matthew Porges

Last month, after 29 years of diplomatic stalemate, Western Sahara returned to war. The territory is a former Spanish colony; Morocco and Mauritania invaded as Spain withdrew in 1975. The Polisario Front, an independence movement made up of the territory’s indigenous Sahrawi people, took up arms. A messy and inconclusive guerrilla war dragged on until a 1991 ceasefire, by which point Mauritania had relinquished its claims on the territory, and Morocco had built a sand berm – at 1700 miles, arguably the longest military barrier in the world – to separate the roughly three-quarters of the territory that it occupied from the remaining quarter or so controlled by Polisario, which governs in exile from a series of refugee camps in Algeria’s Tindouf Province.

The ceasefire had been agreed to on the premise that a referendum would be held in short order to determine the fate of the territory. The international legal consensus overwhelmingly favours self-determination, but Morocco, with nothing much to gain from a vote, has engaged in a strategy of diplomatic foot-dragging, continually postponing, and ultimately refusing, the promised referendum. A frustrating stalemate set in, with Sahrawis, who mainly favour independence from Morocco, growing increasingly despairing of a peaceful solution. Visiting the region, I listened to the calls for war, but the equilibrium seemed too stable. Something big would have to change to make a dent in the status quo.

Early last month, the dent was made, and the ceasefire ended. Sahrawi civilian protesters had blockaded a road near the village of Guerguerat, close to the Mauritanian border, cutting off the main route that connects Morocco with West Africa. The demonstrators were peaceful, and – since the road cuts through Polisario-controlled territory on its way to Mauritania – within their rights to protest. The Guerguerat crossing is one of the chokepoints of overland trade in Africa, and pressure was building quickly, with around two hundred Moroccan truck drivers stranded on the Mauritanian side of the border. The supply of goods to Mauritania – especially vegetables grown in Western Sahara – collapsed, and prices surged. On the morning of 13 November, Moroccan soldiers crossed the berm to disperse the protesters. Polisario forces evacuated the civilians, exchanging fire with the Moroccan troops on their way out. It was the first military engagement between Morocco and Polisario in nearly thirty years. Polisario announced that it was withdrawing from the ceasefire agreement, and attacked Moroccan positions along the berm.

Morocco, it seemed, had also thought that the equilibrium was durable, and was caught off balance by the sudden outbreak of war. It had the diplomatic wind at its back going into the Guerguerat intervention. The United Arab Emirates had recently announced that it would open a consulate in Western Sahara, implicitly legitimating the occupation. There were rumours that a potential deal between Israel and Morocco, mediated by the United States, was being considered, in which Morocco would normalise ties with Israel in exchange for the US recognising Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. On 10 December, a version of that deal came to fruition, with Donald Trump proclaiming on Twitter that the US would recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the territory – the first country officially to accept the occupation. It remains to be seen what this will mean in practice, but the US has already announced plans to open a consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla.

Morocco’s dispersal of the protesters at Guerguerat had been intended as a way of calling Polisario’s bluff; what happened was more the reverse. Polisario’s leadership is overwhelmingly made up of older veterans of the 1975-91 war and the long diplomatic struggle that followed. The population of the Tindouf refugee camps is on average much younger, and much more impatient. Polisario’s legitimacy in the camps is derived from its claims to Western Sahara, and the symbolism of revolutionary struggle. Not to have reacted to Morocco’s crossing the berm at Guerguerat and attacking Sahrawi civilians would have been unforgivable. A quick peace settlement is unlikely.

For Polisario, the military strategy is fairly clear. It is unlikely that its armed wing, the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army, can actually take and hold territory. Instead, the strategy will be a war of attrition: long-distance artillery strikes against Moroccan positions, and fast-moving motorised units executing hit-and-run attacks. The idea will be to wear down Morocco’s appetite for sustained conflict, damaging its economy, sapping morale and forcing concessions. Shortly after the collapse of the ceasefire, I spoke on the phone to Polisario’s representative in Washington DC and asked him about his forecast for the coming months. ‘Years,’ he corrected me. What would he need to see before re-entering negotiations with Morocco? The only outcome, he said, was the referendum Sahrawis had been promised in 1991.

For its part, Morocco clearly does not want a direct fight, at least not yet. Moroccan forces have exchanged fire from a distance with Polisario, and planted new landmines around Guerguerat. The relatively low-level exchanges could intensify if Morocco senses a shift in the international diplomatic environment – Trump’s announcement of his support a month before he leaves office probably isn’t enough on its own, although it may increase the likelihood that Morocco would feel confident in attempting to conquer the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara. The Moroccan economy is in a shaky position, and a protracted war is not in the monarchy’s interests; for one thing, it would be disastrous for tourism, which they are hoping will return after the pandemic. Yet any attempt by Morocco to push for a quick defeat of Polisario will be tempered by its fear of provoking Algeria – a staunch Polisario ally – or Mauritania, with which Western Sahara (particularly the Polisario-controlled zone) shares a very long border.

Resolving the crisis will be next to impossible without some unforeseen shift. There is no effective peace process to which the parties can return. Calling for them to do so, as many foreign politicians and diplomats have, is counterproductive, and will further persuade Sahrawis that war is the only remaining option. Minurso, the UN mission in Western Sahara, was formed in 1991 to oversee the referendum, but its role has been reduced to managing the ceasefire and patching up occasional disputes. It is the only UN mission without a mandate for monitoring human rights; attempts to give it one have been repeatedly hampered at the Security Council by France, which, unofficially but effectively, lends diplomatic cover to Morocco’s occupation. With every passing year, the UN has lost credibility in the eyes of the population it was supposed to be serving; a Sahrawi activist in the Moroccan-occupied zone described it to me as the ‘United Nothing’. There may instead be a role to play for the African Union, of which the Sahrawi state-in-exile is a founding member; Morocco left in 1984 after a dispute over its occupation of Western Sahara, and only rejoined in 2017.

The roughly 173,000 Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps cannot be wished away, and Polisario’s military, for all its haphazard equipment, cannot be straightforwardly defeated. The legal consensus is clear; the agreements are available for all parties to read. That the war is happening now seems mostly accidental, but, given the deadlock involved, it is hard to imagine how it might have been avoided in the long term. A few days after the war started, I checked in with a friend who lives in the Moroccan-occupied zone. Already rumours were circulating of Sahrawi activists being kidnapped and assaulted by Moroccan security forces, and I wanted to make sure he was OK. When I managed to get in touch with him, he was frightened but resolute. Sahrawis, he said, had nothing to lose. ‘We know that there is no war without costs,’ he told me. ‘But we can bear that, it’s better than waiting for Godot.’