On November 13, Morocco launched a military operation into the disputed Western Sahara region to quell protests in border regions.
The Polisario Front, a rebel liberation movement, cited the military operation as the final straw to break the 29-year ceasefire between Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement. Polisario Front’s secretary-general Brahim Ghali declared the “resumption of armed struggle in defence of the legitimate rights of our people.”
Moroccan forces exchanged fire with separatist forces, sparking fear of wider conflict in the region.
Amnesty International released a call for independent human rights monitoring as Moroccan military and police forces have harshly cracked down on Sahrawi activists. “Now, more than ever, impartial and independent UN human rights monitoring and reporting in Western Sahara is desperately needed,” wrote Amnesty International researcher Yasmine Kacha.
The international press rarely gains access to the region, but no civilian casualties have yet been reported. Nonetheless, with the Moroccan state increasing action against civilian activists and the Polisario Front committing to military action, the conflict zone has quickly turned from cool to potentially hot.
Directly after tensions flared in mid-November, regional partners and international organizations weighed in with attempted diplomatic solutions.
Days before the ceasefire was broken, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “the secretary-general remains committed to doing his utmost to avoid the collapse of the ceasefire.”
Despite the commitment from the Secretary-General and years of aborted diplomatic solutions, the Western Sahara question has persisted. Without an easy solution in sight, the conflict between Morocco and the independence movement also has implications for regional partnerships and diplomacy.
Algeria has been Polisario Front’s most ardent international ally for decades, so much so that Morocco has attempted to paint the independence movement as simply Algerian-backed and not an organic movement. Algeria officially supports the region’s right to self-determination and over the years has trained Polisario fighters and set up refugee camps for those fleeing from the conflict.
Prominent Algerian and Moroccan intellectuals released a statement advocating for increased dialogue between the nations as recent military operations have increased tensions between the neighbors.
But recent news suggests the states are still preparing for the worst, with reports that Algeria finalized a $2 billion deal with Russia to purchase stealth bombers after a year of negotiations. Morocco claimed the purchase was triggered by its purchase of 25 F-16 Vipers from the US in August.
Algerian politicians have also raised questions about other state’s actions in Western Sahara, including the UAE opening a consulate in Laayoune, the largest city in the region. Algerian diplomat Abdelaziz Rahabi had harsh words for the UAE in a press conference, “I consider any hostile position to the fundamental interests of Algeria from any Arab or foreign country as an aggressive stance towards Algeria.”
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has been in Germany for over a month receiving treatment after contracting coronavirus, and the country has also been engulfed in domestic political uncertainty. Some Algerian diplomats and politicians have expressed concern that other nations are looking to take advantage of its president’s absence.
In contrast to Algeria, most Arab nations have expressed support for Morocco’s military action in Western Sahara including Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Yemen. But this time around some typical supporters of Morocco in the conflict have expressed a level of reluctance to back Morocco.
Egypt and Turkey
Noticeably, Egypt did not immediately release a statement of support for Morocco and instead expressed concern and called on all sides to restrain from increasing provocations. Over the past decade, relations between Morocco and Egypt have become more strained with Morocco participating in Libyan peace agreements against the wishes of the Egyptians and for Egypt’s growing ties with Algeria.
Egypt has continually shifted to a more neutral stance on Western Sahara in an attempt to balance relations between Algeria and Morocco, however, the calculation is likely supported more by Algeria than Morocco.
Egyptian ambassador Mona Omar told Al-Monitor, “Egypt’s position on this [Western Sahara] issue is unlikely to budge, no matter how criticized it is inside Morocco.”
Turkey’s relations with both Morocco and Algeria are also in the balance as President Erdoğan plays a delicate game in the country’s diplomatic and potential proxy conflict spats between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
To the dismay of Ankara, Morocco and Saudi Arabia have grown closer in recent years, potentially jeopardizing Turkish attempts to strengthen bonds across the North African region. The recent resurgence in conflict in Western Sahara has made it more difficult for Turkey to balance its interests in both countries.
Erdoğan has stated previously he will never support or recognise the Polisario Front, but with relations being stronger with Algeria at the moment some wonder if Turkey will soon switch allegiances.
On the potential switch to more strongly supporting Algeria over Morocco, an AKP bureaucrat told Al-Monitor, “now we may have to make a choice because the military establishment in Algeria is strong and for Algiers support for the Polisario Front is crucial, especially if we want to sell them arms and drones.”
While a potentially renewed war in Western Sahara has been sparsely covered in Western media, the tensions in the region have important consequences for regional diplomacy even if skirmishes do not spill over into war. And with Morocco and Algeria potentially squaring up, powerful actors may be forced to choose a side, at least temporarily, that would have implications on other regional and global disputes.
And for the people in Western Sahara, a quick and easy resolution seems far away as Morocco still has not faced enough pressure to return to the negotiating table.