Paving the Way to Talks on Western Sahara
Paving the Way to Talks on Western Sahara
U.N. Western Sahara envoy Staffan de Mistura meets Polisario Front officials as he visits the Smara refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, January 15, 2022. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 17 minutes

Paving the Way to Talks on Western Sahara

Diplomats have struggled to broker negotiations over the disputed territory of Western Sahara since late 2020, when a ceasefire between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front broke down. If it steps up its engagement, Washington may be able to get the ball rolling.

Renewed negotiations to reach a settlement on the disputed territory of Western Sahara could be within grasp after painstaking diplomatic spadework. But progress toward resolving the controversy over the area will prove hard to achieve without stronger U.S. backing. Widening differences between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front, as well as mounting tensions between Morocco and the Front’s main sponsor, Algeria, have narrowed UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s room for manoeuvre. The envoy’s lack of a firm mandate from a deeply divided UN Security Council makes advances even more arduous. Even so, signs are encouraging as regards a possible return to dialogue in the coming months. Given its diplomatic heft and good relations with both sides, the U.S. should overcome its reluctance to spend political capital on what it sees as a low-priority conflict, step up its engagement and design a series of steps that could prepare the terrain for substantive talks on Western Sahara.

A series of events between 2020 and 2021 reignited the dormant conflict. Morocco controls most of Western Sahara, but its authority is contested by the Polisario Front, which champions the territory’s independence and argues that its population should have the right of self-determination. A ceasefire between the two sides collapsed in November 2020, sparking the resumption of fighting. Upsetting a decades-long status quo, then U.S. President Donald Trump announced in December 2020 that Washington would recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Algeria proceeded to break off diplomatic relations with Morocco in August 2021, citing the kingdom’s unilateral actions in the disputed territory as grounds for the rupture. Ripple effects across the region made a negotiated settlement to Western Sahara appear ever more improbable.

Careful approaches by the UN envoy in North Africa and at the Security Council nevertheless appear to have lifted some of the gloom. Fighting seem to have dipped in intensity, with no reported Moroccan drone strikes in the past few months, while Washington has quietly been offering support for plans to bring the parties back together and forge a new negotiation process. The gap between the sides, however, remains wide, and it is an open question just how much the U.S. will commit its diplomatic resources to furthering settlement of this conflict, which is not among its core geopolitical interests.

Return to War

The conflict between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front began in 1975 when Spain withdrew from its former Sahara colony, later known as Western Sahara. After Spain’s departure, Morocco and Mauritania partitioned the territory. The Polisario Front, with support from Algeria, engaged in an armed struggle to liberate the territory from both. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew and left Western Sahara solely under Moroccan control. Over time, Rabat solidified its grip on most of this area by constructing a barrier called the “sand berm”, with the Polisario retaining control of the remaining 20 per cent, which it refers to as “liberated territory”.

This military stalemate set the stage for a UN-mediated Settlement Plan in 1991, which included a ceasefire, a buffer zone that divided Western Sahara along the sand berm and provisions for a referendum on self-determination for the entire territory. It also created a UN mission, MINURSO, to monitor the ceasefire and organise the referendum vote. But the plan failed to resolve the conflict. The referendum never took place, and subsequent talks failed to make notable progress. In the absence of a negotiated solution, Morocco presented an autonomy proposal in 2007 that would keep the entire disputed territory under Rabat’s control while providing a degree of self-government for Sahrawis. France and the U.S. backed the proposal, but the Polisario rejected it, saying it negated the local population’s right to self-determination. As a result, Western Sahara remains on the UN list of non-self-governing territories.

A series of diplomatic events in 2019 and 2020 paved the way for the latest bout of fighting. After UN Envoy Horst Kohler resigned for health reasons in May 2019, the UN failed to appoint a successor for over two years – with twelve candidates nixed by one side or the other. A number of countries, mostly from the Arab world and Africa, opened consulates in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara during this time, in an implicit acceptance of Rabat’s sovereignty over the entire territory. Amid this increasing tension, the 1991 ceasefire fell apart in November 2020. Fighting broke out between the two sides, and Rabat seized a section of the UN buffer zone near Guerguerat. In the aftermath, Trump decided to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty in the region, and Algeria and Morocco severed diplomatic ties.

The UN Security Council struggled to respond to the ceasefire’s collapse, as foreign powers found themselves deeply divided over the best way forward.

The UN Security Council struggled to respond to the ceasefire’s collapse, as foreign powers found themselves deeply divided over the best way forward. After two months, Germany took the lead in requesting a closed-door consultation on the latest developments. This tentative move came at a steep price. In reprisal, Rabat froze diplomatic contacts with Berlin, denying that fighting had resumed in hopes of averting international scrutiny.

Despite the setbacks, there were fresh diplomatic forays. The U.S. tried to convince the Security Council in April 2021 to put forward “press elements” – a mode of Council action that aims to convey members’ views through spoken communication by the Council president. In this case, the aim was to urge the two sides to avoid escalation and to call for appointing a new envoy. India, then a Council member, nevertheless rejected the proposal, aligning itself with the Moroccan position in denying that the sides shared equal responsibility for the ceasefire breakdown and pinning the blame instead on the Polisario’s alleged provocations.

A New UN Envoy Amid Rising Tensions

The announcement of a new UN envoy in November 2021 did little to calm the waters. Washington pressured and eventually convinced Rabat to accept de Mistura’s appointment as the UN Secretary-General’s new personal envoy to Western Sahara, even though the kingdom had expressed doubts about him. The same month, Algiers accused Rabat of killing three Algerian truck drivers in Western Sahara on their way to Mauritania, threatening that “their assassination will not go unpunished”. In April 2022, Algeria lodged a second charge against Morocco, saying its air force had attacked a civilian truck convoy near the border with Mauritania, leaving another three people dead.

Far from cooling tensions, diplomatic moves heated them up. Following decades of discord, Morocco and Spain – the former colonial power in Western Sahara – mended ties in March 2022, with Madrid ending its posture of neutrality vis-à-vis the disputed territory and declaring the kingdom’s 2007 autonomy plan “the most serious, realistic and credible basis to solve” the conflict. The Polisario reacted furiously, and Algeria retaliated by suspending diplomatic and trade ties with Spain. Not long afterward, Tunisia abandoned its own position of neutrality, with President Kais Saïed officially welcoming Polisario Front Chairman Brahim Ghali in Tunis, infuriating Morocco. Tunis and Rabat then entered a tit-for-tat quarrel, recalling their respective ambassadors.

This chain of events greatly complicated the UN envoy’s work. In July 2022, he was forced to cancel a planned visit to Morocco-controlled Western Sahara after Rabat banned him from meeting representatives of local civil society and women’s organisations, even though his request to do so was consistent with what previous envoys had done. This incident highlighted his reduced leverage with Morocco compared with his predecessors, who had enjoyed stronger backing from the UN Security Council.

In early August 2022, a standoff between the Polisario and MINURSO threatened to end the UN mission’s monitoring work.

A few weeks later, in early August 2022, a standoff between the Polisario and MINURSO threatened to end the UN mission’s monitoring work. A Polisario truck used to carry water to MINURSO team sites east of the sand berm was destroyed, allegedly by a Moroccan drone strike. The Front responded by suspending ground resupply convoys to all MINURSO sites, allowing only two helicopter flights per month to bring them food, bottled water and spare parts. In a private conversation with Crisis Group, a Polisario official stated that, far from being purely a logistical issue, maintaining supply lines to MINURSO was a question of politics. With no referendum in sight, the ceasefire in tatters and Morocco permanently present in the UN buffer zone, the Polisario fears the UN mission has changed far beyond what its mandate stipulates. “After the end of the ceasefire, we no longer have an obligation to allow any ceasefire monitoring activity [by MINURSO]”, the official said. “We still allow the mission to stay, even though it doesn’t fulfil its mission [of organising a self-determination referendum]. We are still committed to the MINURSO mandate, not the ceasefire”.

Eventually, with MINURSO’s fuel and food supplies running dangerously low and fears brewing that the Western Sahara crisis might escalate into full-blown conflict between Morocco and Algeria, the Polisario accepted a temporary compromise. Officials at MINURSO began floating the possibility of withdrawing from the area, prompting the Moroccan ambassador to the UN, Omar Hilale, to threaten that, should the mission pull out, Morocco “would be entitled to regain the part of the Sahara that was handed over to MINURSO”. This hint at the prospect of Moroccan troops occupying the UN buffer zone and Polisario-held territory close to the Algerian border, in proximity to Algerian military positions and Sahrawi refugee camps inside Algeria, galvanised diplomats. U.S. and French pressure, alongside Algeria’s mediation, convinced the Polisario in early 2023 to “provide safe passage, on an exceptional and provisional basis”, for MINURSO’s ground convoys.

Ground resupply operations have now begun again, but the underlying causes of conflict remain unaddressed, and talks have yet to resume. The Polisario’s General Congress, on 16 January, highlighted the movement’s doubts that a diplomatic solution is achievable at present. Under the slogan “Escalating the struggle to get rid of the occupation and achieve sovereignty”, the congress culminated in a leadership election that revealed the power of more intransigent factions. Bashir Mustafa Sayed, brother of late Polisario founder and leader El Wali Mustafa Sayed, challenged Ghali for the chair, offering a platform centred on stepping up military operations against Morocco both in the former UN buffer zone and inside Rabat-controlled Western Sahara. As a Polisario activist asserted to Crisis Group, “Bashir believes in intensifying the war effort and playing a more aggressive diplomatic role to benefit from the conflict”. Even though Ghali won with 69 per cent of the vote, Sayed secured the support of a sizeable group of mainly young Sahrawis who are increasingly impatient with the status quo and favour a more aggressive approach toward Morocco.

De Mistura, or the Art of Threading the Needle

With the positions of the parties to the dispute hardening, de Mistura set about rebuilding diplomatic communications. Lacking a strong Security Council mandate, he pursued direct bilateral consultations with all the parties involved in the conflict while keeping a low profile, though at times this approach earned him accusations of having been sidelined.

Among his chief concerns was the distance separating Morocco and the Polisario Front on the question of resuming talks. Rabat has called for a return to the 2019 roundtable negotiating format, with the participation of Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania, and an agenda based on Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal. The presence of Algiers and Nouakchott is essential in Moroccan eyes, since the kingdom believes that the Polisario is an Algerian proxy and that settlement of the dispute can come only through a regional grand bargain about borders and security. On the other side, the Front, backed in its position by Algeria, rules out returning to the roundtable format, preferring bilateral talks with Rabat over a self-determination referendum along the lines of the 1991 UN Settlement Plan.

To overcome deadlock over who should take part in talks, de Mistura began to refer in his consultations and communications to “all concerned” and their need to revise the settlement proposals. This phrasing enabled him to avoid saying exactly which parties should participate and which plan should be the object of negotiations. The ambiguity implicit in the “all concerned” formula and its general acceptance helped him sidestep an obstacle that might have proven insurmountable and regain trust on all sides.

Critically, the “all concerned” concept secured the UN Security Council’s backing. In the October 2022 session on renewing MINURSO’s mandate, the U.S. bridged the rift between pro-Morocco and pro-Polisario Council members by introducing small changes to the draft resolution, inserting a reference to “the importance of all concerned expanding on their positions in order to advance a solution”. This language was an important vote of confidence in de Mistura. It also suggested that, despite its divisions, the Council would now support the envoy’s mission.

Washington’s Limited Diplomatic Support

Encouraged by the breakthrough at the Security Council, the U.S. has indicated that it wants UN-brokered negotiations to resume. In April, ahead of a closed-door Security Council briefing on Western Sahara and in parallel with a round of bilateral consultations conducted by the UN envoy, U.S. officials communicated to Algerian, Moroccan and Polisario representatives in New York that “it is high time to move forward in this process”, in the words of a U.S. diplomat who spoke to Crisis Group. U.S. officials sought to drive the point home in a series of bilateral conversations with Algerian and Moroccan counterparts over the following weeks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in May, speaking of “full U.S. support” for the UN envoy and a solution to the dispute. A month later, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf and affirmed Washington’s backing of de Mistura.

Washington is arguably the only foreign power able to engage with all parties to the dispute. France’s relations with Morocco have deteriorated markedly in recent months, in part as a result of Paris’ improved ties with Algiers: President Emmanuel Macron has indefinitely postponed his planned visit to the kingdom. Meanwhile, Spain has been unable to repair its relationship with Algeria, and Russia is too close to the Polisario and Algeria for Rabat to accept it as a credible interlocutor. By contrast, Washington kept leverage over Morocco without losing access to the Polisario or Algeria, a position it consolidated by holding off on a decision to confirm or revoke Trump’s December 2020 recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

From Washington’s perspective, Western Sahara is low on the agenda.

That said, U.S. officials are unwilling to spend a great deal of political capital on the conflict. From Washington’s perspective, Western Sahara is low on the agenda. As a U.S. diplomat put it to Crisis Group: “We want to solve the conflict, but it’s not a priority for us and we have only limited bandwidth. The UN process has the benefit of addressing regional tensions and reducing them”. Rather than exerting pressure to extract reciprocal concessions from both sides and thus build confidence, the Biden administration favours the less politically onerous option of building confidence with all parties by leveraging their desire to strengthen ties with Washington. Over the past months, the U.S. has established closer economic and security relations with Algeria, continued to cultivate its relations with Morocco and dangled the prospect of more regular exchanges in front of the Polisario. “The Polisario has a desire to expand its relationship with us. This could be a carrot [to push them] to re-engage [with UN-brokered talks]”, another U.S. diplomat told Crisis Group.

Washington’s messaging seems to have had a calming effect on all sides in the conflict. Rabat appears to have cut back its military strikes on the Polisario in recent months, in what could amount to a signal of détente. According to a UN official speaking to Crisis Group in May, “We haven't seen any Moroccan drone strikes in months. That tells me that there might be an unofficial pause going on. In November 2022, we were looking at four to five strikes a week. Now, it’s completely changed”.

Even more striking was the muted reaction from both Rabat and the Polisario to an alleged bombing that took place in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara in May, destroying parts of a major phosphate facility. Rabat may have wanted to avoid publicising a vulnerability in the territory it controls, while the Polisario had an interest in adopting a posture of plausible deniability regarding an action that could draw international criticism, given the foreign economic interests in the area. In any event, Moroccan and pro-Polisario media outlets did not report the story, but the pro-Polisario NGO Western Sahara Resource Watch published a series of videos that would seem to corroborate it. Pro-independence Sahrawi activists verified the bombing in a conversation with Crisis Group, while separately a Polisario official refused to either confirm or deny that an attack had occurred. If it did, it would have been the first unconventional attack inside Morocco-held Western Sahara since the ceasefire collapsed, as fighting had taken place exclusively along the sand berm until then. Both sides’ reactions could indicate their shared interest in avoiding frictions so as to give the UN a chance to restart talks.

An improved climate for talks might still not clinch a return to negotiations, especially if the U.S. remains reluctant to press the parties more forcefully and empower the UN envoy. Washington seems hesitant to move beyond messages of support toward obtaining confidence-building concessions from both sides. In particular, a U.S. official highlighted the potentially high political cost of extracting concessions from a hard-nosed partner such as Morocco. But this hesitation could undermine the UN envoy’s efforts, with one UN official indicating to Crisis Group that “the U.S. and others on the Council are hiding behind the UN envoy, as they continue to have contradictory stances on an issue that is not a priority for them”. A former UN envoy also cast doubt upon de Mistura’s ability to sustain the momentum. “I fear that he won’t go very far, and that shadow boxing [between the parties] will continue, because no one will put pressure on the parties to make progress”, he said.

Without firm support from Washington, the Western Sahara conflict might escalate

Yet without firm support from Washington, the Western Sahara conflict might escalate – and with it the friction between Morocco and Algeria. The alleged attack on the phosphate facility highlights the potential for violence, as anticipated in late 2021 by the Polisario’s defence minister, El Wali Akeik, who listed firms, consulates and airlines as prospective targets of the Front’s asymmetrical warfare. In the absence of a UN framework for negotiations on Western Sahara, it will remain difficult for Morocco and Algeria to prevent the dispute over this territory from harming their relations as a whole.

Preparing the Terrain for Negotiations

While no party has explicitly objected to the “all concerned” formula and the idea of “expanding on their positions”, none has risked taking a step forward, either. Moroccan diplomats continue to engage regularly with de Mistura and, according to a European diplomat consulted by Crisis Group, might have an interest in resuming talks before Algeria joins the Security Council in 2024, worrying it would use that platform to ratchet up pressure on Rabat. Moroccan officials have nevertheless reiterated to Crisis Group that they are unwilling to abandon the 2019 roundtable format or negotiate about anything other than their autonomy plan. Israel’s July recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara also indicates that Rabat will continue to press ahead with its policy of securing international acceptance of its control of the territory. U.S. officials seem confident that, once the UN envoy unveils his plan, they will be able to convince Rabat to accept it. Yet they are hesitant to consider pressing Rabat to make confidence-building concessions to the other side due to the kingdom’s likely refusal to do so. Algeria, meanwhile, appears open to resuming negotiations but continues to refuse to be considered a party to the conflict. As an Algerian diplomat said to Crisis Group, “We want to overcome this conflict, but everything depends on the UN proposal”.

In the wake of its congress, and in light of the paltry military results achieved since the ceasefire ended, the Polisario sees little reason to hurry back to negotiations. The majority of the Polisario’s military activities have been confined to Mahbes, an area adjacent to the Algerian border and the refugee camps, due to Morocco’s air superiority and drone strikes. With the exception of the alleged attack on the phosphate facility, Polisario units have struggled to do major damage to Moroccan assets. Pro-independence activists also view conditions as broadly unfavourable due to a lack of international interest in Western Sahara. In an interview with Crisis Group, a Polisario official underlined that “we are interested in going back to the negotiating table, but many things need to take place before that. We won’t accept a new ceasefire, and there need to be incentives for the Polisario. Morocco is still in the buffer zone and is killing civilians. Why should we engage in talks with them?” The Polisario welcomes the prospect of more regular engagement with the U.S. It is doubtful, however, that this incentive alone would be enough to sway a movement and refugee population increasingly sceptical that a diplomatic solution to the conflict is possible.

The U.S. should press Morocco to make good-will gestures to the Polisario.

To boost the chances that all parties give a future UN plan a warm reception, the U.S. should press Morocco to make good-will gestures to the Polisario, such as releasing at least some of the nineteen Sahrawi activists detained since the 2010 Gdeim Izik protests and allowing the UN envoy to visit Rabat-controlled Western Sahara. While largely symbolic, these measures could be enough to convince the Polisario leaders and their constituents that efforts to bring world attention back to the conflict have paid off, that Washington is ready to apply pressure to Rabat and that conditions for resuming talks are ripe.

In return for the kingdom’s concessions, U.S. officials should persuade the Polisario to unilaterally suspend its military operations against Morocco. Even though the Front refuses to sign up to a new ceasefire, it could declare a truce or unofficially and temporarily halt its activities in Western Sahara. The U.S. could package these reciprocal concessions as confidence-building steps to facilitate their acceptance by both sides.

Pressuring both sides and extracting these reciprocal though largely symbolic concessions would still have a political cost for the U.S., particularly with regard to Morocco. Yet failure to provide adequate support for the UN envoy could prove even more costly. While Washington is understandably preoccupied with major crises elsewhere, offering only limited endorsement of the UN envoy’s diplomatic efforts could result in a failure to resume negotiations and further polarisation between the sides, stoking military escalation and tensions between Algeria and Morocco.

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