Getting Diplomacy Back on Track in Western Sahara
Getting Diplomacy Back on Track in Western Sahara
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Getting Diplomacy Back on Track in Western Sahara

After two years of diplomatic deadlock, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed a new envoy for Western Sahara, a territory disputed between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front, which represents the ethnic Sahrawi population of the territory. The recent designation of seasoned Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura marks a much-delayed and critical step forward in a standoff that, if left untreated, risks spreading instability elsewhere in the region

The temperature has been rising of late in this often-overlooked conflict. In November 2020, fighting flared up between Morocco and the Polisario Front. A month later, President Donald Trump threw fuel on the fire and jeopardized the traditional U.S. role as a neutral broker between the parties by recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in exchange for Morocco normalizing its relations with Israel. Since then, Rabat and the Polisario have hardened their respective positions. De Mistura should seize the momentum behind his appointment to offer fresh ideas and a series of confidence-building measures to guide the two sides back to the negotiating table.

When Spain ended its colonial control over Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania divided up the territory in the face of stiff resistance from the Polisario, which had fought for the territory’s independence. (Mauritania later withdrew, leaving its part of Western Sahara to Rabat.) Thousands of Sahrawis fled the ensuing war and took shelter in camps over the border in Algeria. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991, which left most of the territory in Moroccan hands. The U.N. also created and monitored a buffer zone to separate the two sides and set up a mission, known as MINURSO, to implement a peace plan that centered on holding an independence referendum. However, disagreements between the two sides prevented the ballot from taking place, and the conflict froze in place for almost 30 years. 

As a new generation of Sahrawis grew up, tensions began to mount, coming to a head in the violence last November, which began when Morocco sent troops to remove a Polisario blockade of the Guerguerat road, the principal traffic artery crossing the buffer zone. In response, the Polisario withdrew from the 30-year-old cease-fire and resumed attacks, while Rabat established a military presence inside the buffer zone to protect the road. The past year has seen a low-intensity conflict, with the two sides regularly exchanging fire along the Moroccan sand berm that runs along the buffer zone and divides Western Sahara between Rabat-held territory—which represents 80 per cent of the total area—and what the Polisario calls its “liberated territory.”

Having lost faith in the international community ..., [Sahrawi youths] believe that fighting is the only way to achieve their objectives.

While the fighting has been limited in scope and impact, there are signs that it could intensify. The Polisario Front’s return to war has energized and mobilized Sahrawi youths in the Algerian refugee camps, who appear to support the decision. Having lost faith in the international community and its ineffective diplomatic tools, they believe that fighting is the only way to achieve their objectives and are prepared for a long war. The risk of a sharp military escalation remains relatively low, but it could increase if the Polisario were to adopt more daring tactics and capture Moroccan troops, which some pro-independence activists have advocated. In turn, reports that Morocco used a drone in the April killing of a senior Polisario police officer—which, if accurate, would be unprecedented in this conflict—could mean both sides are more likely to resort to such provocative tactics in the future.

U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara emboldened Rabat. In mid-May, the kingdom allegedly encouraged thousands of people to cross the border into the Spanish exclave of Ceuta, where local police found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by an unprecedented inflow of mostly Moroccan migrants. The move was apparently in retaliation for Madrid’s hosting of Polisario leader Brahim Ghali, who needed urgent medical treatment for a severe case of COVID-19. 

While Morocco soon resumed policing its frontiers with Spain, the incident highlighted the Western Sahara conflict’s potential security impact for Europe—a message that was clearly heard in Brussels, where in June the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Rabat for its alleged role in the Ceuta incident. Separately, Morocco suspended its diplomatic contacts with Germany and recalled its ambassador from Berlin earlier this year in protest over Germany’s attempts to raise the flare-up in fighting at the U.N. Security Council, where Rabat worries it could face criticism. Bilateral relations remain suspended.

In this context of heightened tensions, the appointment of De Mistura, who in previous stints served as U.N. envoy to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, offers a rare glimmer of hope. Even though Rabat stalled his nomination for several weeks, De Mistura enjoys the stature and experience that will be needed for effective mediation between Morocco and the Polisario.

The first challenge [De Mistura] is likely to face will be negotiating a cessation of hostilities.

The first challenge that he is likely to face will be negotiating a cessation of hostilities. Polisario officials and pro-independence activists see the 1991 cease-fire as a strategic mistake they should not repeat, because they believe it cost them all of the leverage they might have had with Morocco during subsequent negotiations. Thus, rather than return to the 1991 truce, the U.N. envoy would do better to propose confidence-building measures to deescalate the conflict. In a possible interim deal, the Polisario could agree to unilaterally halt attacks along the sand berm in return for Morocco ending its repression of pro-independence Sahrawi activists. De Mistura could then use this lull in fighting to push for a broader truce, which in turn could open the door to fresh negotiations over the territory’s final status.

For this approach to succeed, De Mistura will need U.S. support. As the penholder on the Western Sahara conflict at the U.N. Security Council, Washington should consider shortening MINURSO’s mandate from 12 to six months, thereby forcing more frequent and public discussions about the conflict. (Currently, the council holds two meetings on the conflict per year, but only one of these is an open-door event.) It could also amend the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution on the issue, which refers to the need for “a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution”—language that the Polisario Front considers an endorsement of the kingdom’s position. To press Rabat and entice the Polisario, the U.S. should add language indicating the Western Saharan population’s right to self-determination.

A military deescalation, coupled with clear signals of continuous diplomatic attention by Washington and others, could lay the groundwork for a resumption of negotiations on the disputed territory’s final status. If the conflict is left to simmer, it can only raise tensions between Morocco and Algeria further, possibly destabilizing the region.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.