Integration and stability are essential in the Maghreb if the U.S. and EU are to build profitable partnerships that allow all parties to maximize on the region’s energy reserves, stem the illegal flow of narcotics and people into Europe, and eliminate the terrorist threat posed by the growing reach of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One of the primary roadblocks to regional integration and cooperation to address these concerns has been the irresolution of the 36-year-old conflict over the Western Sahara, home to the Saharawis and their armed independence movement, known as the Polisario Front.
In the western world, Tunisia has been considered the springboard of the 2011 Arab Spring. In reality, massive protests in the Western Sahara – a non-self-governing territory currently under the illegal administration of the Kingdom of Morocco – predated the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi by three months. Throughout October 2010, an estimated 20,000 Saharawis erected a camp of approximately 8,000 tents a few kilometers south of Laayoune, the principal city of the Western Sahara. The Saharawis began their protest by calling for parity in employment and educational opportunities in the territory, which has been inundated by Moroccan transplants attracted by tax breaks, jobs, and housing subsidies provided by the monarchy. As the tone of the protests escalated into calls for independence, Moroccan security forces surrounded and disbanded the camps with force, causing protestors to flee to Laayoune, where skirmishes continued for several days.
Despite the size and intensity of this standoff, the protests were largely overlooked abroad. This reality reflects the lack of importance given to the Western Sahara conflict over the past 20 years, since the signing of a ceasefire between the two sides in 1991. The low-intensity nature of the conflict has allowed the international community to keep it in the background, to the peril of both regional and international security. The Western Sahara is one of the most visible – although not the only – source of contention between Morocco and Algeria, the two powerhouses of the Maghreb that, if they were to establish friendly relations, could spur regional growth and stability. The continuation of the conflict has resulted in the obsolescence of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) over its 23-year existence and has complicated the reopening of the Moroccan-Algerian border, which has been closed since 1994.
While hostilities between Algiers and Rabat have complex roots, the Western Sahara has become the chessboard on which the two regional giants vie for superiority. Algeria has provided a large swath of land to the Polisario Front, which operates six refugee camps populated by approximately 150,000 refugees outside of the Algerian city of Tindouf. Morocco meanwhile portrays the Saharawis as pawns of Algiers and continues to insist that the Western Sahara be made an autonomous region of the Kingdom. Despite some signs of reconciliation between the countries, division remains, to the detriment of the region.
Current Conflict Dynamics
Since the signing of the 1991 ceasefire, the UN has tried a variety of means of resolving the conflict, including voter registration for a referendum, behind-the-scenes mediation, and formal negotiations. Over the past five years, negotiators from Morocco and the Polisario Front have engaged in nine rounds of informal talks mediated by several UN Special Envoys for the Western Sahara. Currently, former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Ross is serving in that post, although he was relieved briefly over the summer when Morocco gave him a vote of no confidence after his report to the Secretary General offended the Kingdom. The UN Security Council has failed to push the sides two a resolution, primarily because of resistance from France, Morocco’s closest ally in the Council.
While the two sides remain publicly committed to the ineffective peace process, the potential for a return to violence remains. The Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (ALPS) maintains thousands of troops – the actual number is a closely-guarded Polisario secret, in case of a return to hostilities – on patrol in seven military regions in the approximately 30 percent of the Western Sahara still controlled by the Polisario. Bordering the ALPS’ military zones is a 1,600-mile wall constructed throughout the 1980s by the Royal Moroccan Army (RMA). The wall is the longest active military wall in the world and is guarded by dozens of outposts armed with radar, artillery, tanks, and an anywhere from one to ten million landmines. The Kingdom maintains over 160,000 troops along the wall and throughout the Western Sahara.
While the Polisario has largely been able to retain the support for its participation in the peace process among the Tindouf refugees, it was not immune to the 2011 protests that swept the region. Hundreds of Saharawis took to the streets in the camps to call for a change in leadership and a return to war with Morocco. Furthermore, Saharawis living under Moroccan control in the Western Sahara proper have become increasingly impatient and unwilling to support negotiations. Uprisings in 2000, 2005, and 2010 in Laayoune and other Western Sahara cities have been marked by increasing displays of Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, the Saharawis’ state-in-exile that is recognized by some 50 countries and is a full-participating member of the African Union) flags and calls for war. Pressure to return to arms is mounting on the Polisario from all segments of Saharawi society – including the diaspora in Spain – and the leadership is struggling to subdue these calls for war. For example, at a meeting of the Polisario’s general congress in December 2011, a resumption of war was the primary issue of debate among the 1,000-plus delegates. Lastly, as the current Polisario leadership continues to age, a new generation of leaders is rising through the ranks, and this new group is both more pragmatic and more distrusting of the peace process. It remains to be seen how the Polisario’s approach will change with this shift, but it is likely to be less willing to negotiate.
As the Global War on Terror enters its eleventh year, it is imperative that Washington begin placing greater importance on the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict to help stabilize North Africa. There are a number of steps that the U.S. Administration can take to contribute to the peaceful resolution of the situation.
1) First, the U.S. needs to push Rabat to allow for a human rights monitoring component within the mandate of the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO), which is currently the only UN peacekeeping mission that has no authority to monitor or report on human rights violations. The inclusion of such a component would increase the willingness of the Polisario to negotiate in good faith and would force Morocco to approach the informal talks in a more realistic manner.
2) Second, Washington should engage more directly with representatives of the Polisario Front. The Saharawis have always admired the U.S. historically anti-colonial stance, and they are willing to follow Washington’s lead. Simple gestures of recognition – such as in 2010, when the deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs at the State Department received both Moroccan and Polisario negotiators – allow the Polisario to save face among its people and maintain trust in the peace process.
3) Third, Washington should take the lead in lobbying for a change in the composition of the Group of Friends of the Western Sahara, a group of five countries (France, Russia, Spain, the U.S., and the UK) whose representatives meet to discuss means of moving the resolution process forward. A more realistic and productive group would include regional countries (Algeria, Mauritania), powerful Middle Eastern or African countries (Saudi Arabia, South Africa), and countries that have passed through similar conflicts (Indonesia, East Timor) that have more influence and credibility with the two sides.
4) Fourth, the Administration should push for more effective confidence-building measures (CBMs). Currently, the only CBMs in place simply allow Saharawis from the occupied territory of the Western Sahara to interact with their refugee relatives and friends. True CBMs must bring populations from the two sides together to build trust.
5) Finally, the U.S. and its European partners should mediate between Algiers and Rabat to settle their other outstanding issues, focusing principally on the reopening of the border. As the Polisario’s strongest support, Algeria’s positive participation in the peace process is critical and is dependent on an improved relationship with Morocco.
With the growth of AQIM and the onset of the Arab Spring, the U.S. Administration has been forced to pay closer attention to stability in North Africa. If it truly wants to stem the tide of extremism and narco-trafficking in the region, Washington must support integration and cooperation throughout the Maghreb. The most critical step in this process is to resolve the Western Sahara conflict before one or both sides opt for a return to violence.
Timothy Kustusch is an Analyst at 361Security