Have Western Saharan independence fighters overplayed their hand?

By AT editor - 23 November 2020 at 5:19 pm
Have Western Saharan independence fighters overplayed their hand?

A 30-year ceasefire in the Western Sahara has been brought to a crashing collapse, as rebel independence fighters the Polisario Front reportedly launched attacks on Moroccan forces over the weekend of November 14 and claim to have caused “human and material damages” since then. The Front, which claims to represent the partially recognized de facto state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), announced their intention to dispense with the truce after the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR) stepped in to clear a roadblock that the rebels had been holding for weeks at the contested border outpost of Guerguerat, located in a UN-buffered zone.

While the Polisario Front are hoping to leverage the Guerguerat crisis to gain support for their cause, attempts to weaponize the incident could actually have the opposite effect in reality. A growing number of countries and international organizations had already voiced their support for Morocco’s action to reestablish the free trade between Morocco and Mauritania which had ground to a dangerous halt under the rebels’ roadblock. What’s more, the alacrity with which the Polisario Front have resorted to violence once more is unlikely to win them much sympathy—especially at a time when the neighboring Sahel region is plagued by instability and uncertainty, meaning that the rebels’ decision to force the issue may only play into the hands of those who wish to consolidate the status quo.

30 years undone in the blink of an eye

The Western Sahara has been subject to dispute since the Spanish decolonization of the territory in 1975, with 80% currently controlled by Morocco and the remaining 20% under the banner of the self-proclaimed SADR. After a 16-year bloody conflict which claimed the lives of at least 9,000 people and uprooted countless more, a historic ceasefire agreement was reached in 1991 under the aegis of the UN. One of the key cornerstones of the peace deal was the promise of an independence referendum in the disputed territory, something which has been endlessly delayed by disagreements over the electoral roll and the phrasing of the question.

It’s that referendum – or, specifically, the lack of progress towards its inception – which the Polisario Front are protesting most vehemently. After the UN adopted Resolution 2548 last month, pushing for “compromise” in the region and effectively shelving any talks of the referendum taking place for the time being, the rebels reacted by sealing shut the crossing at Guerguerat, a vital border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania. Polisario Front roadblocks stranded almost 300 trucks on both sides of the border for weeks and left Mauritania—which is heavily dependent on Moroccan produce—in a tight spot. After appeals from the UN went unheeded, the Moroccan government finally sent in the FAR to end the blockade in a “non-offensive operation”—an action which the rebel fighters are now using as justification to reignite the armed conflict which was put on hold for nearly three decades.

An unpopular approach

The Guerguerat incident is a prime example of the Polisario Front resorting to their favored playbook. As one international analyst has pointed out, this involves purposefully escalating tensions, before adopting the role of the plucky underdog being persecuted by a greater power, in the hope of eliciting sympathy and support for their position from the international community. However, plenty of outside observers had already made clear their distaste for Polisario’s guerrilla approach, including over 70 Italian NGOs, the French Foreign Minister and both the UN Secretary General and his Security Council.

Facing the weight of that condemnation, then, Polisario’s decision to double down and use the incident as an excuse for jettisoning the 30-year truce is unlikely to win them too many more friends – especially given that Rabat has already reiterated its commitment towards a peaceful resolution of the issue. While the rebels are not without their supporters (Algeria has been a vocal and deep-pocketed proponent of their interests), their latest course of action has prompted several countries around the world to withdraw their recognition of the SADR as a legitimate state. Indeed, their flagging reputation within the Arab world was brought into particularly sharp focus by a show of support for Moroccan policy from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab Parliament.

Desire for stability favors status quo

The international desire for peace in a region where turbulence all too often predominates is understandable. The Sahel region, just to the south of Western Sahara, has witnessed years of bloodshed and instability, in particular in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, resulting in an estimated 3.5 million civilian displacements across all three. An exodus of insurgent fighters and military-grade arms from Libya following the death of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, alongside economic deprivation engendered by the gradual disappearance of Lake Chad and political upheavals in all of the affected nations (but most notably in Mali, which has suffered two military coups in just eight years) has merely served to create a perfect storm of escalating tensions.

It’s unsurprising, then, that there is little international enthusiasm for further warfare in the Sahara. In fact, the French government has made a point of explicitly warning Burkina Faso and Mali not to allow insurgency to interfere with the progress made to date. Since the Polisario Front’s sabre-rattling in Guerguerat highlights the fact that they promise more insurgency and instability, it’s no wonder that more and more international observers are coming round to the Autonomy Plan suggested by Morocco in 2007. Regardless of the legitimacy of the rebels’ petitions for a popular vote on their future, their methods of raising their own profile will only curry disfavor among the political community and whet its desire for a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the matter.

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