Western Sahara’s crisis is one of the longest lasting in international politics and will continue in 2022.
The conflict in the Western Sahara is one of the world’s longest-running, but also one of the most overlooked. The conflict – pitting pro-independence fighters supported by Algeria against Morocco, with support at the UN and EU from influential backers – has been waged since 1975, with a ceasefire in 1991 and UN peacekeeping force largely keeping tension under control. But the ceasefire broke down in November 2020 after Moroccan forces forced protesters out of the Mauritanian border town of Guerguerat. And the low-level conflict that has raged since then risks to spiral further in 2022, if nothing is done to help resolve the core issues at the root of it all.
Fighting Breaks Out Again
The breaking of the ceasefire at Guerguerat was not an isolated incident, nor did it occur in an isolated context. As prospects for a long-promised UN referendum on the future status of the Western Sahara waned, Polisario members, particularly young fighters, had grown restless in recent years. Some agitated for a return to fighting as the only way of moving a stagnant political process forward. Morocco also was likely emboldened not just by its closer relations with the Trump administration, but by the announcement, just a month after the end of the ceasefire, that it would join the Abraham Accords, formally opening full diplomatic relations with Israel and receiving American recognition in exchange for Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
Several incidents since then have risked sparking a wider conflict. Polisario forces followed the end of the ceasefire with a wave of harassment attacks along the 2,700-mile-long sand berm constructed by Morocco, and they claim to have conductedat least 1,600 such attacks in the past year. Although Morocco has not acknowledged the end of the ceasefire, they allegedly have conducted at least two significant operations in this timeframe, both purportedly drone strikes in Polisario-controlled territory: the killing of Polisario gendarmerie leader Addah al-Bandir in April 2021, and a strike in early November that killed three Algerian civilians near Bir Lahlou.
In both of these cases, Morocco has reportedly used drones its armed forces have acquired in recent years from Turkey and China. These drones have become a common sight over Western Sahara, and demonstrate the technological and armament advantage Moroccan forces have over the Polisario; while Algeria supports the Polisario politically, they have not provided the group with the kinds of arms that would be needed to significantly damage Moroccan forces.
War by any other name?
Algeria has also for now resisted the urge to escalate the conflict further, or kept it within the realm of politics. The lack of progress over the Western Sahara was one of the stated reasons why Algeria broke off diplomatic relations with Morocco in August 2021, in addition to protests over Moroccan espionage against Algerians, Moroccan rapprochement with Israel, and several other issues. But aside from breaking off ties, Algeria’s largest concrete step was to cut off and subsequently not renew the Gazoduc Maghreb-Europe (GME), choosing instead to supply gas directly to Spain instead of passing through Morocco. And despite Algerian promises that the killing of its civilians near Bir Lahlou would not go “unpunished”,it has so far kept its protests to official channels. And while there does not appear to be an appetite for war in Algeria’s military or governmental hierarchy for the moment, the current situation may not last indefinitely.
Although Algeria spends significantly more on defense than Morocco, Morocco’s purchases of advanced weapons and particularly drones and other surveillance technology give it an advantage over the Polisario, but also could pose a threat in any conflict with its neighbor. The groundbreaking visit in November of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Morocco – and the signing of a historic defense agreement between the two – could also provide significant advantages to Morocco in regional competition. Yet this deal has also provoked concern in Algeria of a possible threat posed by Israeli support, given Algeria’s strong history of opposition to Israel and support for Palestine.
Regardless, the increased defense ties raise the possibility of increasing military activity on the borders between Morocco and Algeria, at a time of heightened regional tension and competition centered in part around the Western Sahara. The appointment in October of veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy for the Western Sahara is a welcome change after the prior envoy, Horst Köhler, departed his post without a replacement in mid-2019. But much more political pressure and intervention is needed to move the dossier forward, and to deliver the promised referendum on self-determination to Western Sahara. Otherwise the risk of conflict and escalation can only grow, with no side in the conflict being satisfied by the status quo and ongoing, albeit low-level, fighting. And the political unease between Morocco and Algeria could boil over into something much worse.