why does this postcolonial conflict raise fears of open war?

that Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, is considered “a non-autonomous territory” of the UN in the absence of a settlement. It is the only territory in Africa whose postcolonial status remains unresolved.

What is the situation on the file of Sahara western ?

Almost desert and very extensive (266,000 km2), this area is rich in phosphates and its Atlantic coast is full of fish.

After the Spanish departure in 1975, Morocco annexed Western Sahara. The Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, demands the independence of this territory, while Rabat, which de facto controls 80% of it, proposes a “great autonomy” under its sovereignty.

Since a ceasefire was reached in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario after 16 years of conflict, the UN has installed a mission there to organize a referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso).

(Re) read: Western Sahara: a postcolonial conflict that has lasted far too long

What happened to bring the conflict back to the fore?

On November 13, 2020, this ceasefire, which has generally been respected for about thirty years, was broken. The Moroccan army conducted an operation in the buffer zone at the Guerguerat border post (farthest south) to restore road traffic to Mauritania cut off by Sahrawi separatists. In response, Polisario declared a state of war.

Tensions have risen again in recent days after Algeria reported a bombing attributed to Morocco, which caused the deaths of three Algerian truck drivers in Saharawi territory on November 1.

  • (Re) see Western Sahara: can tensions escalate?

“Even if it is possible that Morocco thought they were Polisario troops, they killed civilians. Before, they were very careful to avoid this type of incident.”analyzes Youssef Chérif, director of the Columbia Global Center’s research center (established by American Columbia University) in Tunis.

Morocco has taken a tougher approach to Western Sahara in its relations with its neighbors, including Spain.
Youssef Chérif, Director of the Columbia Global Center’s Research Center in Tunis.

For this expert, “it means that they are more confident in themselves and that they regard their sovereignty over Western Sahara as a fait accompli”. “What matters to Morocco is to exploit its resources and keep them to itself,” he thinks.

Riccardo Fabiani, Director of North Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG), also believes that Morocco “has taken a tougher approach to Western Sahara in relation to its neighbors, including Spain”.

In mid-May, thousands of migrants crossed the borders into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco. Analysts believed that it was about Moroccan reprisals after the reception in Spain in late April by the leader of Polisario Brahim Ghali, who was to be treated there for Covid-19.

Why has the situation changed?

By the end of 2020, Morocco gained from US President Donald Trump recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. In return, Morocco has normalized its relations with Israel.

The precarious balance of power between Algeria and Morocco has changed, and in the absence of external mediation, the risk is that these countries will face a confrontation because they feel mutually threatened.
Riccardo Fabiani, Director of North Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG)

This development was viewed with a negative eye by Algeria, which severed diplomatic relations with Morocco in late August and accused it of supporting the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), which Algiers considers a terrorist organization.

“The precarious balance of power between Algeria and Morocco has been altered by all these factors, and in the absence of external mediation, the risk is that these countries will go against a confrontation because they feel mutually threatened.”according to Mr Fabiani.

For the expert, “The normalization (of the relationship) between Morocco and Israel and the consequent military cooperation is a significant factor in the current escalation, along with Trump’s announcements about the Sahara, which have changed the old status quo in this area, increasing nervousness in Algiers.”.

What are the challenges for Morocco and for Algeria?

In either case, it is a matter of “national security”, according to Mr Fabiani. Previously, according to the expert “a balance based on Morocco’s de facto control of Western Sahara and Algeria’s rejection based on international law, with some military parity on both sides”.

“The conflict was frozen, with foreign actors avoiding intervention and maintaining the status quo”he explains.

The new is it “Rabat does not want to return to the previous balance and Algiers does not want to accept the new situation”, according to Mr Fabiani. For Dalia Ghanem, an expert from Carnegie Middle East Center, “Algeria feels obliged to respond because nothing would send the message + you can attack us +”.

A direct conflict is nevertheless unlikely in the eyes of Mr Chérif, who sees Algeria rather “further increase its support for Polisario”.

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