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Time running out to avoid Western Sahara war

The world has many almost forgotten trouble spots, where conflict has not been resolved but appears to have been contained. In Western Sahara and Morocco, that may be about to change, with potentially wider implications.

The western-most corner of Algeria, near the border with Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania, is a desolate and unforgiving place, where temperatures in summer often exceed 50 degrees C. This area is known as ‘The Devil’s Garden’.

It is in this area, near the Algerian town of Tindouf, that the Polisario Front administers refugee camps for Saharawi people displaced by Morocco’s 1975 invasion of Spanish Sahara, later known as Western Sahara. Between around 100,000 and 160,000 people live in the six camps of the area, surviving on aid from Algeria, South Africa and the wider international community.

Under international law, Morocco’s invasion of Spanish Sahara was illegal and in 1991 Morocco agreed to an internationally monitored referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people. However, Morocco has since refused to allow the ballot, on the grounds that it would contain an option for independence.

There have been a number of attempts to find a settlement to the Western Sahara problem but, despite no progress, the 1991 ceasefire between Polisario and Morocco has held. That, however, may be about to change.

Morocco has put forward an ‘autonomy’ proposal for Western Sahara, in which the territory could be self-administering within the state of Morocco. However, there is little faith in that autonomy being genuine, and it does not include an alternative to autonomy.

The Polisario Front has, however, said it will accept the autonomy proposal if the Saharawi people are allowed to vote on it. They expect the proposal would be rejected, thereby further establishing grounds for the alternative of independence. Morocco’s rejection of a vote has led to a stalemate.

The difficulty now is that two generations have grown up either in the refugee camps or under often brutal Moroccan occupation. There is a strong and growing sense of frustration by younger Saharawis that they are trapped, while the resources of their homeland are being exploited by Morocco. For many, returning to war with Morocco is now the only option.

Polisario has also expressed frustration with Morocco and the failure of an internationally mediated settlement that allows a democratic vote. There is now explicit recognition that returning to war is possible.

The decision about whether Polisario will return to war will be made at its general conference in November. There is a growing sense that if Polisario does not escalate the situation, the Saharawis will remain doomed to being a people divided by occupation; half repressed, half exiled.

Should Polisario return to war, it will at least require the tacit agreement of their host country, Algeria. This will then escalate tensions between Algeria and Morocco which, despite recently more normalised relations, have a history of antagonism dating back to the ‘Sand War’ of 1963, over the territory around Tindouf.

There could also be spill-over into the conflict in neighboring Mali, where Islamist fighters from northern jihadi groups have descended. Such conflict could also involve Mauritania, which had initially also invaded southern Western Sahara.

There remains time for a resolution to this growing threat of a new Sahara war but, with Morocco appearing to harden its stance on not allowing a popular vote, this is looking increasingly remote. From the perspective of Polisario, if Morocco does not move soon, many Saharawi believe it will be left with little choice but to return to war.

With conflict across the Arab world, from Libya to Iraq to Yemen, war between Polisario and Morocco, perhaps involving Algeria and other regional states can only further destabilise an already deeply unstable part of the world. There is, then, a desire by many, both within the region and beyond it to avoid such an outcome.

But Moroccan intransigence in the face of international law appears to be making such an outcome increasingly inevitable. As one Saharawi leader recently said, it would now take only a small incident for the situation to descend into war.

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