President Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region ends American neutrality in a conflict that threatens to destabilize a corner of North Africa critical to U.S. and European security interests.
Morocco’s decadeslong conflict with Western Sahara independence fighters had been dormant until last month. Fighting broke out again in November after nearly three decades in which a United Nations-brokered cease-fire helped maintain relations between Morocco and Algeria, the main backer of the independence movement. Both countries are important security partners of both the U.S. and Europe.
If the violence goes unchecked, observers warn it could damage security in the broader region, drawing in criminal networks smuggling weapons and contraband that could link it with conflicts in Libya, Mali and Niger.
“This is an issue that needs attention, needs resolution, and is moving from a simmer into a low boil. Trump has just turned up the fire,” said Hannah Rae Armstrong, an independent expert on the conflict.
Mr. Trump’s proclamation on Thursday backed Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in return for opening diplomatic relations with Israel, the fourth country to do so since August as a part of a White House effort to broker relations between the Jewish-led state and Middle Eastern neighbors.
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The deal is a strategic victory for both Israel and Morocco, which has sought to consolidate its control over Western Sahara since annexing the former Spanish colony in 1975. But it is a significant blow to the aspirations of the rebel Polisario Front, which has fought for the territory’s independence since the 1970s and operates a government in exile based in and supported by neighboring Algeria.
The Polisario condemned the U.S. decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty, but hasn’t said whether it would escalate its military campaign, which has included regular shelling of Moroccan positions along a 1,700-mile sand wall that Morocco built inside the disputed territory. Algeria hasn’t publicly responded.
On the ground in Western Sahara, activists said Mr. Trump’s declaration had motivated more people to enlist in the war effort against Morocco.
“I’m really saddened and speechless,” said one activist in Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara. “This is a sign of a long armed fight that both America and Morocco are trying to engage us in one way or another.”
The conflict in Western Sahara had been dormant for nearly three decades after the signing of a 1991 cease-fire agreement that called for a referendum to decide the territory’s fate. The referendum never took place due to disagreements with Morocco about the terms of the vote.
The cease-fire remained in place, however, and meant that Western Sahara remained a pocket of relative calm even as parts of the broader region plunged into crisis. Libya remains in conflict after its transition to democracy collapsed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Insurrection and ungoverned spaces in Mali, Niger, Nigeria and elsewhere has created openings for illicit migration to Europe and activity by al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates.
The relative calm ended last month. Morocco launched a military operation in a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone to clear protesters who were blocking a road joining the territory with neighboring Mauritania. In response, the Polisario Front withdrew from the 1991 cease-fire and declared war on Morocco.
The flare-up in fighting threw an unexpected wrench into the U.S.-brokered talks aimed at bringing Morocco toward recognizing Israel.
Trump administration officials reached out to Moroccan leaders and warned them that a spiral of deadly violence could derail the tentative talks, according to one U.S. official. The U.S. side emphasized the message again in further talks with Moroccan leaders over the past few weeks.
The White House team ultimately decided that the rewards of making the deal outweighed the risk that it could trigger a destabilizing new cycle of violence in North Africa.
But while the new deal to recognize Morocco’s control over Western Sahara provides Washington with some leverage over Morocco, regional analysts say the U.S. doesn’t have any sway over how the Polisario and its ally Algeria respond.
The Polisario commands a large conventional military force, built over the years with Algerian support, that includes artillery and tanks. It has also said it is mobilizing its people for a renewed war against Morocco.
Activists in Western Sahara are also concerned that Mr. Trump’s decision to back Morocco could intensify a Moroccan clampdown on people sympathetic to the independence movement. In November, Moroccan police surrounded the houses of several activists and arrested at least four people, according to activists in the territory and Amnesty International.
Mr. Trump’s declaration also puts the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden in a bind. Mr. Biden could face pressure from members of his own party and foreign allies to walk back U.S. recognition of Morocco’s control over Western Sahara.
But any reversal of Mr. Trump’s declaration would create friction with both Morocco and Israel, adding to a long list of foreign policy problems Mr. Biden must tackle, including worsening tensions with Iran and concerns over the long-term stability of both Iraq and Afghanistan after Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Morocco was slow to acknowledge the deal with Israel, only confirming it hours after it was announced by Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reflecting domestic pressure on King Mohammed VI to reject normalization with Israel.
The king’s office said Morocco had agreed to open diplomatic relations with Israel and would allow direct flights between the two countries for Moroccan Jews and Israeli tourists. The king also pledged to pursue economic cooperation with Israel, including opening liaison offices in both countries.
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