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Western Sahara Fight Threatens to Expand

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The decades-old dispute over Western Sahara is causing rivals Morocco and Algeria to edge closer to conflict. The disagreement reignited when a cease-fire collapsed in November 2020 between Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement known as the Polisario Front.

Polisario leader Brahim Ghali says they are at war. His group, backed by Algeria, has threatened to launch attacks against “air, land and sea targets” in Morocco.

“The Sahrawi people has made up its mind and taken the sovereign decision to escalate its just war of liberation with all legitimate means — first and foremost the armed struggle,” Ghali told Polisario leaders on November 19, 2021, according to the Sahrawi press agency.

Valued for its Atlantic coast fisheries and inland phosphate mines, Western Sahara has been bitterly contested since it was annexed in 1975. The Kingdom of Morocco controls roughly 80% of the territory and constructed a 2,700-kilometer security wall of sand, known as “the berm.”

The past year has seen persistent skirmishes. The United Nations has logged more than 1,000 incidents of Polisario weapons fired, according to Moroccan reports. In another sign of escalation, Ghali in November named a battle-tested veteran, Mohamed Wali Akeik, as the Sahrawi army’s new chief of staff.

When asked by The Economist magazine about attacking deeper in Moroccan-occupied territory, Akeik called it “much more than a possibility” and said “companies and consulates, airlines and other sectors” could be targets.

Morocco has accused Algeria, which shelters more than 170,000 Sahrawi refugees, of supplying Polisario with weapons, ammunition and training.

Algeria closed its border with Morocco in 1994 and cut diplomatic ties in August 2021, citing “hostile actions,” including allegations of spying and support for Algerian separatist movements.

So what is next? Observers believe it is in the interest of both countries to ratchet down tensions.

“No one benefits from starting a war because it will have dramatic consequences for the region, for the populations and for the regimes that have declared it,” said Pascal Boniface, director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in a webinar.

Morocco and Algeria are two of the largest and most well-funded militaries in Africa. Between 2010 and 2020, Algeria spent $90 billion on defense, and Morocco spent $35.6 billion.

“The two countries are rearming,” Emmanuel Dupuy, president of l’Institut Prospective & Sécurité en Europe, told TV5 Monde. “This is a recent phenomenon, but it is a phenomenon where they are responding to each other. It’s more or less a sort of strategic parity.”

Morocco has built close defense ties with Israel since its normalization of relations with the country in 2020. Israel, in addition to France and the United States, have supplied Morocco with military equipment. This has left Algeria looking for its own partnerships. In July, Algeria announced a $7 billion arms deal with Russia.

The Algeria-Morocco dispute also is drawing in regional countries. In November, Mauritania set up three surveillance radars along its northern border to monitor Polisario movements.

Boniface said that to avoid war, trusted outside mediators need to help. “At the moment, it’s not clear how they will walk this back or who will be the first to reach a hand out to the other side,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t see partners from Algeria on one side or Morocco on the other who will help them get out of the hole of hostility that they are stuck in.”

In late October, days after the United Nations appointed a new envoy for the conflict, Algeria ruled out returning to roundtable talks.

The U.N. Security Council on October 29 extended its peacekeeping Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another year, calling for the sides to “respect” the cease-fire and resume of negotiations with a goal of “self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

Kenya, the current president of the Security Council, expressed support for eventually organizing the referendum vote and said it is every formerly colonized nation’s right.

“We must be honest and admit that this goal is being obscured and frustrated,” the Kenyan mission said in a statement.

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