Ukraine War Puts New Focus on Conflict in Western Sahara
Amid new tensions, can diplomacy unstick a long-stalled peace process with Morocco and Algeria?
After years of stagnation in the conflict over the Western Sahara, the Russian war on Ukraine and other recent events could create openings to advance long-stalled Western Sahara peace efforts. Unprecedented parallel visits by America’s top two diplomats to Morocco and Algeria last month suggest that the U.S. is exploring this new opening. The United States should firmly grasp any new chance to end this often-forgotten conflict, which helps breed conditions for extremism and transnational crime, prevents much needed economic growth, and which risks worsened instability from the Mediterranean to Africa’s Sahel region.
One change is clear. After decades in which Morocco has held the bulk of the Western Sahara — and after winning recognition from the Trump administration of its claim to ownership of the territory in 2020 — the tightening of global oil and gas supplies due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has given new leverage to Morocco’s rival, Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front in its battle for the Western Sahara’s independence. Algeria in November cut gas supplies to a pipeline through Morocco that delivers gas to Spain and Portugal. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman both held talks in Morocco and Algeria that focused at least in part on the Western Sahara. USIP’s Thomas Hill explains why these changes are important to U.S. interests and stability in the Maghreb and Sahel regions.
The Western Sahara conflict has festered for decades, typically getting little public attention — and that includes these recent events. Realistically, how do they affect U.S. or broad international interests?
Indeed, this conflict goes back to 1975, when Spain withdrew from what had been its colony of Spanish Sahara. Morocco claimed the territory, leading to fighting with the Polisario Front, which seeks an independent nation for the indigenous Sahrawi people. Moroccan troops occupy the bulk of the region, and the kingdom has assiduously worked to establish Moroccan communities and develop lucrative phosphate mining and fishing industries.
In 1991, Morocco agreed to a cease-fire and a U.N. plan for a referendum over the territory’s political future. After years of dispute over who should be allowed to vote in the referendum, Morocco proposed in 2007 to offer Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This proposal has recently begun to gain traction internationally, with the Trump administration recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty in 2020 and Spain endorsing Morocco’s autonomy plan last month.
At the same time, tensions between Algeria and Morocco neared a boiling point in November 2021. Their decades-old rivalry — in part over the Western Sahara — has occasionally threatened to trigger violence. Algeria provides support for the Polisario Front and hosts an estimated 174,000 Sahrawi refugees near its city of Tindouf. The most recent escalation in tensions between Morocco and Algeria led to closure of their border, closure of airspace, the recalling of ambassadors, and a halt to Algerian energy exports to Morocco. The recent policy shift by Madrid will certainly increase Algerian-Spanish tensions and may ignite further rounds of escalatory behavior by all parties.
And yes, this is critical to wider American interests in Africa. The Western Sahara conflict impedes economic integration between Algeria and Morocco, which — as The World Bank and others have urged — is vital for economic growth across the Maghreb; the least economically integrated region on earth. Morocco and Algeria, with a combined 80 million people, represent 80 percent of the total Maghreb population and more than the entire Sahel from Mauritania through Niger. These economies are crucial for addressing the unmet needs of the region’s burgeoning youth population, but they have been throttled by conflicts, lack of investment, the COVID pandemic, and now by rising energy and food prices. All this fuels transnational threats: violent extremist organizations such as ISIS, human smugglers and weapons traffickers.
Russia’s behavior — not only its war in Ukraine, but the destabilizing role of the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic — makes clear the risks of America taking a back seat in resolving the Western Sahara conflict. Russia has tried to play a role in Western Sahara in the past, and the Polisario Front’s increased overtures for Russian support in recent years could provide Moscow with an opportunity if the United States fails to take a stronger role facilitating an end to the conflict.
Even if the U.S. should get involved, how can it do so? And what are the prospects for peace?
The peace process for Western Sahara has not made significant progress since the 1991 ceasefire. It took nearly two years to appoint a U.N. envoy on the conflict after Germany’s Horst Köhler resigned in 2019. The appointment of Staffan de Mistura should provide some new momentum. He met officials in Washington last month, helping to focus policymakers on the Western Sahara.
While the Biden administration has shown no enthusiasm for walking back President Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty claims over Western Sahara, Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly signaled a more nuanced approach. After he met Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, the State Department called Morocco’s autonomy plan “one potential approach to satisfy the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara” (emphasis added). The remark implies that the United States could support other options, perhaps including the proposed U.N.-sponsored referendum. The department’s reference to “the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara” could be interpreted as U.S. support for self-determination. The nuanced – perhaps ambiguous – U.S. position may provide some leverage with Morocco. U.S. negotiators could threaten to walk back the Trump declaration to push the Moroccans back to the negotiation table.
Another change is U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe’s announced plan to retire in January 2023. Inhofe, a steadfast supporter of the Sahrawis’ push for independence, has visited their refugee camps in Algeria several times. He backed efforts to achieve a U.N. referendum and a negotiated solution and last year led a bipartisan congressional effort urging President Biden to walk back U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. It is unclear how Senator Inhofe's retirement will impact congressional sentiment on the conflict.
Finally, informal diplomacy in the form of “track-two” dialogues between unofficial groups in the conflict has potential to break stalemates in formal negotiations. Participants in these talks frequently include intellectuals, civil society leaders, community and religious representatives, and business leaders. Informal dialogues like these can increase the chance of durable peace by broadening support for the peace process.
Why did Secretary Blinken and Deputy Secretary Sherman both recently hold talks in Morocco and Algeria?
This was surprising; I can’t remember the last time Morocco and Algeria received such high-level diplomatic attention. While the content of these discussions is still unknown, we know from press statements that they included Western Sahara and the Abraham Accords, the umbrella under which Morocco recognized Israel as the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara. Many observers see those two recognitions as a quid-pro-quo arrangement, something vehemently denied by the Moroccan government.
U.S. recognition of Moroccan claims over Western Sahara has strained relations between Washington and Algiers, and Blinken and Sherman may have hoped to ease that strain. But why seek to improve relations with Algeria now? I suspect it’s related to two interlinked issues: energy and Ukraine.
Algeria has provided Spain, and Portugal, with more than 50 percent of the natural gas they consume — most of it through a pipeline that runs through Morocco. Algeria closed this pipeline in November amid its tensions with Morocco. As energy prices in Europe have risen because of the Russia-Ukraine war, access to Algerian energy is critical, especially as a substitute for those European countries dependent on Russia. It’s possible that Blinken and Sherman were hoping to persuade Algeria to reopen the pipeline to Europe and encourage more energy exports to other U.S. allies like Italy. Algeria’s state-owned energy company, Sonatrach, announced this week it will increase gas supplies to Italy.
If increasing energy exports to Europe from Algeria was the primary U.S. request, what did the United States offer Algeria — and what might Algeria have asked for? It’s conceivable that Algeria would have asked the Biden administration to walk back the U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara — a step that would create significant U.S.-Moroccan tensions.
In any event, no agreements on these matters were announced. Visits by America’s top two diplomats to both Morocco and Algeria are so rare, it’s not credible that these were routine diplomatic check-ins. Something important was discussed. We’ll have to await more information to know what that “something” was, and whether there will be further overtures in the near future.