Western Sahara becomes intl hotspot as Israel, Morocco normalize ties
Lan Shunzheng


Editor's note: Lan Shunzheng is a research fellow at Charhar Institute and a member of the Chinese Institute of Command and Control. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Israel and Morocco have reached an agreement to normalize relations between the two countries. It is the fourth Arab country to normalize relations with Israel in the past four months, after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. As part of the deal, the Trump administration agreed to recognize Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara. What is clear is that the American approach will make the question of Western Sahara an international hotspot once again.

The Western Sahara has long been a disputed territory in northwest Africa. In 1884 Spain established a colonial rule of the region. Morocco and Mauritania, neighbors of the Western Sahara at the time, both had territorial claims, citing "historical grounds."

In May 1973, the Polisario Front, an independent organization mainly composed of Sahrawi people, was established. It advocated the realization of national liberation by expulsion of Spanish colonialists through armed struggle. Spain announced its withdrawal from Western Sahara in 1976, ending its colonial rule.

Morocco and Mauritania then signed an agreement on the partition of Western Sahara. The two armies then moved into Western Sahara for a "subdivision occupation."

Subsequently, with the support of Algeria, Polisario Front declared the establishment of the "Saharan Arab Democratic Republic," and the Western Sahara war broke out.

In 1978, Mauritania withdrew from the war and gave up its territorial claims because of the hostilities. The territory was occupied by the Moroccan army, and the Western Sahara war turned into a protracted armed conflict between Morocco and Polisario Front. The 16-year conflict ended in 1991 when the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement. A UN mission was tasked with monitoring the ceasefire and organizing a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.

However, the situation in Western Sahara remained unstable, because divisions between the two parties have stalled plans for a referendum. Conflict has continued despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint press conference in the White House in Washington D.C., the U.S., January 28, 2020. /Xinhua

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint press conference in the White House in Washington D.C., the U.S., January 28, 2020. /Xinhua

As he counts down the days to his political life, Trump is in a hurry to leave a substantial legacy, with Arab-Israeli relations at the center of it all. In an effort to normalize relations between Israel and Morocco before stepping down, Trump has acknowledged Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara despite the complexities, which could further complicate the situation in the region.

The intervention of non-regional powers is one of the important reasons why the question of Western Sahara has dragged on. Although since 1975, the UN General Assembly has reiterated that the Western Sahara people have the inalienable right to self-determination and independence, some Western countries tend to favor Morocco over the issue of Western Sahara for reasons of geopolitical interests, which greatly reduces the authority of the UN. Morocco, with the support of these countries, has continued to strengthen its control over the region and to expand its plan of "autonomy" in spite of the provisions of Security Council Resolution 380, which calls for its withdrawal from Western Sahara.

It is not hard to imagine that, with America's explicit backing, Morocco will be even more secure in the future over Western Sahara. If Morocco takes any further action, Polisario Front is bound to react strongly.

At the same time, Polisario Front is not alone. Dozens of countries including Libya, Mauritania, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique have recognized "Saharan Arab Democratic Republic" as an independent state; Algeria has also been a major force in pushing for a settlement of the Western Sahara issue under the UN framework and has been one of the "strategic equalizers" against the "long-standing support for Morocco" consensus between France and the U.S. on the Sahara issue. The possibility of a war between Morocco and Polisario Front or even Algeria would therefore be greatly increased.

In addition, since 1975, the conflict had led to the flight of thousands of people from the disputed territories who were living in extremely harsh conditions and had created a serious humanitarian crisis. The special geographical position and chaos of Western Sahara have provided a hotbed for the growth of regional terrorism and the infiltration of international terrorism.

At the same time, the large number of mines and other explosives left over from the war in the region not only endangered the lives of the local population, but also became a source and means for terrorists to obtain weapons in the region. All this could make the situation in the region even worse in the future, should fighting resume.

In this regard, after Israel and Morocco reached an agreement, the UN Secretary General Guterres said urgently that the UN position on Western Sahara has not changed; the settlement of the question of Western Sahara must be based on a Security Council resolution, and both sides should avoid any escalation of the situation.

To sum up, due to Trump's eagerness for quick success and quick benefits, the situation over Western Sahara may deteriorate again in the future, and all parties should pay attention to it.

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