Статья 'Западная Сахара: глубокие разногласия по поводу урегулирования ' - журнал 'Мировая политика' - NotaBene.ru
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World Politics

Western Sahara: deep differences over conflict settlement

Cottier Rodolphe Seabstien Pierre

PhD in Sociology

Master's Degree, Department of International Relations, Peoples' Friendship University of Russia

117198, Russia, Moskva oblast', g. Moscow, ul. Miklukho-Maklaya, 17

Maiuet Maruan

PhD in Politics

Master's Degree, Department of International Relations, Peoples' Friendship University of Russia

117198, Russia, Moskva oblast', g. Moscow, ul. Ul. miklukho-Maklaya, D 17, Kor 1








Abstract: The conflict in Western Sahara has been going on for thirty-five years, and neither side has won. The parties to the conflict are in an all-or-nothing logic regarding the outcome of this conflict: Morocco preaches the autonomy of the Sahara as the part of the kingdom, and the Algerians and Saharans from the Frente Polisario waives the demands for autonomy. However, in the absence of a clear victory of one of the participants, the political solution need necessarily include a compromise reflecting the balance of power. In an effort to pacify and develop a region that could become a haven for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Washington, Paris and Madrid could support the new Representative of the Secretary-General in finding a solution that could satisfy all parties, giving this result aspects of compromise. Nevertheless, they will have to take into account both the Saharans as a whole and the geostrategic balance of the region. This article discusses the problems of decolonization and interethnic conflicts. This conflict concentrates the opposition of several geopolitical blocs in one place. On the one hand, he opposes two regional powers: Morocco and Algeria. On the other hand, it opposes two blocs consisting of Morocco and Western countries, against Algeria, a traditional ally of Russia, and large African countries such as Nigeria. This article highlights the inadequacy of international organizations. The issue of stabilizing the situation in Western Sahara is even more important today in the context of Islamic terrorism in the Sahel. Terrorism is spreading in economically and politically unstable countries. The question of the independence of Western Sahara or its integration as an autonomous territory within Morocco must be resolved before terrorism intervenes in Sahari affairs.


Al-Qaeda, Islamic Maghreb, Algeria, Polisario Front, Morocco, Western Sahara, UN, North Africa, independence, decolonization

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.




 After 30 years of inactivity, a cease-fire has been terminated in Western Sahara. After the colonization of this territory by Spain in 1975, a conflict began between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a movement for the independence of the Sahara, supported by Algeria. A tragic situation, as evidenced by the inability of the United Nations to complete the peace process, on which the fate of tens of thousands of refugees depends.

In 1975, Spain withdrew troops from Western Sahara, which it had colonized, but two parties claimed sovereignty over this territory: Morocco and the Sagi El Hamra Liberation Front and Rio de Oro or Polisario, the movement for the independence of the Sahara, supported by Algeria. The Sherif Kingdom claims historical rights to its "southern provinces", which arose as a result of the loyalty of some Saharan tribes to the Sultan before colonization. The Frente Polisario calls for the right of peoples to self-determination.

Backed by Algeria, the Frente Polisario is at war with Mauritania, which secured the cession of part of the territory before relinquishing it in 1979, and with Morocco, which took the initiative by launching a "Green March" in November 1975 with approximately 350,000 Moroccan civilians of all ages crossing the border.

In 1991, a ceasefire agreement was signed, and the peace plan provided for a referendum on self-determination in accordance with UN resolution 690. Tens of thousands of people are sheltering across the border with Algeria in camps in Tindouf, which exist at the expense of international humanitarian aid.

Today, Western Sahara is a divided territory, with a 2,700-kilometer defensive wall built by Rabat in the 1980s, 80% of which is controlled by Morocco from the Atlantic side, and part is controlled by Saharan independence fighters with a buffer zone under the supervision of Minurso, a UN peacekeeping operation that was supposed to organize a referendum on self-determination in 1992, a mission that was never completed.


A conflict without winners and without losers


The conflict in Western Sahara is characterized both by its duration (40 years) and the difficulty of determining its exact nature. When it broke out in the mid-1970s, it was a decolonization conflict: a group of Saharans who founded the Frente Polisario and Morocco clashed over claims to the former Spanish Sahara. Given the disparity of forces between the two sides, Morocco could only win quickly. Hassan II, who initially chose the strategy of a closed dossier, was far from thinking that this conflict, which would involve a dispute between his country and Algeria, would be long and expensive.

The cost is primarily political, since Morocco has made this issue a "national matter" and put it at the center of the country's political problems. Over the years, and while the country is having great difficulty closing this case, the Sahara has become a real obsession of the government. The poet Abdellatif Laabi was not mistaken when he considered his country a "sick Sahara".

Algeria's involvement in this conflict is dictated by political and strategic considerations: Algerians who do not want to return to the issue of their borders inherited from the colonial period know that maintaining a minimum level of tension seems necessary to allow them to limit the ambitions of their Moroccan neighbor. It is also about weakening Morocco in order to prevent it from becoming a competing Power at the regional level. But these factors are never recognized, Algeria puts forward ideological explanations: loyalty to its revolutionary principles. Officially, successive Algerian Governments continued to pursue a policy of solidarity with the struggle against colonialism in memory of their own war for decolonization and in the name of the principle enshrined by the Organization of African Unity (OAU): the right of peoples to self-determination. In fact, this issue is gradually becoming an internal political problem, which makes it untouchable[1].

The rivalry between Algeria and Rabat and its interaction with the conflict contributed to the paralysis, especially since both powers of these large Maghreb states imagine their success in the Sahara issue only through the complete defeat of the enemy. However, after four decades of armed conflict and fruitless negotiations conducted under the auspices of the UN, the Saharan conflict is developing without being sanctified by the victory of either side[2].


Preserving the Logic of War


In September 1991, a UN mission was established "with the aim of organizing a referendum in Western Sahara", Minurso, to monitor the ceasefire and organize a referendum in January 1992. Due to the lack of agreement between the parties on the composition of the electoral body, the referendum was regularly postponed. The peace process is still incomplete. To give it the necessary impetus, in 1997, former US Secretary of State James Baker was appointed Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General in the Sahara. Three times, in 2001, 2002 and 2003, he proposed plans to overcome the crisis, which were rejected. These failures show that the main characters do not want to find a solution to the crisis in Baker's positions. Each of them stuck to their positions and remained in a pose of complete victory over their opponents. The logic of war is still present [3].

Morocco, which awkwardly linked its political regime with the ability to "reclaim the southern provinces," feared the results of a referendum that would not consecrate its major victory. Shortly before his death, Hassan II made a choice in favor of autonomy. His advisers presented the results of a survey conducted among the Saharan population, which showed the importance of the sanctions vote for Morocco. Morocco, which has always pondered between self-determination and autonomy, officially proposed to grant autonomy to the Sahara as part of the Kingdom of Morocco[4].

On the other hand, the Frente Polisario and Algeria have been consistent in their choice of self-determination as a means of resolving this conflict. The first insists that the Sahara remains a territory under the colonial yoke, and the second officially supports the Saharan people in their quest to free themselves in the name of the right of peoples to self-determination. On the other hand, in Algeria, the parties fighting for power are watching each other to condemn the slightest change of position.

In both countries, the Sahara is no longer a political and strategic object, but a symbol divorced from reality. These rigid positions, which are the main obstacle to the settlement of the issue, have serious drawbacks. On the one hand, they make negotiations impossible, which means that the UN mission is unattainable. On the other hand, obsessed with victory, the main characters no longer take into account the changes that have occurred in the Sahara, as well as the new regional situation [5].

In their obsession with victory, Rabat and Algeria forget that it is primarily about the fate of men and women from the Sahara. They rely on the support of States and international institutions that they consider influential in resolving this conflict. Algeria used its oil revenues and diplomatic influence to force States to recognize the Arab Socialist Democratic Republic (SADR). Defending the referendum, Algeria enjoys the support of major African countries such as South Africa and Nigeria.

As for Morocco, it relied on the United States, France and Spain, and also counted on the member states of the UN Security Council. Such consideration of the allied countries makes it impossible for the parties to negotiate and takes them away from the very subject of the conflict. How can one imagine that Morocco can negotiate the exploitation of the resources of the Sahara or the political representation of this region when it enjoys the support of influential States? Not to mention the fact that it is difficult for her to negotiate the sovereignty of the territory that she considers her own and has been governing it for several decades.

As for the Frente Polisario, he regularly threatens to take up arms, knowing full well that he is unable to do so. The military decision was made by Algeria, which does not want to return to the armed conflict and is content with a low-intensity conflict in the sense of persecution in international bodies and refusal to officially cease hostilities, even if nothing happens.

All these political attitudes significantly distance us from reality and create a real gap between the reality on the ground and the solutions proposed by the actors to end this conflict. As in other political matters, the ruling classes of Morocco, Algeria and the Frente Polisario keep pace with the societies they govern. The solutions promoted have remained unchanged for several decades, while the Saharans, like other Maghreb societies, have changed significantly, and the regional environment has completely changed.


The needs of the younger generation


Since 2005, the Sakharov residents began to make claims in a different way. The younger generations were influenced by the changes that took place in Morocco in the late 1990s, when the political system was opened. Many Saharans do not recognize themselves in the Moroccan Government and do not unite with the Polisario Front. Their demands are undoubtedly of a civil nature. To do this, they rely on a new registry compared to previous generations, referring to human rights, individual and political freedoms and international legality. Their protests are social and economic in nature, even if political issues remain latent. Long before 2011, they were already demonstrating, demanding jobs, access to housing and expressing a sense of injustice regarding the redistribution of the wealth of the Sahara. Although their demands were put forward a long time ago, back in the mid-2000s, they were also warmed up by the "Arab Spring". The imitation effect affected both the population of the Sahara, ruled by Morocco, and the Saharans of Tindouf in Algeria. In March 2011, in Tindouf, the Young Revolutionaries collective called for reforms and changes in the State administration (SADR) and the judicial system, to put an end to corruption, to reform the electoral code and to expand the participation of young people in political life. This demonstration was supported by the Khat al-Shaheed movement, consisting of dissidents of the Frente Polisario living in Spain.

This example of disobedience could be multiplied on both sides. This indicates that the mechanisms and institutions created to represent the interests of the Saharans are insufficient and ineffective. This concerns the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (Corcas), established by Mohammed VI in 2005[6]. Morocco's political proposal, like that of the Frente Polisario, no longer meets the demands of the Saharans.

The Sahara is neither an island nor an oasis cut off from the rest of the Arab world. As elsewhere, we are witnessing a new concept of politics, which reinforces the appearance of a citizen who, in certain cases, can protest and wants to participate in the life of the city. It is these changes that challenge the international community, which can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening in this territory. The annual reports of the UN Secretary-General, as well as the language used by UN officials, should be read in the light of these changes.


The role of the UN in resolving the conflict


Since the UN took up the Sahara issue, observers have noted numerous obstacles to the freedom of action of the Minurso. However, they were rarely condemned by UN officials. However, the tone has changed since 2011. In his 2012 report, the UN Secretary-General has already directly criticized Morocco's obstruction of the normal functioning of Minurso. The report criticizes Rabat for "diluting the legitimacy of the conflict by acting in the Sahara as if it were Moroccan territory" (organizing Moroccan elections, the obligation to force Minurso vehicles to have Moroccan diplomatic license plates, placing the flag at the Mission headquarters). The 2012 annual report also mentions the impact of the regional and international situation, as well as internal events that will force the parties to take into account the "people of Western Sahara". In March 2016, during a visit to the refugee camps in Tindouf, Ban Ki-moon directly called Morocco's control over Western Sahara an "occupation" - a territory on which the UN has not yet made a decision. In response, Morocco expelled 75 members of Minurso a few days later, i.e. two-thirds of the administrative and logistical team, and radicalized its discourse[7].

The freedom of tone of the UN Secretary General is explained by two main reasons. On the one hand, after 2011 it is difficult to turn a blind eye to the real situation on the ground and ignore the demands of the Saharans. On the other hand, Ban Ki-moon is at the end of his mandate, he probably feels freer to express the discontent already mentioned in his annual reports, which he has now decided to make public. The changes that took place in 2011 should be taken into account: new forms of protest are no longer the same, and civil societies now have the right to vote in political decision-making, including on regional issues.


The need to end the Saharan conflict


The security situation is also very important, since Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State operate in the Maghreb, in a region where borders are permeable and where arms trafficking from Libya is widespread. Observers have repeatedly noted cases of "jihadization" among Sahrawi youth in Tindouf[8].

Despite these numerous imperatives, as things stand, the conflict has no chance of resolution:

·         On the Moroccan side, the peace plan developed in 2007 is not viable. In fact, this corresponds to the preservation of the current situation, which could be called autonomy. The other side, with which no consultations have been held, cannot accept it, nor can the Saharans. The Moroccan regionalization plan, which could include real autonomy, has not yet been adopted. Moreover, executive power today is divided between competing poles of power among the king's advisers. Each pole is trying to grasp this acute issue, but not in order to close the case, but in order to get closer to the monarch.

· As for Algeria, the maintenance of this low-intensity conflict suits him quite well. The security services have not yet got rid of the nagging resentment against the Moroccan authorities for their behavior during the civil war. In addition, the military wants to keep this conflict as a buffer to avoid the resumption of the border issue. By maintaining the status quo and opposing the opening of the border between the two countries, the Algerian executive is doubly punishing the Moroccans.

· Sakharovites really lose a lot in this situation, but they are not heard. It is still unclear whether the death on May 31 of Mohamed Abdelaziz, the leader of the Polisario for forty years, will finally open a political space for negotiations.




As in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, direct negotiations between the parties should be postponed, since they have already shown their limitations. Foreign powers (the United States, Spain and France), as well as countries in the region, such as Tunisia, should address this issue in order to support the UN in a serious search for a way out of the crisis. Taking into account the needs for peace in the region and the wishes of the concerned population, they could persuade the actors to compromise, able to satisfy the parties, none of which feels defeated and forced to capitulate. But this role of facilitator requires complete neutrality on the part of these subjects. It is obvious that neither international law, nor references to history, nor even a return to arms will solve this conflict, but rather a scheme based on compromise, which cannot be conceived without uniting the population, primarily interested.

And finally, to combat Islamist terrorism, which is raging on a transnational scale in the Maghreb and the Sahel, the countries of the region will be able to coordinate their actions and intelligence only if the Sahara issue is closed. It would also make it possible to avoid giving experienced Sakharov fighters who know the terrain well the opportunity to join the ranks of jihadists. The settlement of this issue will also give France and Spain more room for maneuver in the fight against terrorism. Today, the cooperation of these countries with Algeria in the fight against terrorism has turned the Saharan conflict into a real burden. 





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The subject of the research in the reviewed work was the problems of the protracted (from 1975 to the present) armed conflict for the independence of Western Sahara between the Polisario Front, on the one hand, and Morocco and Mauritania, on the other. Given the fact that the conflict in Western Sahara, which has been frozen since 1991, has intensified again since October 2020, the research topic chosen by the author of the article seems to be quite relevant not only theoretically, but also quite politically and practically. Unfortunately, the author did not bother to reflect on the methodology of his research. It is clear from the context that institutional (in the analysis of specific institutions that determine the specifics of the conflict) and historical (in the analysis of the history of the conflict, as well as institutions and practices of its settlement) methods were mainly used. The correct application of this methodology allowed the author of the article to obtain results with signs of scientific novelty. First of all, it is interesting to conclude that, given the current state of affairs, the conflict cannot be resolved. Therefore, the author recommends postponing direct negotiations between the parties and involving foreign powers (the United States, Spain, France and Tunisia) in solving the problem, which will be able to support the UN's efforts to overcome the crisis. The author's conclusion about the existence of a link between solving the problem of Western Sahara and the fight against Islamist terrorism is also of interest. The structure of the work is quite logical. The following sections are highlighted in the text: "Introduction", "Conflict without winners and losers", "Preserving the logic of war", "Needs of the younger generation", "The role of the United Nations in resolving the conflict", "The need to end the Sahara conflict", "Conclusions". The introduction localizes (geographically and chronologically) the problem under study, but there is no theoretical and methodological reflection, as well as setting the goals and objectives of the study. The first section describes the first unsatisfactory results of conflict resolution, and the second section describes the reasons why the logic of war is still being reproduced within the framework of this conflict. The following two sections analyze the factors that have a significant impact on the conflict: the generational shift and the role of the UN. The penultimate section substantiates the conclusion that in the current configuration, the conflict has no chance of resolution. The last section summarizes the results of the study. Now, as for the formal characteristics of the reviewed work. There are some stylistic errors in the text (for example, the ambiguous expression "needs for peace in the region" or "freedom of tone of the UN Secretary-General"), and grammatical errors (for example, the tautological "move us away from reality and create a real gap between reality on the ground and solutions..."), but in general it is written quite competently, in good scientific language and with correct (with some minor exceptions) scientific terminology. Nevertheless, the author should work on the text before publication in terms of improving the style and eliminating a few grammatical errors. There are sentences in the text that are quite difficult to understand. For example: "It is obvious that neither international law, nor references to history, nor even a return to arms will solve this conflict, but rather a scheme based on compromise, which cannot be conceived without uniting the population, primarily interested." It is better to break down such sentences into several shorter ones, but more clearly formulated. The bibliography of the article has 20 titles and sufficiently represents the state of research on the analyzed problem. Although the use of sources in foreign languages would significantly enhance the reliability of the results obtained by the author. The appeal to opponents takes place when analyzing the strategies of negotiations on the settlement of the conflict. THE GENERAL CONCLUSION. The article submitted for review can be qualified as a study that has all the necessary attributes of scientific work: the problem studied is relevant, the methodology is applied correctly, the results obtained are non-trivial and will be of interest to political scientists, sociologists, conflictologists and international specialists. The article corresponds to the topic of the journal "World Politics" and is recommended for publication after the elimination of the comments made.
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