Way smoothed for genocide in Western Sahara

The following is extracted and edited from a letter to Charles Clarke, my Member of Parliament. Morocco is being extremely active in promoting its new plan for the the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which it partially occupies, and has had a number of “constructive” talks with European politicians in recent weeks. Morocco has been praised for its efforts by a number of individuals and bodies, including political representatives of the EU. It appears that the way is being smoothed for Morocco to implement its own, unilateral “solution” to the problem of Western Sahara.The Moroccan plan involves what Morocco calls “regional autonomy” for the territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco. This plan rejects any future negotiations with the Polisario Independence government regarding the region’s status, and excludes a referendum on independence, counter to the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, and the public position of the government of the United Kingdom, all of which claim to support the right of self-determination of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Morocco’s strategy appears to be to normalise its occupation of Western Sahara by appearing to give ground by granting autonomy, while in actual fact consolidating its control and neutralising the efforts of the international community to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

Western Sahara is in reality partitioned between a Moroccan-occupied zone (the majority of the territory) and what the Sahrawi refer to as the “Free Zone”. The latter consists of most of the regions bordering Algeria and Mauritania in the east, and is of significant size. It is in the Free Zone that I and my colleagues conduct our field research, so I can speak on this matter on the basis of first hand experience.

If the international community supports Morocco’s plan to incorporate Western Sahara into a greater Morocco, the status of the Free Zone will be a key issue. Most commentators and politicians seem to be under the impression that Morocco occupies the entire territory of Western Sahara, and that support for its position would simply involve accepting the existing annexation, meaning nothing much would change. I suspect that if the reality of the situation (and the geography of the region) was understood better, there would be more concern about the security implications of the Moroccan approach.

Accepting the Moroccan position that Western Sahara is a part of Morocco is likely to lead to one of the following outcomes, all of which have severe security implications:

1. Morocco consolidates its occupation of existing territory but does not attempt to occupy the Free Zone, which remains under Polisario control, essentially becoming a de facto Sahrawi state. An uneasy peace continues as Algeria exerts pressure on the Polisario to avoid conflict with Morocco, but continues to support them as part of its ongoing political conflict with Morocco.

2. Morocco consolidates its occupation but does not enter the Free Zone. However, under pressure from the exiled Sahrawi population the Polisario declares war against Morocco, once it is apparent that they have nothing to lose, the international community having washed its hands of the issue. The scale and consequences of the ensuing conflict depend largely on the position of Algeria.

3. Morocco immediately attempts to occupy the Free Zone to extend its control over the entire territory of Western Sahara and in order to remove a potential future threat from a Polisario-controlled Free Zone. The Polisario resist, and the conflict drags in Algeria, and possibly Mauritania. (The Moroccan wall which separates the occupied territories from the Free Zone has already annexed a small area of Mauritanian territory. This is not shown on any maps – perhaps to avoid embarrassment to Mauritania – but is apparent on the ground and visible on satellite imagery.)

4. With the help of the West, Morocco makes a deal with Algeria in which Algeria agrees to restrain the Polisario from restarting the conflict as Morocco completes its occupation. A best case outcome under this scenario would be the dispersal of the exiled Sahrawi population in Algeria, Mauritania and other countries (including the EU and countries such as the UK). A worst case outcome would be that the Sahrawi in the camps resist and are expelled or exterminated by the Algerian security forces. With nothing to lose, the Sahrawi, who have to date been vehemently against terrorism in support of their cause, might change this position. Eschewing terrorism has certainly not helped them regain their homeland.

None of these scenarios is particularly optimistic, ranging from a festering of the conflict for decades to come to the possibility of actual genocide, with the emergence of new recruits to terrorism a possibility.

We can be certain that in its desire for the Sahrawi to disappear and in its repeated denial of the existence of the Sahrawi people, the Moroccan state is on the road to genocide, at least of the cultural variety. Whether this translates into actual extermination remains to be seen and will depend on whether the physical conflict resumes.

While this is on the one hand a question of justice and human rights, it is also an issue of international security. No-one will benefit from renewed war in the Maghreb. The only options for ending this conflict are to allow Morocco effectively to exterminate the Sahrawi people and their culture (the likely consequence of “political realism” on the part of the West), or to exert pressure on Morocco to enter into real and meaningful negotiations on self determination aimed at restoring Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people. The latter has been the preferred approach (at least in principle) of the United Nations and the international community, but efforts to this end have failed because of the lack of pressure on Morocco from UN member states. Indeed, Morocco has used its considerable diplomatic weight to sabotage the peace process since it began in 1991. There is little to be gained by telling the Sahrawi and their political leaders in the Polisario that they should accept an illegal occupation of their land and return to live under the control of an oppressive occupying power which would not welcome them, and which routinely tortures and sometimes murders their kin who live in the occupied territories.

Political pressure from Western governments can make a real difference here, helping to deliver security to a region beset by conflict for decades, and justice to a people who have lived in exile for over thirty years, perhaps even saving them from a possible genocide.


5 Responses to Way smoothed for genocide in Western Sahara

  1. Ayoub7 says:

    Actually, with all due respect, I believe a 5th option has been omitted, an option that is actually the more likely due to the latest events:

    5- The Polisario front will continue bleeding and more of the sahrawis in Tindouf will escape to Morocco. Last week a “batch” of 238 of them presented themselves at the Mauritanian-Moroccan border coming from Tindouf adding to the 6000 or more sahrawis that defected from the camps before as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

    In addition, it is very unlikely that the Polisario gets the GO from Algeria for any military action. The reason is very simple, Algeria will never get the GO from Washington DC to start a war in a region that is already facing challenges from the latest Al Qaeda attacks in North Africa.

    The only plausible scenario you gave is that the polisario will move to Tifarity, but as you probably know, Tifariti is no Tindouf… Tifarity is a tiny dot in the map and has harsher conditions than tindouf and I doubt very much that 90.000 people will accept to “go camping” after they built all the infrastructure during 30 years in Tindouf… Of course a SADR flag can be placed in Tifarity but then again, once the moroccan autonomy is launched and the sahrawis in morocco are controlling their own affairs, the problem will have shifted from Rabat to the govenment in Laayoune, the Polisario will not be the only representative of the sahrawi and would have to deal with their cousins in Laayoune. I don’t see how that would be beneficial to the Polisario or Algeria diplomatically speaking.

    Now if the polisario moves in the buffer zone and settles in Tifarity hoping to launch attacks, he will face the Moroccan air power that won’t have to violate the algerian airspace to push back the guerilla attacks. Algeria can’t enter a war in Morocco in a buffer zone that is not part of algerian territory. That is another thing you omitted in your analysis.

    It just seems that all the cards played by Algeria are expiring, with not much success.

  2. nickbrooks says:

    Thanks for your comments. It’s always good to hear an alternative view put with restraint. The outcome you describe is essentially my scenario number 1 – the emergence of a rump SADR state in the Free Zone, with the conflict remaining on hold. Some Sahrawi may well decide to move back to the occupied territories under the Moroccan autonomy plan, and of course the Polisario are unlikely to support this course of action. However, it remains to be seen just how much real autonomy the Sahrawi in the occupied territories would have, given that they are outnumbered by about 2 to 1 by settlers from Morocco. I very much doubt that any “autonomous” governing body would represent the Sahrawi. Rather, it would be used as a means of legitimising decisions made in Rabat. This would certainly be the opinion of many (probably most) Sahrawi in the camps around Tindouf, and I doubt that they would flock back to live under what they would see as Moroccan rule, even if the Polisario gave everyone in the camps the green light to leave if they wanted. Conditions in the camps are bad – mostly due to food shortages (exacerbated by recent actions by the WPF as detailed in another post on this blog) and a lack of economic activity, but they are nowhere near as bad politically as portrayed by Moroccan propaganda – the Polisario does enjoy broad popular support among the exiled Sahrawi population, which numbers between 165,000 and 200,000 according to estimates by a number of independent bodies including the UN and international NGOs.

    From spending time in the region and talking to the exiled Sahrawi, I can say with confidence that there is an appetite for renewed conflict if a political solution involving the option of full independence (rather than “autonomy” on Rabat’s terms) does not materialise. I don’t know whether the political leadership would be able to resist the popular momentum for renewing the war – while the exiled Sahrawi are not yet as desperate and despairing as the Palestinians they are getting there.

    Sure, Algeria may be reluctant to support the Polisario in a new military conflict, and Washington would certainly exert pressure on Algiers to prevent this. But this might not be sufficient to prevent a popular movement among the Sahrawi demanding a “war of liberation”. What happens if the Sahrawi people in exile refuse to exercise restraint and go against the wishes of the Algerians? The Polisario will be stuck in the middle, and popular unrest in the camps is a possibility. Are we then moving towards my scenario 4? We should also remember that the Algerian authorities have been good at playing successive US administrations to their (the Algerians’) political advantage, so we can’t just assume that they will do what Washington instructs them to do. Understanding of what is actually going on in the region is minimal in Washington, and it is easy for governments in the Maghreb to pull the wool over the eyes of US politicians.

    As for your suggestion that the Polisario might move to Tifariti, I’m sceptical as to whether Morocco would tolerate an independent SADR in the Free Zone in any form, even if this wasn’t used as a platform for attacks on Moroccan forces. But you may have a better idea about this than I do.

    A comment about Tifariti – the environment there is actually much more hospitable than that around Tindouf, but probably not to the extent that it can support even half the current population of the camps in Algeria. These are maintained not as a result of the environment around Tindouf being less harsh than that around Tifariti, but by direct aid from the international community, and support from the Algerians.


  3. nickbrooks says:

    I neglected to answer you last point about the Algerians being unable to support the Polisario in what you call the buffer zone and what the Sahrawi refer to as the Free Zone. As we all know, this would not involve the Algerians entering Moroccan territory, but rather entering a disputed territory that Morocco and the Polisario/SADR both claim (a situation which applies to all the territory of Western Sahara). Now it might be the case that one of the aims of Morocco’s autonomy plan is to secure support for its claim to all of Western Sahara so that it can attack the Polisario forces in the Free Zone without attracting international criticism. If it did so then its actions would not universally be seen as those of a government exercising military force within its own territory – I think this would be a big gamble on the part of the Moroccan government.

    To say that “Algeria can’t enter a war in Morocco in a buffer zone that is not part of algerian territory” is somewhat mischievous when the buffer zone is not part of Morocco, and when Morocco has done precisely what you say is impossible for Algeria – enter a war in an area that is not part of its territory, with the intention of grabbing land in an imperial expansion! Perhaps Algeria could do precisely this, and occupy the Free Zone on behalf of the Sahrawi, securing it for their state-in-waiting. It could not be accused of aggression against Morocco, as their are no Moroccan forces in the Free Zone, which is controlled by the Polisario. Morocco always refers to the Free Zone as its “buffer zone” in an attempt to portray itself as the sovereign authority over all of Western Sahara, but it has not authority or power in the Free Zone. I and many other foreigners regularly travel to the Free Zone, and move freely within it, without needing to deal with the Moroccan authorities. The truth is that Morocco was either unable or unwilling to annex all of Western Sahara, preferring to retreat behind a wall built to follow the natural topography of the region and provide a defensive structure to keep Polisario guerrillas out of the occupied territories. Whatever the Algerians do, any “solution” that does not engage the Polisario is likely to lead to renewed guerrilla activity on the part of the Polisario at the very least. Any attempt to retake the Free Zone will act to renew conflict in the region, one way or another, even if this takes the form of a low-level insurgency rather than all-out war.

  4. […] to Morocco on their new “solution” to the Western Sahara, chronicled here (cheers to the blog […]

  5. alle says:

    Great blog, just found it. It went right up on my sidebar.

    From spending time in the region and talking to the exiled Sahrawi, I can say with confidence that there is an appetite for renewed conflict if a political solution involving the option of full independence (rather than “autonomy” on Rabat’s terms) does not materialise. I don’t know whether the political leadership would be able to resist the popular momentum for renewing the war – while the exiled Sahrawi are not yet as desperate and despairing as the Palestinians they are getting there.

    I’ve hung around exile Sahrawis too, and visited the camps on a couple of occasions, and I’ve got the same impression. There’s a general demoralisation after Baker didn’t follow through, but the first instinct of most seem to be to grab for the gun. Lot’s of people have told me some variant of how “we were making progress right up until 1991, and after that everything got stuck”.

    It seems pretty certain Algeria won’t allow a war – they in fact already stopped one in 2001, when Polisario was readying to attack. But Sahrawi nationalism can’t be remote controlled from Algiers any more than it can from Rabat, and with the unrest in the occupied territories feeding into Intifada-style narratives, I feel there’s a huge risk for the disaffected Polisario fringe turning to unsanctioned attacks (both in the territories and among diaspora youth). Not necessarily terrorism, but it will certainly be portrayed as such by Morocco… and that could then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not good for anyone. But then neither is the status quo.

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