Experts back Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara

Former US Congressman Michael Flanagan called on the administration of US President Joe Biden to continue US support for Morocco, a long-time US ally, in its efforts to resolve this regional dispute.
Friday 16/04/2021
A tribesman stand in front of a Moroccan flags near the border in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara. (AFP)
A tribesman stand in front of a Moroccan flags near the border in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara. (AFP)

NEW YORK--A high-level panel of experts urged on Tuesday the current US administration to support Morocco’s efforts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict by means of a political solution based on the autonomy plan, as the only solution to this regional dispute.

According to the Moroccan news agency MAP, the panel’s participants also “pleaded for the establishment of the US Consulate in Dakhla in order to facilitate contacts between local economic stakeholders and their US counterparts and promote investments as well as American aid dedicated to the development of the region, in accordance with the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Morocco.”

In December last year, the administration of former US President Donald Trump broke decades of precedent by recognising Morocco’s full sovereignty over contested Western Sahara, with Morocco in turn saying it would normalise relations with Israel.

The US Proclamation on the Western Sahara “inevitably gives an impetus” to resolve the regional dispute over the Sahara which has lasted too long, by bringing “all the parties concerned to face reality,” said Eric Jensen, former Head of Minurso and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for the Western Sahara.

“It is only in a spirit of realism and compromise”, and with the contribution of the US, that Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario will manage to peacefully resolve this conflict which continues to pose a threat to regional peace and security and a costly obstacle to regional cooperation and development in the Maghreb, Jensen added.

Organised by the US Republic-Underground centre, the panel was an occasion as well to call on Algeria to contribute effectively to the UN efforts aimed at reaching a political solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara.

Algeria, the experts said, should “assume its responsibility as a real party to the conflict,” MAP reported.

According to the panel participants, only such an approach can put an end to the suffering of the populations in the Tindouf camps, reduce security threats and enable integration and cooperation in the Maghreb region.

 Strategic ally 

The American recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara constitutes “an evolution” of American policy on the issue and an acknowledgment that the autonomy plan is the path to follow for the resolution of this conflict, said US lawyer and academic Elisabeth Myers.

She noted that Morocco represents a strategic ally for the US, noting that the current American administration “should continue to support diplomatic efforts on this issue, but also in the region and at the multilateral level.”

In November, tension between Morocco and the Polisario rose sharply after Rabat deployed the army to reopen the kingdom’s only highway into West Africa.

The Polisario, which has long demanded a referendum on an independent state, had blocked the highway arguing that it was built in violation of a 1991 truce deal.

The Polisario has since announced daily attacks against Morocco, which controls most of the former Spanish colony and has offered autonomy under its own administration.

During Tuesday’s panel, the experts underlined the need for an active action to support Morocco’s efforts to face threats to its national security and stability, as well as those facing the region.

Former US Congressman Michael Flanagan noted “the Moroccan autonomy proposal has been described many times as serious and credible by the United States.”

He called on the administration of US President Joe Biden to continue US support for Morocco, a longtime US ally, in its efforts to resolve this regional dispute.

Director of the Centre for Politico-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute Richard Weitz stressed the role of Morocco as a major ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism, particularly in North and West Africa, noting that security and military cooperation between Rabat and Washington remains “extremely important.”

He insisted that the Biden administration would benefit from strengthening and promoting security and military cooperation with Morocco, given the kingdom’s strategic role in this part of the continent.

The Polisario Front, in particular, was blamed by the panel’s experts for what was described as “destabilising and provocative actions,” with some participants underlining Algeria’s responsibility as a supporter and a host of the separatists group.

 Humanitarian ordeal 

The dispute over the Western Sahara dates to the time when the territory, rich in phosphates and fishing grounds, was a Spanish colony, resisted by the Polisario Front with Algerian backing but also claimed by Morocco.

When Spain quit in 1975, Moroccan troops marched in and the Polisario, with Algerian support, turned its guns on what it saw as a continuation of colonial rule by a different country.

Its limited guerrilla successes were curtailed in the 1980s when Morocco built a long sand wall in the desert enclosing about four fifths of the territory within its own control.

The two agreed a ceasefire in 1991 but, as the conflict froze and negotiations over a permanent settlement stalled, a large part of the population stayed in camps in Tindouf, in Algeria’s remote desert.

The humanitarian ordeal in the Tindouf camps, MAP reported, was particularly among the key topics addressed during the panel, with the participants calling for the return of the Tindouf refugees to Morocco, noting that the camps’ inhabitants are still being held against their will.

Tindouf, deep in the Sahara and farther from Algiers than Paris, is home to several camps housing more than 165,000 refugees. They live in windswept concrete or mud shelters with few jobs and little to hope for.

The critical situation in Tindouf and a number of conflicts across the African continent pose serious challenges to both Rabat and Washington. While Morocco has been striving to maintain its national stability by countering various security threats, the US has been hoping to strengthen its role across the African continent in a way that guarantees the protection and the defence of its interests.

Since gaining independence from France in 1956, Morocco has been committed to nurturing a special relationship with the US, based on both nations’ historical ties and on a succession of personal friendships between Mohammed V, Hassan II, and now Mohammed VI and their American presidential counterparts.

For decades, the two countries have enjoyed a broad military partnership.

Tuesday’s panel stressed the importance of the strengthening of Morocco-US-Africa triangular cooperation as an effective tool to counter competition from the great powers on the continent, while recommending that the American administration work with Morocco as a moderate and progressive voice in North and West Africa to face urgent regional crises, particularly in Libya and the Sahel.

In their statement, the panel’s participants recommended the increase of aid and American investments in the Western Sahara “so as to support the social and economic development of the local population.”

Vice-presidents of the two regions of the Western Sahara, Ghalla Bahiya and Mohamed Abba, hoped the US administration will maintain its support of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara, while reiterating their call for a political solution on the basis of the autonomy proposal.

The two vice presidents also called for a solution to the dire humanitarian situation in the Tindouf camps.