In major boost to Morocco’s position, Western powers join US in ‘African Lion’ exercise in Western Sahara

For the first time in years, Spain will not participate this year in the “African Lion” exercise.
Tuesday 01/06/2021
A file picture shows US Marines with Joint Task Force African Lion preparing to board a C-130 aircraft at the Inezgane Airfield, in Agadir, Morocco. (US Africom)
A file picture shows US Marines with Joint Task Force African Lion preparing to board a C-130 aircraft at the Inezgane Airfield, in Agadir, Morocco. (US Africom)

RABAT – The “African Lion 2021” exercise held in Morocco including the Western Sahara reflected Rabat’s success in expanding the circle of international recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, especially since this exercise is taking place with the participation of major Western powers, including the United States and Britain, analysts say.

The Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony, mostly under the control of Morocco which considers it part and parcel of its national territory and refers to it as the “Moroccan Sahara”.  Tensions with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s over the issue.

The US Republican administration announced last December its recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.

On Monday, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine Othmani said that the inclusion of the Saharan region in the “African Lion 2021” exercise, the largestin Africa, is the culmination of the American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty of the Western Sahara.

“Part of the exercise will take place for the first time in the Moroccan Sahara in the Mahbas region and near Dakhla, the region’s largest city,” Othmani stress

He explained that the exercise organised by the American Military Command in Africa (AFRICOM) will continue on June 7-8, with the participation of eight countries, namely the United States, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Brazil, Italy, Tunisia and Senegal and will see the participation of about 10,000 soldiers from the eight countries and observers from 21 other countries.

Mohamed el-Tayyar, a researcher in strategic and security studies, said that the organisation of the exercise in the Mahbas area, close to the Algerian border, as well as in the city of Dakhla at the far end of the Western Sahara, is a clear indication that the United States will stand by Morocco in its struggle with the opponents of its territorial integrity.

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Tayyar added that the African Lion’s manoeuvres this year are different from previous exercises. “It comes in special political circumstances represented by the American recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over its Sahara, and it also constitutes an exceptional turning point in the field of security and military cooperation between the United States and Morocco.”


He pointed out that the exercise sends a message to the country’s neighbours, especially Algeria and Spain, highlighting the strength and resilience of the strategic cooperation between Morocco and the United States.

He called on Algeria, Spain and Germany to “reexamine strategic developments and steer away from their hostility to Moroccan territorial integrity.”

Major General Andrew M. Rohling, Deputy Commanding General for Africa and US Army Southern European Task Force-Africa Commander, described the “African Lion 21” military exercise as “a great opportunity to strengthen one of the oldest strategic relationships of the United States”, namely with Morocco, he said.

The first operation of the “African Lion 2021” took place in the regions of Tafnit and the attached base of Lanzgan, where Special Forces exercises have already begun, according to the “Far Maroc” forum specialising in Royal Moroccan Armed Forces news.

US forces have installed a mobile command centre in the middle of the Lanzgan military airport as part of an operational command exercise.

The “African Lion” exercise was agreed on in 2002 between the US Marines “Marines” and the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces. The military exercise itself was launched in 2003 bringing the two countries together along with other partner nations seeking to enhance military inter-operability and cooperation.

For the first time in years, Spain will not participate this year amid the ongoing crisis between Rabat and Madrid over  Spain’s welcoming of Polisario leader Ibrahim Ghali for medical treatment under a false identity, which  deeply angered Morocco.

The “Far Maroc” forum stated that the participation of the Spanish forces would have been modest and limited to operations  in the cities of Tefnit and Tan-Tan.

The Spanish Ministry of Defence cited financial reasons for not participating in the exercise, while Spanish newspapers attributed this absence to the fact that Madrid does not want its participation to be construed as a formal Spanish recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed areas.