Defence

Predictive Analysis of West Saharan Conflict

January 11, 2021

Michael Ellmer

 

Key Judgements

 

 

KJ-1. It is likely military operations will remain along the southern border, with Morocco in a defensive position and the SPLA offensive. There has not been an intense uptick in violence since the conflict’s November resurgence, and reported kinetic incidents have been mainly directed at Moroccan defensive positions from SPLA troops.

 

 

KJ-2. It is likely that a failure in a joint diplomatic resolution to the conflict will increase military operations along the border on both sides. This would likely depend on how much support SPLA troops can gain from allies in order to counter the Moroccan military’s superior capabilities.

 

 

KJ-3. It is likely the United Nations will continue pushing for a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the conflict, as well as a reestablishment of the now suspended cease-fire.

 

 

KJ-4. It is likely a second shutdown of the Guerguerat Border crossing would be the most economically destructive course of action the Polisario Front could take with assistance of their SPLA. It is likely that Morocco’s natural resources will remain protected from any disruption due to their strong border security presence along the UN-restricted zone.

 

 

 

Current Situation

 

Historical Context

 

The November 2020 resurgence of the West Saharan conflict is a symptom of a decades long land dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front. On the 6th of November 1975, a over 350,000 Moroccans marched across the border into Western Sahara in support of Morocco reclaiming the disputed land from Spanish occupation (an event known as “The Green March”). This protest was successful, and Spain was pressured into relinquishing the land to Morocco.  

 

 

The turnover was met with resistance by the newly formed and Algerian backed Polisario Front – a socialist movement and de-facto representative of the ethically indigenous Sahrawi people. Prior to the Green March, the Polisario Front had been in talks with Spain in regard to the formation of an independent Sahrawi state. With that goal dissolved, the Polisario Front established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February of 1976.  

 

 

Morocco and the Polisario Front have been in a continuous dispute over the region with Morocco controlling the majority of its land, and with the SADR being partially recognized as the legitimate sovereign state in the United Nations (UN). Likewise, the SADR is a formal member of the African Union (AU). 

 

 

 

Military Dimension

 

 

The border village of Guerguerat, which sits within the demilitarized zone, was the impetus for the current resurgence of military activity. On the 13th of November 2020, Moroccan troops entered the village in order to forcefully remove a large group of Sahrawi protestors who had shut down travel between Mauritania and West Sahara. The protestors had formed a blockade in October 2020 which impacted the ease of border crossing for Moroccan truck drivers. The Polisario Front interpreted Morocco’s action as a breach of the long-standing ceasefire and thereby declared war.

 

 

In terms of kinetic activity and military operations, the bulk of incidents have been small arms and indirect fire along the Mauritania border. According to a Reuters interview with Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Otmani, skirmishes and sporadic fighting along the southern berm have been the extent of the conflict. Morocco has so far been successful in its re-establishment of traffic flow along the border without a profound escalation in violence.          

 

 

In addition, there is a level of complexity added by the ties Algeria has to the Polisario Front. Algeria is a major financial supporter of the Polisario Front as well as a regional rival to Morocco. Algeria is also the de-facto location of the Polisario Front headquarters located in Sahrawi refugee camps within the Tindourf Province in the West of the country. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad has voiced support for the Polisario Front in the present conflict and has voiced concern that “There are foreign maneuvers which aim to destabilize Algeria” in reference to the Trump administrations declaration of support for Morocco in exchange for a normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel.  

 

 

The Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is the armed wing of the Polisario Front and primary SADR military force.

 

 

 

Geopolitical & Diplomatic Dimension

 

 

There have not been in formal changes to the UN’s stance on the Western Sahara in terms of the informal recognition of a SADR state. The Moroccan designed 2007 “Initiative for an Autonomy Plan” has remained one of the most formal attempts at a regional solution but has failed to make any reputable changes.   Likewise, the SADR continues to be a formal member of the African Union.

 

 

 

Economic Dimension

 

Morocco currently controls 75% of the natural resources in the Western Sahara region. This includes the majority of the Atlantic coastal area. Apart from the land dispute, Moroccan fishing in Western Sahara has been controversial due to a 2006 fishing agreement between Morocco and the European Union. This agreement was met with controversy due to the UN not recognizing an autonomous Moroccan claim to West Sahara. This deal has also been viewed by critics as a way for Morocco to hemorrhage money from the Saharawi people.

 

 

Mineral deposits are another major economic piece of the Western Sahara, and Morocco dominates that industry as well. According to The Atlantic, the Western Sahara region is said to hold “more than 72 percent of all phosphate-rock reserves in the world, according to the most recent United States Geological Survey study”.

 

 

 

6-Week Analysis

 

Military Dimension

 

Over the next six weeks, it is likely that military operations will remain static along the southern berm in the demilitarized zone. On the Polisario Front side, current trends in how they conduct skirmishes show a likely continuation of small arms fire, as was seen in November on a Moroccan defensive line in the UN-restricted Mahbes area. SPLA has a relatively un-advanced military surplus (compared to Morocco), consisting of a mostly Russian made suite of anti-armor weaponry, BRDM-2s armored vehicles, T-55 tanks, and modified Land Rover all-terrain vehicles. A lack in strength that matches Morocco makes it likely that their operations will be more of a harassment than organized kinetic operations.

 

 

It is likely Morocco will continue to maintain a defensive posture along the border, both to ensure a SADR advancement, and to protect the re-opened Guerguerat crossing. The Royal Moroccan Armed Forces is a more advanced military with multiple branches and an overall well-trained force compared to their SPLA counterparts. The modern technology they possess presents them as a viable threat to the SPLA, in the case a conventional war was to break out. There is currently no directive for Morocco to carry out offensive operations against the Polisario Front, although that will likely change in the case that the ongoing attempts at a diplomatic solution fail over the next six weeks. 

 

 

 

Geopolitical & Diplomatic Dimension

 

 

It is highly likely that the United Nations will continue to search for a diplomatic solution, albeit not one that will be resolved within the next six-weeks. According to Reuters, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been making strenuous efforts within the organization to prevent a further escalation, and to maintain the cease-fire that the Polisario Front violated. The Trump Administrations vocal support for Morocco has been met with fierce backlash from US partisan media as well as elements of the international media who reflect support of a SADR state (Algeria being the most high-profile). This move has likely further complicated a swift diplomatic solution.

 

 

 

Economic Dimension

 

 

It is likely that over the next six weeks, there will not be a significant disruption in Moroccan control of economic resources. The heightened tensions along the border have drawn a higher-than-average defensive posture from the Moroccan side. The Polisario Front does not have the forces to match that defensive line, and therefore it is likely that they will be able to construct another successful blockage.

 

 

If the Guerguerat border crossing was to be shut down again, it would likely have a after effect in tandem with the November event that sparked the current standoff. The biggest industry impacted will be truck transport of various goods from Mauritania to Morocco. Likewise, if there is a SPLA occupation of Guerguerat, there is a realistic probability Morocco will take a more offensive action to push them out, which would likely be backed with their superior military force.

 

 

Image: Sahara News (link)

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