Escalating tensions might threaten a three-decade-long ceasefire between Rabat and the Polisario Front, which demands independence from Morocco.
A strategic border crossing called Guerguerat, which is located in the buffer zone between Rabat and the rebel group Polisario Front-controlled territories in Western Sahara, has recently appeared to have some unusual military activity.
Between 1976 and 1991, the Polisario Front fought with both Morocco and Mauritania for Western Sahara's independence. The group named the disputed region as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) after Mauritania left it in 1979.
Since 1991, a UN-monitored ceasefire has survived in the region with minor intermittent violations.
But with recent clashes close to the Guerguarat crossing, which is also a border gate connecting Morocco and Mauritania through a highway, a crucial road for Rabat’s trade with the rest of Africa, relative peace might come to an end.
Moroccan troops launched an operation on Friday after some members of the Polisario Front were accused of blocking the busy highway, preventing many vehicles from moving, leading to skirmishes between government forces and SADR armed groups.
As the Moroccan government continued its operation, the Polisario Front’s leader, Brahim Ghali, "declared war" against Rabat on Friday, activating "the resumption of armed actions in order to protect the inalienable rights of our people".
But the Moroccan foreign ministry denies any violation of the ceasefire.
"Morocco remains firmly attached to the preservation of the ceasefire, noting that the operation carried out by the Royal Armed Forces aims precisely to consolidate the ceasefire by preventing the recurrence of such serious and inadmissible acts that violate the military agreement and threaten regional security and stability," said a foreign ministry statement, referring to alleged Polisario blocking of the road at the Guerguerat border crossing.
While escalating tensions worry a wide spectrum of different political forces across north Africa and southern Europe, experts do not expect any sudden ignition of war.
“All possibilities remain, but the reality of the situation indicates that the immediate political and economic changes that favor the Maghreb region (north Africa) do not encourage any of the parties to the conflict to embark on an adventure of unknown consequences,” wrote Hassan al Rashidi, a Doha-based Moroccan expert.
Polisario Front’s increasing isolation
The Polisario Front, which is backed by Algeria, has appeared to have considerable support in the region since its fight against the Spanish colonisation in the 1970s. But the Moroccan government built an expensive 2,700-kilometre-long wall in the Sahara in the 1980s, through which Rabat is effectively able to control nearly 80 percent of the contested region.
After recent clashes, the UN, which monitors buffer zones west of the wall, the African Union, Spain, France, Russia and neighbouring states, have called both sides to avoid border clashes to turn the situation into a fully-fledged war.
While the Polisario has widespread backing across Western Sahara, it does not appear to have political and military means to turn that support into an independent state project, according to some experts.
“An independent state in Western Sahara is arguably not a viable settlement. The Polisario Front lacks the capacity to administer the entire territory,” wrote Daniel Samet, an expert on the region.
Morocco denies any independence path, offering an expanded regional autonomy for Western Sahara.
Last year, after bringing both sides to the table in Geneva with the presence of neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania, Horst Kohler, the former UN mediator for the conflict, tried his chance to find a sustainable settlement to the protracted conflict.
But it failed, leading Kohler to quit from his mediation job, citing divergent views and both parties’ failure to reach a possible solution in the near future. Since then, the UN has not appointed a mediator to oversee the conflict, which might hurt the prospects of the Polisario Front more than the Moroccan state.
On both Arab and African fronts, the prospects have also appeared to be grim for the Polisario Front, which has not been recognised by any state to date.
“The Polisario Front received another diplomatic setback,” said Rashidi, referring to how 15 African countries have decided to open their respective consulates in Laayoune, the largest city in the disputed region, which Rabat calls as its southern provinces. The UAE has already opened its consulate in the region.
Qatar, a gas-rich Gulf country, which usually follows a different political path from other states in the region, also supported the recent Morocco operation on the Guerguerat crossing against the Polisario Front, signalling the secessionist group’s increasing regional isolation, Rashidi notes.
In a statement, the Moroccan military claimed that with the border operation, it was able to secure the crossing by forming "a security cordon" along its wall.