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Balancing Acts: The US Role in the Western Sahara Conflict and Middle East Dynamics

The U.S. government should exercise caution when dealing with Algeria, as maintaining the UN negotiations on Western Sahara and safeguarding Morocco's important ties with Washington and Israel are of utmost importance to the United States' regional interests.

Recent rocket attacks on the city of Smara in Western Sahara, a territory under Moroccan administration, have dramatically increased tensions in the decades-long conflict over the region and exacerbated Rabat's strained relationship with Algeria. The United States faces a delicate challenge in managing two vital partnerships: its historical alliance with Morocco, which has established diplomatic ties with Israel, and its engagement with Algeria, which has struggled to control the recent escalation initiated by the Polisario Front, the group believed to have launched the rocket strikes.

The origins of the Western Sahara conflict can be traced back to the late 1970s when Spain withdrew from the region, leaving a power vacuum. Morocco soon asserted its historical claims over the territory, while the Polisario Front emerged to advocate for independence. Despite numerous UN and US efforts to find a political solution, the conflict has persisted for decades. While Morocco currently exercises de facto control over most of the territory, the Polisario Front continues to challenge its sovereignty.

In late 2020, the Trump administration recognized Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara as part of a broader tripartite agreement with Israel. This move marked a significant achievement for Rabat, which had long sought international acknowledgment of its claim to the region in exchange for improved diplomatic relations. Gaining the support of the United States, a long-standing ally and penholder on the UN Security Council resolution outlining the negotiating scope for Western Sahara, strengthened Morocco's influence in the ongoing international process aimed at resolving the conflict.

In recent years, Morocco's relationship with Israel has grown stronger, with diplomatic ties reaching a new high in July 2023 when Israel recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Following this, King Mohamed VI extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to visit Morocco. This strengthened alliance has enabled Morocco to acquire advanced military equipment, such as the Barak MX Defense system, aimed at countering Algeria's increasing regional influence. Algiers has also bolstered its military capabilities, fueled by increased natural gas revenues and strong ties with Russia and China. Both countries are now among the top three arms buyers in Africa.

The ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel has led to Morocco's diplomatic engagement being shaken, as evidenced by the Israeli Foreign Ministry's evacuation order for its Rabat liaison office and the kingdom's expressed concern over the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Morocco's reluctance to publicly support Israel during the war reflects its complex domestic political landscape, marked by broad popular support for the Palestinian cause and growing calls to reverse the normalization agreement.

Despite maintaining its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara under the Biden administration, the United States has underscored its commitment to the UN-led process and actively engaged with Algiers. However, the Gaza war and Polisario attacks could complicate this strategy. Rabat might interpret overtures to Algiers and Polisario leader Brahim Ghali as a departure from U.S. commitments under the tripartite agreement, which supports Morocco's advanced autonomy plan as the "only basis" for resolving the Western Sahara dispute. Such a perceived shift could undermine the kingdom's wider bilateral relations with Washington and Israel.

The situation in the region has become worrisome since Polisario ended the last ceasefire in late 2020, with military escalation evident in the deadly Smara attacks. Prior to this incident, the Algerian coast guard killed two Moroccan-French jet skiers who they claimed had entered their territorial waters. Moroccan authorities have chosen to respond domestically to both incidents, instead of using military action.

While the threat of direct clashes between the two countries is low, Rabat may find it difficult to avoid provocations in the current charged environment. Moroccan Islamist groups are increasingly expressing opposition to Israel in order to enhance their popularity at home. The resurgence of such groups, including al-Adl wal-Ihsan, poses a challenge to Rabat's efforts to establish more pragmatic and nuanced relations abroad. The outlook for the Abraham Accords, U.S.-Morocco relations, and the Western Sahara issue is becoming increasingly unclear due to these challenges.

The Western Sahara conflict is a crucial issue for Algeria, and tensions between the two countries have intensified since August 2021 when Algeria ended diplomatic relations and ceased gas exports to Morocco. This happened amid a global rise in energy prices. Algerian authorities cited vague "hostile actions" by Morocco as the reason for the decision. Algeria also banned all Moroccan aircraft from its airspace, causing additional time and expenses for eastward flights.

On the other hand, Morocco has reportedly increased its drone operations in Western Sahara's UN-monitored buffer zone, resulting in the death of Polisario commanders and the wounding of Algerian civilians in one incident in November 2021. Any further escalation by Polisario, which is operationally based in Algeria, would only exacerbate the existing tensions between the two countries. While Algiers can publicly denounce Polisario attacks launched from the buffer zone, all parties are aware that the group's survival is closely linked to Algerian security assurances.

In light of the current situation, the United States risks damaging its longstanding relationship with Morocco if it fails to exercise caution in its growing partnership with Algiers. Morocco is already diversifying its foreign alliances due to increasing doubts about America's dependability, and is turning to China and Russia for support in Africa. In the past month, several Chinese companies have made new investments in Morocco, including the establishment of cathode materials plants, which are crucial for the electric vehicle industry. Furthermore, in October 2022, Morocco's Energy Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding on peaceful nuclear cooperation with Rosatom, the Russian state-owned corporation. In addition, Russia has increased its fuel supplies to Morocco as a way to circumvent EU sanctions. However, Rabat is being cautious about these relationships due to Russia's pro-Algerian stance on Western Sahara and its open engagement with Polisario.

Algeria has established a strong security and strategic partnership with Russia, which remains a key aspect of its foreign policy, despite occasional disagreements. Additionally, Algeria has also formed a robust partnership with China. In 2022, the two countries signed a five-year comprehensive strategic cooperation plan, and their relationship was further strengthened when President Abdelmadjid Tebboune visited Beijing this summer. Furthermore, Algerian army chief of staff Said Chanegriha recently visited Beijing to meet with leading arms manufacturers, indicating a significant push to enhance the country's military capabilities.

Given the significance of Algeria's ties with Moscow and Beijing, the United States' efforts to engage with Algeria do not guarantee that it will shift away from these partnerships or grant concessions towards de-escalation with Rabat. In fact, these efforts may create uncertainty in Morocco's relations with the United States and Israel during a time of regional crisis.

To address the ongoing Western Sahara conflict, the United States should continue to back the UN-led resolution process while also maintaining its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the region. This combined approach can help facilitate collaboration with Algeria without compromising the existing relationship between Morocco and Israel, which is crucial for U.S. strategic interests in the area.

It is essential for Washington to employ a careful strategy when interacting with Algeria to reduce tensions with Morocco and encourage a return to dialogue in Western Sahara. This involves using U.S. influence to deescalate hostilities and promote peaceful negotiations.

Lastly, U.S. officials should recognize that the diplomatic ties between Morocco and Israel could contribute to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Gaza following the conflict. However, without consistent U.S. support and a clear vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Morocco may be hesitant to participate in U.S.-led initiatives in Gaza, especially if they come with significant domestic or reputational costs.


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