In the midst of the historic death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention his own ongoing efforts to overturn the results of last month’s election, it was a little surprising to see President Trump tweeting out a very dramatic reversal of U.S. policy on one of the world’s longest running and most neglected conflicts:
What is going on here? As the second tweet indicates, this was a quid pro quo in exchange for Morocco agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. The Trump administration is pushing to get as many Arab countries as possible to recognize the Jewish state before Jan. 20, and has made clear it’s willing to be very generous to those that do. The United Arab Emirates got a $23 billion arms deal and Sudan was removed from the state sponsors of terror list. Western Sahara was clearly Morocco’s price.
Diplomatically, this is a big deal: No other country currently formally recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over what the United Nations considers a “non-self-governing territory.” Though this isn’t the first time the U.S. has tipped the scales in Morocco’s favor.
The sparsely populated territory on the northwest coast of Africa was ruled by Spain as Spanish Sahara until 1976. In the early seventies, an armed left-wing pro-independence movement called the Polisario Front was formed to fight against Spanish rule. While it was clear that Spain’s days in the territory were numbered, the neighboring countries of Morocco and Mauritania both claimed historical rights over the territory. A 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice rejected those claims and ruled that the people of the territory—the Sahrawis—should determine their own sovereignty. Nonetheless, later that year Spain signed a treaty granting the northern two-thirds of the territory to Morocco and the southern third to Mauritania. (Mauritania would later drop its claim.) The United States reportedly played a major role in lobbying Spain to sign the agreement, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger concerned that an independent Sahrawi state could become a Communist beachhead in the region.
The Polisario rejected the accords, declaring independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which today is formally recognized by 80 countries and as a member of the African Union. Morocco sent in troops, beginning a war that would last until 1991, when a UN-mediated ceasefire was signed. Under the terms of that ceasefire, a referendum on the final status of the territory was supposed be held within a year, but it has still never happened.
Today, 85 percent of the territory is under Moroccan control. On the other side of a massive artificial sand wall known as “the berm” is Polisario territory, though the bulk of the population under the group’s control live inrefugee camps in Algeria.
The U.S. NGO Freedom House ranks Western Sahara was one of the least free places on earth. In Moroccan-controlled areas, pro-independence sentiment is violently suppressed the imprisonment and torture of activists is reportedly common. The Polisario doesn’t rate much higher on that front: It is the only permitted political party in the areas it controls and has been accused of holding Moroccan soldiers prisoner for decades and subjecting them to torture.
While the U.S. tacitly backed Morocco at first, it has been more neutral in the conflict since the ceasefire was signed, at times criticizing its human rights practices. Still, whatever qualms the U.S. may have had didn’t interfere with strong defense ties between Washington and Rabat, first during the Cold War, and then during the War on Terror. Last year, Morocco was the largest customer for U.S. arms in the Middle East-North Africa region.
Trump’s pronouncement comes at a dangerous time for the conflict: In November, the Moroccan military launched an operation in a United Nations-patrolled buffer zone, prompting the Polisario to declare a “resumption of armed struggle.” A Polisario spokesman on Thursday described Trump’s pronouncement as “strange but not surprising,” saying it would “not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.”
Most of the countries recognizing Sahrawi independence are in Africa, and it also has support from Cuba and some of its leftist allies. Arab countries have tended to back Morocco’s stance, though have not formally recognized its sovereignty over the territory. Over the years, the conflict has slid into diplomatic obscurity and doesn’t get much international attention, which may be one reason why Trump felt this wasn’t a big deal. But his decision puts the U.S. way outside the international consensus and is arguably in defiance of international law, given the 1975 ICJ decision.
Whether or not Trump thought deeply about this decision, it does apply similar logic to how he has approached territorial disputes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo similarly described the decision to recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as merely acknowledging “the reality on the ground.” By this logic, de facto military control supersedes international law or legitimacy. (Trump has reportedly applied similar logic to Russian control of Crimea in conversations with other world leaders, though the administration has not gone so far as to the reverse the U.S. position there.)
President Elect Joe Biden has indicated he supports the efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries, though is perhaps less enthused about the quid pro quos that went along with those efforts. The administration intends to at least review the UAE arms sale, for instance. A spokesperson for the transition declined to comment on whether the Biden administration would reverse Trump’s new stance on Western Sahara.
For Morocco, normalizing relations with Israel is a mostly symbolic gesture. Close economic and political ties between the two countries have been an open secret for years. A crack in the international consensus on its 50-year quest to control Western Sahara, however, is a major diplomatic victory.