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Why the U.S. Should Embrace Neutrality in Western Sahara

On October 29th, the quiet of Smara, a city in the Moroccan-held sector of Western Sahara, was shattered by four explosions that claimed one life and injured three, per Moroccan officials. The pro-Moroccan news platform Atalayar swiftly labeled the blasts as a “terrorist attack” by the pro-independence Polisario Front. Meanwhile, the Sahara Press Service, the official media organ of the Polisario-controlled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), announced these were attacks on “occupation forces.”

This surge in violence is a continuation of a troubling trend that has intensified since the dissolution of a UN-maintained ceasefire in 2020. Since then, sporadic, yet persistent, low-level conflicts have ensued. Reports from the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) indicate that these clashes have resulted in at least ten deaths in the past twelve months.

Given the deadlock in resolving the five-decade-long war, it is becoming increasingly clear that a dramatic change in diplomatic tactics is necessary. The United States should revert to its former neutral position regarding the territorial status and support MINURSO in facilitating a peace agreement without imposing any preliminary conditions. This change in stance would enable the U.S. to serve as an unbiased intermediary, potentially tempering the actions of Morocco and the Polisario. Additionally, it would shield America’s European allies from potential retaliatory actions by Morocco and Algeria, the principal backer of the Polisario, in the event of any broader escalation.

In a notable policy shift in December 2020, the former Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in a bid to incentivize Morocco to normalize relations with Israel. This move has obstructed diplomatic progress, as Rabat now operates under the impression that its actions are sanctioned by Washington. This assurance emboldens Morocco to adopt an uncompromising stance and to retaliate against America’s NATO allies should they fail to demonstrate sufficient support for its position. Morocco’s insistence on offering nothing beyond autonomy under its jurisdiction—an offer that the Polisario rejects outright—prolongs the conflict.

There is an ethical imperative to seek resolution. When Morocco annexed the territory in the aftermath of Spain’s retreat, it precipitated a significant humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of Sahrawis fleeing to Polisario-administered refugee camps in Algeria. These refugees have lived there since, in conditions that the UNHCR has recognized as substandard by humanitarian benchmarks.

There is also a practical argument in favor of neutrality. Any regional conflict where the U.S. and its European allies appear to side with Morocco could have devastating economic consequences for Europe and undermine U.S. interests. Algeria, which provides approximately a quarter of Spain’s natural gas and is Italy’s primary supplier, could cut off this critical energy source, triggering widespread inflation throughout the European Union.

U.S. neutrality is central to moderating Morocco’s posture. If Morocco perceives that the U.S. no longer endorses its diplomatic obstinacy, it is likely to soften its approach towards third countries and might even scale back its military ventures. Such a reduction in aggression would pave the way for constructive negotiations. Moreover, the United States should equally avoid recognizing the SADR or its territorial claims over Western Sahara, as such a gesture could provoke Morocco into further entrenching its position.

While not a panacea, a return to neutrality over Western Sahara would address concerns that the Biden administration is hypocritical in which occupations it opposes and which it endorses. After all, America strongly opposed Russia’s illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory, but it has also supported Morocco in doing the exact same thing. If the U.S. wants to protect the international rules-based order, it cannot choose to ignore international law when an expansionist regime happens to be friendly to U.S. interests.

Only the United States possesses the diplomatic influence required to broker an end to this protracted conflict without incurring the ire of either Rabat or Algiers. Spain’s failed attempts at balancing this delicate situation resulted in its subjection to Morocco’s manipulation of migration flows and Algeria’s economic retribution. Should tensions between these North African powers escalate, Washington’s European partners would likely suffer analogous consequences.

There are inherent risks if the U.S. returns to a neutral stance on Western Sahara. A potential reaction from Rabat could be to revoke its recognition of Israel—a move that, in the context of the ongoing strife between the State of Israel and Hamas, could be deemed particularly contentious. Yet, regardless of one’s perspective on the war in the Gaza Strip, the real-world impact of reverting to the status quo ante 2020 would likely be minimal.

Israel’s security is not dependent on the policy decisions of a nation situated on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the historical rapport between Morocco and Israel long predates their formal diplomatic ties. King Hassan II of Morocco collaborated with Mossad in 1965, providing Israel with critical intelligence that contributed to its victory in the Six-Day War. In reciprocation, Israel supplied Morocco with advanced military hardware and is even rumored to have assisted in the assassination of Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965. Regardless of future developments, it is improbable that Morocco would willingly forgo its functional relationship with Israel.

The Biden administration can circumvent the brunt of any diplomatic backlash by postponing any change in its stance on Western Sahara until the cessation of hostilities in Gaza. It would be judicious to avoid an abrupt declaration of neutrality and, instead, gradually distance U.S. policy from Morocco’s maximalist demands. The State Department’s recent description of Morocco’s proposal for autonomy as “one of the many potential approaches” lays the groundwork for this cautious strategic shift.

The decision of the Trump administration to endorse Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was a flawed one. Reclaiming a neutral position would not only breathe new life into the stalled peace process but also serve to restrain the actions of Morocco, the Polisario Front, and Algeria, thereby contributing to the stabilization of Northwest Africa. It would shield America’s European allies from the crossfire of economic hostilities if tensions were to worsen and offer thousands of Sahrawis a chance to exit a state of prolonged displacement.

The Biden administration would be wise to absorb the lessons from Gaza and Ukraine, recognizing that ‘frozen’ conflicts don’t stay frozen forever. A bold and proactive American approach could forestall the onset of another significant conflict. Given the opportunity, the people of Western Sahara might finally complete their protracted march toward peace and autonomy—a journey they embarked upon far too many years ago.