While the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is a big victory for the North African kingdom, experts say the move is unlikely to result in widespread support for Morocco’s claim to the territory.
Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, an armed group demanding independence for Western Sahara, have been fighting over the disputed territory – a vast area bordering Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria that was previously under the Spanish control – for decades.
In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire, but a planned referendum on independence was never held. The final status of the territory remains unresolved.
In a presidential proclamation on Thursday, the United States recognised “Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory” and reaffirmed its support for a Moroccan proposal to grant limited autonomy to Sahrawis under overarching Moroccan control.
“The United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution,” the proclamation states.
William Lawrence, a professor of political science and international affairs at the American University, said the move “makes the US … the first country in the entire world to recognise the Moroccan claim”.
“It’s a huge success for Moroccan diplomatic and lobbying efforts,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Polisario Front condemned Washington’s announcement, however, saying in a statement that it is “a blatant violation of the United Nations charter and the resolutions of international legitimacy”. The move “obstructs efforts by the international community to find a solution to the conflict”, the group said.
The decision was part of a US-brokered deal that saw Morocco agree to normalise relations with Israel, making it the fourth Arab country to do so in the past few months at the behest of outgoing US President Donald Trump. Palestinians have denounced the normalisation deals as a betrayal of their cause.
In its proclamation, the Trump administration said it hoped its recognition of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara would spur discussions to resolve the conflict in line with what is known as the Moroccan autonomy plan.
That plan, presented to the UN in 2007, proposes a system of limited self-government for Sahrawis, but the territory – as well as its foreign affairs and defence issues – will ultimately be under Morocco’s control.
The US previously recognised that plan as “serious, realistic and credible” – a position it repeated in its proclamation.
“This is something that’s been talked about for a long time but something that seemed inevitable at this point and something that we think advances the region and helps bring more clarity to where things are going,” senior White House adviser Jared Kushner told reporters.
Tensions could rise
Lawrence told Al Jazeera Morocco is hoping the US recognition will translate into more overt support from other sympathetic nations in order “to create some impetus at the United Nations to move towards a deal based on the Moroccan autonomy plan”.
But he added: “I don’t think that will happen, because the issue is so divisive at the United Nations.”
Yasmina Abouzzohour, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center who specialises on North Africa, also said the US recognition would not affect the UN or European Union’s position on Western Sahara.
“Tensions may rise between Morocco and the Polisario Front, though military action is unlikely,” she told Al Jazeera in an email.
Tensions and military action have already been on the rise over the past weeks in the Western Sahara. International observers last month raised concerns after Moroccan security forces entered a UN-monitored zone in the area in violation of the 1991 ceasefire.
Morocco said it was responding to an incursion and had the right to ensure freedom of movement and trade at Guerguerat border crossing point near the Mauritanian border, but the Polisario Front accused Moroccan forces of shooting at civilians and declared an end to the ceasefire.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on November 13 that the UN remains committed to upholding the ceasefire agreement. The UN also said this week that its position on the territory remains unchanged, despite the Trump administration’s announcement.
“President Trump’s imminent departure from the White House means that his administration has a limited time to push his ‘peace plan’, and the Moroccan regime used this to its advantage. It was a strategic decision,” Abouzzohour said about the deal.
Morocco has maintained that its normalisation agreement with Israel only affects diplomatic ties, and it is trying to position itself as a peace broker, she added. “The focus in most communications is on the Western Sahara win.”
That was echoed by Intissar Fakir, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East programme, who said Morocco is trying to dispel anger domestically over normalising ties with Israel with the Western Sahara victory.
Fakir pointed out that US recognition came after the United Arab Emirates, which agreed to its own US-brokered normalisation deal with Israel in August, recently opened a consulate in Laayoune in Western Sahara.
Bahrain and Jordan, two other US allies in the region, have said they will do the same. Washington also said on Thursday that it plans to open a consulate in Dakhla in Western Sahara “to promote economic and business opportunities for the region”.
“While US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty does not necessarily translate into international recognition … it does bolster Morocco’s claim” to the territory, Fakir said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday.
The decision complicates the US’s relationship with Algeria, which supports Sahrawi self-determination and their claim to independence in the territory, while also complicating US-Morocco relations moving forward, she said.
Earlier today, President Trump tweeted that the U.S. would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, just as Morocco normalized relations with Israel as part of the Abraham accords@IntissarFakir unpacks what these latest developments mean for the region: pic.twitter.com/rGetGxbd7r
— Carnegie Endowment (@CarnegieEndow) December 10, 2020
“Now the US has no flexibility on the Western Sahara,” Fakir said, “and if the incoming [Joe] Biden administration were to not abide by the Trump administration’s position, US-Moroccan relations would sour.”
Trump has made several key foreign policy decisions in the final weeks of his presidency that political analysts say aim to shackle the incoming Biden administration, including as it pertains to Israel and Iran.
‘Rights traded away’
On Thursday, Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum slammed the Trump administration’s move, saying “the Sahrawi people have an internationally recognised right to self-determination that must be respected”.
“Trump’s actions dangerously extend legitimacy to the illegal annexation of Sahrawi territory, which could foreshadow his administration’s intent to recognize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land,” McCollum, an outspoken critic of Israeli policies, tweeted.
I condemn Trump’s unilateral recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s diplomatic recognition of Israel. The Sahrawi people have an internationally recognized right to self-determination that must be respected. https://t.co/pCDPLi8V1m
— Rep. Betty McCollum (@BettyMcCollum04) December 10, 2020
Republican Senator Jim Inhofe also decried what he said was a “shocking and deeply disappointing” decision. “I am saddened that the rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away,” Inhofe said in a statement.
The American University’s Lawrence said while Biden is unlikely to reverse any of the Israel normalisation deals entirely, he might try to scale back some of the commitments the Trump administration has made – without letting the agreements fall through completely.
“They’ll probably try to thread the needle, which is not derail these accords but reopen promises related to the deals that were made … and try to perhaps use that as leverage to do more of what the US wants,” he said.