Western Sahara: What’s at stake for Joe Biden?

Al Jazeera takes a look at the implications of Trump’s Western Sahara deal with Morocco on US interests in the region.

US Ambassador David Fischer on Sunday began the process of establishing a consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla [Fadel Senna/AFP]

It was a visit that would go down in the annals of Moroccan history.

US Ambassador David Fischer on Sunday began the process of establishing a consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla.

“It is such an honour for me to visit this stunningly beautiful and critically important region of Morocco, and to begin the process of establishing a US diplomatic presence here,” Fischer said.

The highly anticipated trip came a month after Trump announced in a tweet that the United States had recognised Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara in exchange for the kingdom normalising ties with Israel.

Rabat had long laid claim to the territory, a Spanish colony up until 1975.

But the recognition raised eyebrows in Washington and elsewhere with many observers saying the move was not only in contravention of international law, but also likely to lead to a flare-up in tensions between the kingdom and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a movement seeking independence for the territory.

Critics of the agreement say it undermines a United Nations-led process to find a permanent solution to the conflict, which the world body said rests on a referendum for the Indigenous Sahrawi people to decide on their fate: independence or autonomy within a wider federation.

Morocco has consistently refused to entertain the prospect of independence for the Sahrawi, saying only autonomy was on the table.

As Trump’s time in the oval office approaches its end, Al Jazeera takes a look at the stakes involved for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and the deal’s implications for the region.

What is at stake for the US?

Analysts say by recognising Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara, Washington is effectively undermining international law and the mechanisms by which conflicts are resolved.

This is something that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel explicitly referred to in his criticism of the move.

“Casting aside legitimate multilateral avenue of conflict resolution only empowers countries like Russia and China to continue trampling on international rules and norms and rewards those who violate borders and the right of free people,” Engel said at the time of the announcement.

Similarly, while welcoming Morocco’s normalisation of ties with Israel, Republican Senator James Inhofe lamented Trump’s abandoning of Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, saying it was a universal principle that remained consistent across US administrations.

“The African Union, the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and the European Union have all agreed – the Sahrawi people have the right to decide their own future,” Ihofe said.

“The president has been poorly advised by his team, he could have made this deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people.”

Can Biden afford to withdraw recognition of Morocco’s claim?

Observers have presented a potential reversal of Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s territorial claim as an easy win for the incoming Biden administration.

“Derecognition is already commonplace in this conflict and it would mean realigning with other international players’ position in the conflict,” said Joseph Huddleston, assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

Recognition has historically gone both ways as far as the Western Sahara conflict is concerned.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as it is officially known, has seen the number of countries that recognise its sovereignty over the territory drop to 40 from more than double that number 30 years ago.

Several African countries have also acted against the official position of the African Union, of which SADR is a founding member, to open consulates in Western Sahara.

The Biden administration would incur a cost for a reversal, according to Huddleston, but it pales in comparison to the consequences for other countries seeking unilateral territorial expansion.

“At a very low cost, Biden can signal a new commitment to diplomacy, international law and cooperation, and bipartisan policy-making, not to mention the cherished principle of individual liberty and self-determination,” Huddleston told Al Jazeera.

What are the implications for the region?

Proponents of Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory maintain it will lead to greater stability, with the kingdom better able and equipped to tackle transnational threats harming the North Africa region and Europe.

Indeed, within a day of the agreement’s signing, the US government announced it was moving ahead with $1bn in sales of drone and other precision-guided weapons to Morocco.

Still, some analysts fear the deal will lead to more conflict in this volatile part of the world already wracked by a decade of war in Libya, as well as conflict in Mali and the surrounding Sahel region.

In November, the Polisario, the movement seeking independence for Western Sahara, abandoned a 29-year-old ceasefire agreement after Morocco intervened in the border town of Guerguerat near Mauritania to end a sit-in by Sahrawi activists and restore the “free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic”.

That episode highlighted just how susceptible the region was to armed confrontation between the two sides.

The conflict “increases the risk that some of the complex constellation of armed groups in the Sahel may be pulled into war”, recently wrote Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This would prolong and further complicate the conflict, turning Western Sahara into a complex theatre akin to that of Libya, with neighbouring Algeria potentially weighing in, if only logistically, to support the Polisario, he said.

Source: Al Jazeera