Trump administration sides with Morocco in Western Sahara dispute

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Article Summary
The Donald Trump administration pushed a UN resolution that is tough on the Algeria-backed Polisario Front.

The Donald Trump administration is siding squarely with Morocco regarding its occupation of the Western Sahara, suggesting that the unorthodox president is ready to shake up longstanding US policy toward the decades-old North African conflict.

The UN Security Council on Friday adopted a US-sponsored resolution that is unusually critical of the pro-independence Polisario Front after tabling an earlier US draft that was even more favorable to Morocco. The resolution renews the UN peacekeeping mission to the Western Sahara, MINURSO, for six months while calling out the Algeria-backed Polisario for recent tensions in the region.

“The MINURSO resolution that the Security Council just passed is definitely not the MINURSO resolution that we’ve seen in previous years,” David McKean, a program officer at the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, told Al-Monitor. “Every couple of years Morocco finds a way to influence the conversation by taking pretty aggressive action.”

Pro-Moroccan activists applauded the Trump administration’s apparent evolution on the issue, which has been the subject of a Washington lobbying war for years between Morocco and Algeria. Rabat spent almost $4 million to influence Congress and the executive branch in 2016, according to a review of lobbying disclosures by Al-Monitor, compared with less than $500,000 combined by the Polisario and its Algerian patron. The dispute even played a minor role during the 2016 US presidential campaign, where Hillary Clinton was criticized for appearing to favor Rabat while taking Moroccan money for the Clinton Foundation.

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“It appears that Morocco’s diplomatic strategy to mobilize support for its position on the Western Sahara is starting to bear fruit,” Samir Bennis, the co-founder of the pro-Rabat Morocco World News, wrote in a column after the United States unveiled its original draft.

And in another recent development that the Morocco World News took as further evidence of a shift in the US position, the State Department in its annual human rights report last month for the first time labeled the Polisario’s political arm a “separatist” group. A State Department spokesman, however, downplayed the significance of the term.

“Our position has not changed,” the spokesman told Al-Monitor. “We continue to support the UN-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable and mutually agreed solution to the conflict in the Western Sahara.”

The conflict over the phosphate-rich desert region to the south of Morocco has raged for decades as Rabat claims sovereignty over the territory while some native Sahrawis want independence. War between Morocco and the Polisario ended in 1991, when the UN launched a process to prepare for a referendum on independence, but it has stagnated as both sides fail to agree on who would get to vote.

Friday’s resolution, which passed 12-0, renews MINURSO’s mandate for six months instead of the usual 12. Russia, China and Ethiopia abstained because they viewed it as unfair to the Polisario, which was singled out for its presence along a buffer zone at the border with Mauritania, which the resolution labeled “destabilizing actions.”

The Polisario maintains that it withdrew its military presence in the buffer zone last year. A March report from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, however, called on the Polisario to withdraw from the area, while noting the group’s receptiveness to receiving an expert mission to the buffer zone — unlike Morocco, which opposes any such expansion of UN involvement. The report went on to encourage Rabat to “reconsider this initiative so that both parties can engage in a bona fide discussion on the matter,” but the UN resolution did not echo that call.

Ahead of the vote, Amy Noel Tachco, a US representative at the United Nations, argued that MINURSO “no longer had a political purpose“ and that the UN has “allowed Western Sahara to lapse into a textbook example of a frozen conflict.”

“The United States wants to finally see progress in the political process meant to resolve this conflict,” a US official told Al-Monitor. “Over the next six months we expect that the parties will return to the table. We also hope that neighboring states will recognize the special and important role they can play in supporting this negotiating process.”

For its part, the Polisario downplayed the resolution’s harsh language and instead praised the decision to renew MINURSO’s mandate for a mere six months. The new UN envoy to the Western Sahara, Horst Kohler, has called for a new round of negotiations this year.

“We’ve been extending it for a long time without any results,” Mouloud Said, the Polisario’s envoy to Washington, told Al-Monitor. “The next round of negotiations we are ready to start even this week. … We just hope that Morocco will not drag its feet as they [have] in the past.”

Yet Morocco has ruled out resuming a political process unless the Polisario withdraws from the buffer zone.

“If they will not withdraw, there will be no political process,” Morocco’s ambassador to the UN, Omar Hilale, told reporters after the vote. “They have to choose — provocation and violation and they will have the Security Council in front of them, or the political process. The ball is on their side now.”

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Found in: Trump, Border Disputes

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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