Since the end of last year, volatility in Western Sahara has steadily increased suggesting that the region could well become a new conflict hot spot. In a major turning point, on April 6, 2021 the head of the gendarmerie of the Polisario Front (the movement for the independence of Western Sahara) Addah al-Bendir was killed in an air strike carried out near Tifariti by the Forces Armées Royales (FAR) of Morocco. The strike reportedly followed a raid against a position of the Moroccan military along the sand berm dividing the territory under the control of Morocco and the no man’s land between the berm and the border with Algeria and Mauritania, where the Polisario Front is active.
This followed a spate of attacks in recent months, including the alleged killing of three Moroccan soldiers in Ouarkziz in February, claimed by the Republique Arabe Saharaoui Démocratique (RASD, the government in exile of the Saharawi people). The Moroccan government often dismisses these claims as propaganda, while independent media’s lack of access to the region does not help substantiate the reports.
Certainly, tensions have escalated since November 2020, when the Polisario Front declared the end of the ceasefire, in force since 1991. The announcement came after a military operation of the FAR in the buffer zone of Guerguerat, where Polisario members had blocked commercial traffic, in protest against what they perceive as the plundering of Western Sahara’s resources by Rabat.
The meltdown of a conflict frozen for the past three decades comes against the backdrop of a wider regional realignment stemming from the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states. A controversial legacy of the Trump presidency, the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for resuming official diplomatic contacts with Israel represented the culmination of a strategy intended to press Rabat into the normalisation front emerging in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the move followed a diplomatic push by several Gulf states, symbolised by the inauguration of their consulates in Western Sahara, a move that implicitly recognised Rabat’s sovereignty over the disputed territory and contributed to the recent escalation with the Polisario Front, that is backed by Algeria.
The repositioning has been visible not only during the recent visit to Rabat of the chief of staff of the UAE Armed Forces. Lt. Gen. Hamad Mohammed Thani al-Rumaithi, but was also highlighted by the use of an unarmed Harfang drone, received from France and jointly developed by Airbus and the Israeli Defence Industries (IAI), during the 6th of April airstrike.
Since remote warfare is poised to represent an important aspect of the conflict, Rabat has been busy diversifying its supplies, procuring BlueBird drones from Israel and Bayraktar TB-2s from Turkey. The latter may appear at odds with the inclusion of Morocco in the normalisation front, but it is in line with Ankara’s pro-active military-industrial complex in the Maghreb and possibly part of the competition in arms transfers in the region
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Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region