Fighting in Morocco May Present Biden with Fresh Africa Crisis Amid COVID Surge

Morocco's almost 30-year ceasefire with the separatist Polisario Front organization was upended over the weekend after Moroccan troops moved to reopen a closed road to Mauritania running through the no man's land between them and Polisario forces.

Morocco's government said its troops had acted to open the road, stop the blockading of traffic and end "provocations" by the Polisario Front, which has been fighting for independence from the kingdom since the 1970s in the Western Sahara region.

Morocco is America's oldest official diplomatic ally, having signed a treaty of peace and friendship with the new country in 1786—the longest unbroken relationship in U.S. history.

As President Trump seeks to end all "forever wars" before his term ends, Trump or President-elect Joe Biden may be faced with choosing between intervention or refusing to become embroiled in another conflict in Western Sahara, as both Rabat and Washington, D.C. grapple with a surge in coronavirus cases.

The escalation focuses on the Guerguerat buffer zone in the south of the country, close to the border with Mauritania, which is patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers.

Moroccan truck drivers have appealed to the Moroccan and Mauritanian governments saying they had been prevented traveling through the area by "militias affiliated with separatists."

Rabat said its troops had taken action to open the road, which the Polisario Front said represented a violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement that ended 16 years of war. The two sides agreed to a self-determination referendum in the phosphate-rich Western Sahara, but this has been repeatedly postponed amid negotiations on how it will be carried out.

The Polisario Front is a rebel group representing the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Initially formed as a socialist group, the group has since renounced its left-wing economic ideology.

The Polisario Front warned that "the entry of any Moroccan military, security or civil entity" into the Guerguerat buffer zone "will be considered as a flagrant aggression to which the Sahrawi side will respond vigorously in self-defense and to defend its national sovereignty."

"This will also mean the end of the ceasefire and the beginning of a new war across the region," the Polisario Front added. "The Sahrawi government also holds the United Nations and the Security Council in particular responsible for the safety and security of Sahrawi civilians."

The U.S. has traditionally supported the Rabat government in its conflict with the Polisario Front. Morocco is a counter-terrorism partner for the U.S. in North Africa. In 2004, the U.S. designated Morocco a "Major Non-NATO Ally," and American and Moroccan forces conduct joint military exercises and training.

Previous American administrations have largely supported the Moroccan government. In 2018, the Trump administration pushed a UN resolution condemning what it called destabilizing actions by the Polisario Front along the buffer zone.

The resolution also extended funding for the MINURSO peacekeeping operation there for another six months; half of what had been requested. China, Russia and Ethiopia abstained from the vote on the grounds it was unfair to the Polisario Front.

Biden will likely continue support for Morocco's proposal of Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan rule, as did President Barack Obama. Kurtis Cooper, the spokesperson of the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said in 2016: "We consider Morocco autonomy plan serious, realistic, credible... It represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of Western Sahara."

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both also pressed their support for Rabat in the conflict. Both said: "Genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty [is] the only feasible solution" to the confrontation.

All the while, Morocco has been a valued customer for America's defense industry. Last year, the Trump administration signed off on almost $1 billion of missiles and bombs to arm Morocco's forces, including weapons to be mounted on its American-made F-16 fighters.

American support for the government in Rabat may be somewhat hindered by the coronavirus pandemic. Morocco has recorded more than 288,000 cases and 4,700 deaths to date, with the number of infections surging in recent weeks. The government has extended its "Health State of Emergency" until December 10.

The U.S. Consulate General in Casablanca, meanwhile, said Friday it had "temporarily suspended all routine consular appointments" due to the pandemic. "We hope to resume routine services soon, but are unable to provide a specific date for the resumption of services at this time," a consulate statement said.

Polisario Front, Morocco, Western Sahara, Joe Biden
This file photo shows military units from the Arab Democratic Republic of Sahrawi during manoeuvres in the north-east of Western Sahara on January 6, 2019 in Mehaires, Western Sahara. Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images/Getty