Dormant Western Sahara threatens to heat up

The Western Sahara, a piece of disputed territory settled by Morocco that separatists would like to see independent, seems calm, but dissatisfaction is growing in refugee camps.

Alfred de Montesquiou/AP
In this May 12, 2010 photo, a US Special Forces soldier fires a Russian-made "Dushka" heavy machine during a joint training exercise with a unit of elite Malian troops. Over 200 US soldiers and Marines have deployed in six African countries to help some 600 African troops face the rising threat of drug traffickers, al-Qaida-linked terrorists and kidnappers in the vast no-man's land of the Sahara Desert.

For 20 years, there has been something like peace across the Western Sahara, a 700-mile stretch of sparse desert seaboard that two or three countries have claimed as theirs at times, although none are actively warring for it at the moment.

Much of that calm is a result of a 1,700-mile wall of compacted sand – something like a Great Wall of West Africa – that Moroccan settlers (referred to by some as occupiers) built to keep out the desert-bound rebels who'd like to administer this land as a free nation.

Even more of that peace is thanks to how few war-worthy commodities this rocky backcountry contains, aside from intimations that there might be oil. No diamonds, no copper, no gold.

But two decades after the United Nations wrestled Moroccan leaders and local rebels into a ceasefire, the status quo has devolved into what Western Sahara's UN Special Envoy Christopher Ross describes as "unbearable."

"This is an intense situation," concurred Abdel Hamide Siyyame, the former spokesperson for the UN mission to the rebel front.

Leaders from Polisario, the Algerian-backed separatist movement, are penciled in to meet with Morrocan delegates for a round of informal talks in November, that Siyyame despairs are unlikely to accomplish anything without more international noise.

Morocco has maintained an unbending logic on Western Sahara ever since 1975, when its citizens poured in to replace departing Spanish colonizers. Morocco's king calls it "Moroccan Sahara," and seems as likely to change his word choice as Wen Jiabao is to rock a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker on his Taiwanese car.

Polisario is insiting on an independence referendum, which Morocco has stymied since the early 1990s.

"This is the responsibility of countries with permanent seats at UN Security Council, but they are not visibly involved since the conflict is remaining a cold one," Siyyame said. "For them, it is not explosive yet, so it is the last step of their priority ladders."

While UN envoys have been coaxing Saharan rebels and Moroccan royals to the table, human rights conditions in refugee camps along the Algerian border have deterioatated. The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies has released at least two reports documenting how those camps have become recruitment targets for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – a terrorist organization and crime syndicate which benefits from any conflict from Morocco and Algeria, the two powerhouses of the Saharan region and with the most at stake in the region's camapign against lawlessness.

It's going to take more than a third round of informal chats, Siyyame says, to bend Morocco and Polisario, not to mention Algeria and Mauritania (which has intermittently attempted to annex parts of Western Sahara), into a compromise.

"There must be a third party that can propose a serious, comprehensive solution to bring everybody to the negotiation table," he said.

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