A member of the United Nations peace mission MINURSO at a UN base in Bir-Lahlou, in the Western Sahara, on March 5, 2016. (Photo by Farouk Batiche/AFP via Getty Images)
While much of the world was looking the other way, distracted by China's coronavirus and its economic aftermath, a separatist militia group backed by Algeria, the Polisario Front, have been militarily exploiting the crisis.
For weeks, the Polisario Front have blocked the only road leading southward from Morocco to Mauritania in the buffer zone of Guerguerat. Currently, around 200 trucks find themselves stranded there, while UN peacekeepers (MINURSO), on whom Morocco relies to enforce the tense 30-year ceasefire, apparently feel overwhelmed.
Ever since Spain withdrew from its former colony in the Western Sahara in 1975, the Polisario Front have been trying to claim the territory, rich with phosphates and fishing rights, as an independent state for themselves. Since that time, however, Morocco has served as the sole sovereign, offering the Western Sahara autonomy but not independence.
Last week, on Thursday night, Morocco finally responded to the Polisario Front's roadblock at Guerguerat by creating a security cordon and promising to "restore free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic" between Morocco and Mauritania -- an act that the Polisario Front called a "provocation."
The Polisario Front had announced the Monday before that any movement of troops by Morocco to the buffer zone area "will be considered as a flagrant aggression to which the Sahrawi [Polisario] side will respond vigorously in self-defence 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 Sahrawi government," they warned, "also holds the United Nations and the Security Council in particular responsible for the safety and security of Sahrawi civilians."
Presently, the Polisario Front appears to be trying to create "facts on the ground" outside of any legal framework, presumably in the hope that the international community will view them as irreversible.
As a result of the Polisario Front's blockade, and in a move likely intended as a blow to Morocco, all traffic has been prevented from transporting goods not only to Mauritania, but to all of sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco, especially since it joined the African Union, has enjoyed warm, strong relations with other countries on the continent.
Until now, Morocco has avoided conflict by relying on UN Security Council and its MINURSO. The Polisario Front nonetheless on Friday claimed that Morocco had broken the ceasefire and "ignited war." Morocco, for its part, insists that there have been no armed clashes and that the ceasefire still stands.
The UN Security also recently strengthened Morocco's stance by not only demanding that the Polisario Front honor the terms of its ceasefire, but the UN also designated Algeria as a stakeholder in the dispute. On Friday, Saudi Arabia as well openly supported Morocco's refusal to have its territory seized by force.
An open conflict at this time would be immensely damaging for all the parties involved as well as for Europe -- particularly France, always deeply immersed in African policy. International help would be greatly appreciated to prevent this showdown in the Sahara from escalating further.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.