Why Biden’s Western Sahara policy remains under review

Experts raise questions as Biden administration reviews Trump’s recognition of Moroccan claim to disputed territory.

The UN, which brokered a ceasefire in 1991, recognises neither the Morroccan nor the Polasario Front-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic's sovereignty over the region [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Former United States President Donald Trump shocked many observers when, in December of last year, his administration broke with years of international consensus to recognise Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

The move, which came in the context of a normalisation deal between Israel and Morocco, made Washington the first Western power to explicitly recognise Rabat’s claim to the vast region, bucking the United Nations’ official designation of Western Sahara as a “Non-Self-Governing Territory”.

Now, months into Joe Biden’s tenure in the White House, the Democratic president has yet to take a position on the recognition, which analysts say further undermines the administration’s pledge to honour international norms in its foreign policy.

“I think Biden’s getting a lot of pushback from the pro-Israel element not to reverse the decision,” Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco specialised in Middle East politics, told Al Jazeera.

“At the same time he’s been getting pressure from bipartisan members of Congress who are concerned about the rather dangerous precedent it sets.”

Trump’s recognition

Morocco, which claims Western Sahara as part of its territory, and the Polisario Front, an armed group demanding independence for the region and its majority Sahrawi ethnic group, have been fighting over the disputed land since colonial power Spain withdrew in 1975.

The UN, which brokered a ceasefire in 1991, recognises neither the Morroccan nor the Polasario Front-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s sovereignty over the region.

But Trump broke with that position on December 10, recognising “Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory”. His administration also reaffirmed its support for a Moroccan proposal to grant limited autonomy to Sahrawis under overarching Moroccan control.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is continuing a review of the policy.

In April, the Axios news site reported that Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Moroccan counterpart that the US would not imminently reverse Trump’s recognition, while State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week that the US is “consulting privately with the parties about how best to hold the violence and achieve a lasting settlement”.

Some reports have suggested the Biden administration’s delay is part of a larger strategy to work with Morocco to appoint a new UN envoy for the region to resume stalled peace talks.

But Zunes said not reversing the Trump administration’s move could harm the US’s credibility. “What credibility does the US have, for example, in opposing the Russian annexation of Crimea if they go and recognise [a] similar kind of illegal land grab?” he said. “It really hurts the US credibility in terms of international law.”

Meanwhile, Washington has denied the Moroccan prime minister’s recent claim that parts of the so-called African Lion joint military exercises – which are conducted annually by US Africa Command with African allies in Morocco – would take place in Western Sahara. But that has done little to reveal the administration’s position.

Zunes added that elements within the Biden administration are concerned by the implications of delaying a change to Trump’s policy, particularly when it comes to relations with the African Union, which recognises the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member state and whose charter prohibits countries from unilaterally changing colonial boundaries.

Some in the US diplomatic community “are really hoping Biden will reverse this, because they do see the broader implications as not good for US influence, particularly in Africa”, he said.

A Polisario fighter sits on a rock at a forward base on the outskirts of Tifariti, Western Sahara, in 2016 [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

‘Rubber stamp’

In the short term, there are other implications of the US recognition, said Joseph Huddleston, an assistant professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in the US.

While it did not change the international legal status of the territory, “what it effectively did was rubber stamp the Moroccan presence [in Western Sahara] from one country [the US],” Huddleston told Al Jazeera.

In November of last year, the Polisario Front, which remains closely aligned with neighbouring Algeria, announced the end to the UN-backed ceasefire. The group has since claimed regular attacks against Moroccan assets in the territory, although the nature of those attacks – and claimed casualties – have been widely disputed.

Meanwhile, while there has been increased support for Morocco among some Arab states, who had previously quietly endorsed Rabat’s claim, no European powers have followed Trump’s lead. Days after the announcement, the European Union stressed its support of the “ongoing” UN process “to determine [the] final status” of Western Sahara.

Germany, meanwhile, led the charge in calling for a closed-door UN Security Council meeting to debate the issue, and called on the US, who is the penholder on Western Sahara on the panel, to be “evenhanded”, “equitable” and to “act within the framework of international law”.

Amid an ongoing diplomatic spat, Rabat recalled its ambassador to Berlin, accusing Germany of taking a “negative attitude” towards Western Sahara.

Recently, tensions have also risen between Spain and Morocco after Madrid allowed Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, whom Rabat considers a “terrorist”, to seek medical treatment and leave the country. Rabat said the incident “exposed the hostile attitudes and harmful strategies of Spain towards the question of the Moroccan Sahara [and] revealed the collusion of our northern neighbour with the Kingdom’s adversaries to undermine the territorial integrity of Morocco”.

Spain responded that its position on Western Sahara was in line with the UN and said Rabat’s demand that Ghali be detained defied the country’s “border and territorial integrity”.

Calls to revive peace process

The most recent developments come as observers say the UN-led peace process has stagnated. With both Morocco and the Polisario Front holding veto power over the decision, the UN has not been able to appoint a new envoy to the conflict since the previous one resigned in 2019.

Amid the languishing effort, the Biden administration’s continued review may be part of a larger attempt to renew the process, said Jacob Mundy, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Colgate University.

“The problem with Morocco and the West – the peace process in general – is that there’s not ready-made leverage that important states like the US are ready to use,” he told Al Jazeera. “This could be one of those things that makes sense to leverage.

“They might be thinking, I suspect, ‘How can we make some lemonade out of these lemons?'”

Mundy and Hugh Lovatt, in a recent analysis for the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued the UN should urgently rethink and rejuvenate its peace process, arguing that Trump’s intervention of international law, if unchanged, could lead to further escalation.

“Receding prospects for a negotiated solution will convince the Western Sahara national liberation movement that diplomacy and international law have failed it,” they wrote, “and that an intensification of armed confrontation with Morocco is the only way forward.”

Source: Al Jazeera