Biden will alter rhetoric, but won’t change course on Western Sahara

    The Biden administration now faces a situation in which its stance on Western Sahara is directly tied to its relationship with Israel. The diplomatic quid pro quo means that any backtracking on the US part will negatively impact its closest ally in the region.

    During his confirmation hearing in front of the United States Senate, the newly appointed Secretary of Defence was askedabout his opinion on Western Sahara. Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin tentatively replied, “That is an issue I certainly would like to take a closer look at before I gave you a detailed answer.”

    Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was one of several significant foreign policy changes announced by former President Donald Trump shortly before his departure. The case of Morocco, however, is notable in that American support of the kingdom’s claims to the territory was exchanged for Rabat’s commitment to normalise relations with Israel.

    Yet, the swift actions that followed this deal — the first direct flight between Israel and Morocco and the visitation of senior American diplomats to Dakhla in preparation for a US consulate — have ground to a halt following the inauguration of President Biden.

    Secretary Austin’s remarks provide no hints as to how the Biden administration plans to move forward and seem to indicate that the issue is far from top of the priority list. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s silence on the matter has spooked Morocco: according to some sources, the kingdom is waiting on the opening of both the American consulate in Western Sahara and Israeli liaison offices before it makes any further decisions on future Morocco-Israel relations.

    Meanwhile, the Polisario Front allegedly launched four rockets into Guerguerat, one of the UN-buffer zones located on the border between Morocco and Mauritania. The attack is an escalation from the ongoing exchange of fire between the Moroccan military and Polisario Front that has been reported since mid-November. The timing of this event is no coincidence; the stakes are high for the Polisario Front to make their opposition to Washington’s policy shift clear.

    Yet, despite President Biden’s silence thus far, as well his administration’s promise of ‘a return to normalcy’ from the Trump era, Biden is unlikely to reverse course on the issue.

    Washington considers Rabat a reliable ally, with varying levels of involvement, in promoting its regional interests. It is not in Biden’s interest to renege on the US’ recognition of Morocco’s claims and lose Rabat’s favour.

    While Trump announced the US’ new stance on Western Sahara abruptly and casually, the quid pro quo had been carefully negotiated by Israeli, Moroccan, and American parties for years. In fact, Washington had begun to shift its stance on Western Sahara in favour of Rabat long before the Trump administration. There is some disagreement over exactly when Washington switched from supporting positive neutrality and the UN-brokered ceasefire, to pushing for the language in Security Council resolutions on Western Sahara to prioritise diplomatic negotiations.

    However, over the years Washington has steadily paved the way for a non-referendum-based solution to the dispute. The Biden administration will make its decisions not based on the perceived spontaneity of Trump’s tweets, but rather, on Washington’s long-standing relationship with Rabat and a policy shift that has been underway for decades.

    The Biden administration now faces a situation in which its stance on Western Sahara is directly tied to its relationship with Israel. The diplomatic quid pro quo means that any backtracking on Washington’s part will negatively impact its closest ally in the region. If the United States fails to build a consulate in Dakhla, for example, Rabat will not continue with the normalisation agreement.

    As Israel pushed for this treaty — as well as similar agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan — any major obstacle in its ability to come to fruition would be viewed negatively by the Israeli government and Israel lobby in the United States. With the Biden administration less than a month old, it does not want to have to rebuild the terms of the complex Morocco-Israel relationship from scratch.

    Furthermore, security advisor to President Biden Jake Sullivan recently expressed that the US hopes to build on the “success” of these normalisation agreements in future policy efforts. The Biden administration, therefore, will feel motivated to stand by its commitments within existing normalisation agreements in order to ensure their legitimacy in the future.

    President Biden has also been vocal about re-committing to international institutions. The United Nations does not support Morocco’s claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara. This reality will likely influence the Biden administration not in the content of its policies, but rather, in the public phrasing of them. While there will be actors within the UN that will criticise Washington’s position, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which this pressure is sufficient to sway US policy.

    As a result, we can expect to see a shift in tone in the new administration’s rhetoric on Western Sahara. However, the reintroduction of diplomatic language should be analysed alongside the administration’s actions.

    While Biden is unlikely to reverse course on Western Sahara, there are certainly undetermined factors that may influence the future of this policy. The recent rocket fire is a poignant reminder that the UN ceasefire no longer wholly applies to the conflict; a further rise in violence may destabilise the region and show the Biden administration that the late Trump-era policy will best serve Washington’s interests only so long as they are not dragged into a war.

    If this escalation spikes dramatically, the new administration may find itself reconsidering what it values most in its effort for ‘normalcy’.

    *This article was originally published in TRT World’s opinion section.

    Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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