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The United Nations Failure in Southern Morocco

CSC 1997

Subject Area - History



The United Nations Failure in Southern Morocco




In June 1991, the United Nations sent a multinational military mission to stop the war between the State of Morocco and group of people called Polisario in the southern region formerly called the "Western Sahara". The key problem for UN peace keeping was how to solve difficulties of implementating a political solution through a referendum. So the mission of the UN peace keeping operation was to restrain local security forces, identify and register voters, conduct the referendum, certify the results, and supervise the losing side's withdrawal or disarmament 1. But from 1991 until now, the UN has failed to solve the conflict and conduct a referendum in the region. Even if this failure continues in the region and the UN leaves the territory, it will not likely result in a war, because Morocco now controls more than 90% of the land, and the Polisario doesn't have any military support from the major countries that formally supported them (especially Algeria and Libya).



I can divide the history of the region into three periods: (1) before the occupation by Spain; (2) during Spanish control until 1975; and (3) after 1975. From the Al Moravid empire in the early twelfth century to the Alawis empire under Ismail (1672-1727), the region was controlled by Moroccan rulers who had conquered a great part of the Maghreb as far as east as present day Algeiers by 1802. 2 After civil war, limited economic resources and European interest divided the Moroccan empire; the sultan's power was limited to Bilad al Makzen.The occupation of Morocco by France and Spain started after the first Treaty of Fez in March, 1912, and the Treaty of Fez with France and Spain in November, 1912, establishing a Spanish protectorate over the northern coastal zone and the Rif, as well as over the Tarfaya area south of the Draa river where the sultan remained nominally the sovereign and was represented by the vice regent under the control of the Spanish high commission. 3 In 1934 Tarfya, Ifni, and the western Sahara was under control of a Spanish military governor with its capital at Sidi Ifni.

Moroccan independence was accepted by the French in 1955 without participation of Spain, but the nationalists expected Spain to follow suit. Spain hesitated, and when rumors circulated that a separate government under a regency might be established in the northern zone, Spain lost much of the popularity it had cultivated. The nationalists charged that Spain had no right to adopt a policy toward independence different from that of France. 4

In October 1956 the northern zone and Tangier were under the Sultan's sovereignty . In April 1958, the Tarfaya region between Oued Draa and the western Sahara ceded to Morocco, followed by Ifni in 1965. The only regions still under the Spanish control included two towns on the north side of Morocco, Ceuta and Melilya, and the region of the southern Moroccan Sahara. From this time until 1965 Spain controlled the territory of the southern Moroccan Sahara. In 1960 Spain started to exploit the phosphate in the area.

On November 14, 1975 the Tripartite Agreement was signed between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania to transfer the power of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. This Tripartite Agreement was a consequence of the Moroccan claim to the territory, and the pressure brought about by the "Green March" of 350,000 Moroccan civilian volunteers from different regions in Morocco (10% were women) who crossed the border in November, 1975. Just after the control of the northern two thirds by Morocco and southern one third by Mauritania was consolidated, they were surprised by insurgent guerrilla action created and assisted by Algeria with financial participation of some African allies of Cuba and the former USSR, especially Libya. 5

A group of Sahraoui rebels put their strength of power against the weakest country in that time - Mauritania- by using guerrilla hit and run tactics . In 1979 Mauritania abandoned its territory to Moroccan troops. The Moroccan Sahraoui rebels had a lot of success using terrain that they knew very well and a light, mobile vehicle which they moved easily from one point to another. They had established a lot of points of supply inside the region as well.

Moroccan troops and headquarters, after using a lot of tactics and learning from their experiences, decided to protect the zone by constructing a defensive line with obstacles, known as "the wall". From the first wall protecting Zag, Lemseid, Ras el Khanfra, Smara, Boucraa and Layoun (finished in October 1981), the progression of the defensive positions gained sector after sector until the wall was around 90% completed in April, 1987. Although the Moroccan Sahraoui rebels continued to dominate the rocks and desert beyond, construction of the berm allowed Morocco to assert unquestioned control over the useful parts of the Sahara. Peace and a semblance of regularity returned to the interior areas and were symbolized by the reopening of the Bucraa mines in 1982. 6 About half of Moroccan royal armed forces defended the three sectors of a Southern zone with ground forces, air forces, and patrolling ships along the coast from Agadir to Mauritania. All were armed with modern weaponry, mostly supplied by the United States and France. The Polisario did much better in regional politics than it did on the battlefield in 1980's. 7

In 1965, the United Nations General Assembly approved self-determination for the Spanish Sahara, but Spain refused it and was the first major power responsible for the problem because, at that time, anti-Spanish agitation in the territory did not demand independence, but rather union with Morocco. 8 The general assembly embraced previous OAU efforts, embodied in the OAU's Nineteenth Summit Conference Resolution 104, adopted in June 1983. 9 But the Moroccan government did not accept this resolution because it required the acceptance of the Polisario as a member of the OAU. This acceptance was blocked by Morocco at the time. Secondly, this resolution called for a withdrawal of military forces and administrative personnel from the territory. In 1981 the Moroccan government accepted a referendum, but without giving the Polisario a very big advantage and without direct dialog between belligerents. In 1985, the Secretary General of the UN, in cooperation with the Chairman of the Assembly of Head of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity, initiated a Joint Mission of Good Offices in the search for a solution to the western Sahara problem. On 11 August 1988 the Secretary General and the special envoy of the Chairman presented their cases in separate meetings with the parties to the conflict in western Sahara, namely, Morocco and the Front Popular Para la Liberation de Saguia el-hamra y de Rio de Oro (Front Polisario). Included was a document refered to as "the settlement proposals". The document contained proposals for a just and definitive solution of the question of western Sahara in conformity with 1960 General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV). This would be accomplished by means of a cease-fire and the holding of a referendum without military constraints, to enable the people of western Sahara to exercise their right to self- determination and to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. 10



Before I start my analysis of the situation in the southern region of Morocco, I would like to clarify who was fighting in this region. Moroccan troops with Shraoui who went to stay in the area can be found in all levels of the armed forces ,officers and below, as well as civilians in the service of the army. As a mixture of nationalities, 25 percent are Mauritanian, 25 percent Malian and Algerian, and 40 percent southern Moroccan, with the remainder from Cad, Niger, and other countries. 11

One half of the entire Moroccan armed forces have been guarding the area with artillery and modern weaponry, mostly supplied by the United States and France. 12 More than fifty percent of the entire Moroccan armed forces have been guarding approximately 90 percent of their territory, using all the strength they have: infantry with heavy weapons; engineering of fortifications and minefields; developing avenues of approach from rear areas to get the reserve and supplies as quickly as possible anywhere on the defensive position; and artillery fire support inside the area or between the wall and the border. This distance is about 10 Km on average from the Algerian- Moroccan-Mauritanian common frontiers that it parallels, except one curved portion which was intentionally shaped in a concave half sphere with about 60 Km of radius around the guerrilla's refugee camps within the Algerian territory. 13 This gap allows the RAF special fire support (artillery or aviation ) and to give the armored and light mechanized infantry room for pursuit without breaking the border line. For this purpose, the RAF needed a lot of equipment, modern weapons, and supplies.

The first major country to provision Morocco was the United States from 1975 to 1988. She supplied the Kingdom with more than $1 billion worth of arms, as well as $1,300 million in security and economic assistance programs. 14 But it was reduced to $1 million in 1978 because President Jimmy Carter made an assumption that the Soviets would embrace the Polisario. In 1979 U.S. gave to Morocco $232.5 million.,and in 1980, $274.4 million. In 1981 arms sales to Morocco were worth $182 million. From 1986 to 1993 it was $300 million. I can presume that about 30 percent of military needs from the late 1970s to the early 1990s was supplied by America. 15 In 1981, President Ronald Reagan changed the Carter policy because of the threat posed by the Soviets and because the Polisario had a Marxist-Leninist orientation.

The second country to supply Morocco was France: 55 percent of all weapons imported by Morocco was supplied by France between 1970 and 1980; reduced by 10 percent in 1992. By the early 1990s, France had become Morocco's number one trading partern and its top supplier of development assistance. 16

The third was Spain, selling to Morocco a lot of arms especially for the Navy (frigates and missile ships), technical assistance, maintenance and repairs for some aircraft, and conducted joint exercises in the straits with the Moroccan troops. In October 1984, the estimation of the weapons was worth 35,000 million pesetas.

Saudi Arabia also gives Morocco some support in both economic and military donations, except in a period when the Moroccan leader supported the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. After the oil crisis, Saudi Arabia reduced its grant to a quarter of what Morocco got in 1983.

On the other hand, the Polisario has been using guerrilla warfare against Morocco and Mauritania, but Mauritania just until 1979. This group cannot fight without economic support or without resources (people and materials). The first country to support them was Algeria, giving them a land were they established camps, plus military assistance and training.

About all the equipment was from the USSR. The Polisario was the only major liberation movement in Africa that did not receive direct assistance from the Soviets. Although they provided Algeria and Libya with approximately 90 percent of their military equipment, that did not imply Soviet intervention. 17 The former Soviet Union provided $2,700 million of arms to Algeria between 1986 and 1993, far outpacing other suppliers. But the Polisario did not need just the military equipment; they needed all the supplies that people need every day, because they live in camps without agriculture or industry. All that they needed was supplied by Algeria and Libya with few other international organizations in the world.

An important misperception of the western Saharan conflict is the agreement that the dispute is an extension of the east-west conflict. This view is supported by the sources of the weapons used in the war: Morocco employs mostly French and American arms and the Polisario fights largely with Soviet arms. King Hassan has said on occasion that because of the heavy Soviet arms employed by the Polisario, Morocco is actually fighting the Soviet Union. At the ideological level, some western observers have labeled the Polisario as a Marxist-Leninist movement. On the other side, Algeria claimed in 1976 that the Saharan conflict pitted its socialist revolution against a conservative, pro-western Paris-Rabat-Nouakchott axis. The Polisario has been recognized by more than 70 states, most of them communist, and all of them from African, Asian, and Latin American regimes.

After the collapse of the cold war, the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachov as General secretary (later President) of the Soviet Union, of course, brought a general reduction of East-West tension. But it also caused Moscow to give much less attention to conflict areas in the developing world, and Russians would, in the coming years, devote more time to internal problems. 18 The Polisario did not attempt to accommodate to this shift. But the Polisario was slow to respond to this intense challenge. And also the internal problem in Algeria put the Polisario in a bad position because Algeria had a lot of problems with internal insurgency against armed extremist groups. The first measure that Algeria took against the Polisario was to encircle them in their camps and ensure that there were no relations between the extremist groups and Polisario (at the same time, Algeria still supported the Polisario), because there are many materials in the camps that the extremists needed. But the major obstacles to inflicting damage on Moroccan forces were the defensive walls that the Moroccans constructed after disastrous combat at the outpost of Geltat Zammour in late 1981, in which Morocco suffered hundreds of casualties.

On the other side, Morocco had a heavy economic cost of continuing the war in the Sahara. The conflict has cost from 25 to 30 percent of Morocco's national budget. This heavy cost was remarqued from the beginning of the war by changing Morocco's Five-year Development Plan (1978 - 1982) and replacing it with a three-year austerity transition plan. Also, more than five years of drought and poor harvests had a very big impact in the economic situation, especially on Moroccan agriculture. A depressed world market for phosphate also had its impact. 19 Morocco failed to stop a successful effort by the Polisario to gain political support from third-world countries, increasing recognition by those governments in a bid to gain OAU membership.

The reality of the Sahara dispute is quite different. The conflict is regional in nature; it's roots are local, and the dynamics which fuel the war are tied to regional rivalries between Morocco and Algeria. For these two states, the Western Sahara conflict is only the most immediate manifestation of a prolonged antagonism between different competitive political and economic systems, both symptom and cause of a natural power rivalry between the two leading states of the Maghreb. The dispute over the western Sahara reflects a struggle between systems - a Democratic monarchy and a liberal economy in Morocco versus an authoritarian one -party regime in Algeria. 20

Moreover, Algeria's interest in a corridor to the Atlantic has been vastly overrated. Instead of 3 billion tons of iron ore at Gara Jebilet, there is a total of over 5 billion tons - 3.24 billion tons at Geera Jebilet plus 1.96 billion tons at Abdelaziz Mecheri-. About 100 miles east of Tindouf. Instead of high grade iron ore, these deposits contain medium -to- low grade ore which has a relatively high phosphorus content. Because of its undistinguished quality (compared, for example, with Brazilian iron ore) and its high content of phosphorus, the Algerian ore would be very competitive on the world market. Algerians talk only of using this ore for domestic consumption; they reject on purely economic grounds, the possibility of a corridor to the sea across southern Morocco because there is little potential to export the ore on a commercial basis. 21 An independent (Algerian dominated) Saharan state would make exploitation of this iron feasible and perhaps would lead to joint exploitation of the resource. However, Morocco and Algeria - as regional competitors and, currently, implacable enemies - may find it difficult, if not impossible, to work out arrangements for transporting the ore across Morocco for export from the Atlantic coast. 22 The struggle in the Western Sahara may be resolved between the countries of the Arab- Magreb Union ( Tunisia, Mauritania, Libya, Algeria and Morocco). Tunisia and Libya tried to take steps to resolve a dispute which has set Algeria against Morocco and threatened to stir up the AMU; Libyan leader Moamer Khadhafi said, "I have agreed with the Tunisian President to work towards a solution between Algeria and Morocco in order to protect the AMU," 23 and he said again "Morocco is making accusations and Algeria is defending itself, and it looks like the problem is being used as a pretext for blocking the process of the AMU". At the same time the Arab League cannot do any thing because the Arab Islamic world has been almost monopolized by coverage of the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories, making it difficult for the Western Sahara problem to be presented.

Actually, power within the AMU doesn't exist and this organization cannot solve the problem. Only Morocco and Algeria can find a solution to the western Sahara conflict. In May 1987, King Hassan met the President of Algeria under the auspices of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; a brief communiqu reaffirmed their differences, while emphasizing their willingness to work towards a solution. King Hassan said that Morocco no longer regarded Algeria as her true adversary in the conflict, but rather as an interested party. Diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been broken off by Morocco in 1976, were restored in May 1988; and King Hassan attended the extraordinary Arab League Summit meeting held in Algeria in early June. King Hassan and the Presidents of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia took this opportunity to hold a Maghreb mini-Summit, which called for a referendum to be held in Western Sahara. In February 1989, the five Maghreb countries created the Arab Maghreb Union.

Actually the situation in the area , Morocco controls the land by using all the resources that they have - military, political, economic, and administrative - she rules it like a part of Morocco. The only problem for Morroco is the high amount of spending required by the military.

From the Polisario side, they are trying to rule the camp around the oasis town of Tindouf like a mini state. There are four camps, or districts, each one divided into six or seven villages (or daira ). The daira is the local administrative unit; each village is divided again into quarters, or neighborhoods, with small streets between tents. The economy operates without money. Each family is provided with basic necessities, principally from aid supplied by non-governmental organizations. There are also several problems like lack of medicine, equipment for hospitals and dispensaries, and equipment in all domains, especially in the military. Without supply and enough gasoline the Polisario cannot return to war against Moroccan government, and the Polisario doesn't have any hope that the UN peacekeeping in the region will complete its mission. The MINURSO (UN mission for the referendum in Western Sahara) primary mission is to select who is eligible to participate in a referendum and supervise the vote. But this situation where there is no written documentation, and where one sheik claims to recognize the sahraoui, but the other does not, puts MINURSO in a very big dilemma. The burden of proof should be placed on the sahraoui, because both Morocco and the Polisario went to present more applications so as not to lose the referendum.. But the sahraoui are trying to win by putting obstacles against the referendum. Bachir Mustapha Sayed said " I can only say that the sahraoui people want their independence and sovereignty. The logic of history regarding all decolonization questions is that the result will be sovereignty and independence. The question to be resolved, whether by a referendum or negotiations, is how to ensure that Morocco withdraws from the territory, and how we can help Morocco in the process." 24



There is no third alternative between slavery and liberty. One is either free or slave--the question that will be posed during the referendum has practically resolved this problem - independence or integration ? 25 From the Moroccan side they are not losing anything with the referendum: they are controlling the territory, with or without the referendum and all the Moroccan citizens from the north or from the south believe in the sovereignty of Sahara.

No one wants to lose the referendum, that is what we find in Dr Boutros - Ghali's report of 8 May 1996, in which he was compelled to conclude that the required willingness does not exist to give MINURSO the cooperation needed for it to resume and complete the identification process within a reasonable period of time, and that he felt obliged to recommend the suspension of the process until such time as both parties provide convincing evidence that they are committed to resuming and completing it without further obstacles. He also recommended a 20 per cent reduction in the number of military observers with MINURSO , and the withdrawal of most of its civilian police component. The security council endorsed Dr Boutrous-Ghali's recommendations and voted to extend MINURSO's mandate until 30 November 1996.

We are in 1997 and there is no resolution to the problems. Until now the UN has failed to resolve the conflict between the Polisario and Morocco. I think the Polisario have two options in the future: the first is to return to war, but a different kind ofwar than a guerrilla war because Morocco has spent huge resources on constructing the Berm, and has stationed about 120,000 troops in the area of western Sahara she controls (they out number those of Polisario by a ratio of 12: 1). The Polisario say it would be a different kind of war, one that would be taken into Morocco itself . 26 That means they are planning to conduct some terrorism operations inside the border, and Morocco should secure her border against any intrusion from the outside, especially from the sea in the north and on the Algerian border.

The second option is to find a compromise between Morocco, Algeria , and the Polisario through direct negotiation. Without this trio coming to agreement, nothing can change the situation of the western Sahara. Only time will tell.

1- Durch William J, "Building on sand :UN peacekeeping in the Western Sahara." International security v.17 (Spring' 93) P.151-171

2- Maj Bajji B, "The containment of insurgency in southern Morocco" Military issues paper 1995-1996

3 Harold D. Nelson, "Morocco, a country study " Foreigin Area Studies, The American University, DA Pam No.550-49 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1985), 43.

4- Morocco a country study, 62.

5- Bajji, 3.

6- Morocco, a country study, 322.

7- Durch William J, 156.

8 Maddy - Weitzman, Bruce. " Conflict and conflict management in the Western Sahara: is the endgame near?" the Middle east journal v.45 (Autumn' 91), p.596.

9- idem

10- Zoubir, Yahia H, Pazzanita, Anthony G, "The United Nation' Failure in resolving the Weastern Sahara conflict." The Middle east journal v.49 (Autumn' 95), 614-628

11- Maren Michael, "From the Moroccan - controlled Western Sahara." Africa Report v.29 (Nov./Dec.' 84) p 32-35

12- Von Hippel, Karin. "The non - interventionary norm prevails; an analysis of the Western Sahara." The Journal of Modern African Studies v.33 (Mar.'95) p.67 - 81

13- Bajji, 10

14- The non- interventionary norm prevails; an analysis of the Western Sahara p.73

15- The non- interventionary norm prevails; an analysis of the Western Sahara p.74

16- The non- interventionary norm prevails; an analysis of the Western Sahara p.77

17- The non- interventionary norm prevails; an analysis of the Western Sahara

19- Zoubir, Yahia H, "The Western Sahara conflict: religion and international dimentions." The Journal of Moderne Studies v.28 (June'90) p.225-243.

20- Idem

21- Dean David j, " The Air Force Role in low-intensity Conflict." Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press 1986.

22- Idem

24- Novicki Margaret A, "Bachir Mustapha Sayed: Polisario's polisies for peace. (interview)" Africa Report v.34 (May./Jun.'89) p.56-57

25- Idem

26- Waiting still.( more dealay in Western Sahara referendum) the Economist v. 335 (Ap. 22 '95) p.46.



Morocco, a Country study. %th ed. Harold D. Nelson. Foreign Area Studies, The

American university. Da Pam. No. 550-49. Washington, DC: GPO, 1986.


Dean, David J. The Air Force Role in low-intensity Conflict. Maxwell Air Force Base,

Alabama: Air University Press 1986.


Durch, William J. Building on sand :UN peacekeeping in the Western Sahara.

International security v.17 (Spring' 93)


Maj Bajji B. The containment of insurgency in southern Morocco.

Military issues paper 1995-1996


Maddy, Weitzman Bruce. Conflict and conflict management in the Western Sahara: is the

endgame near? the Middle east journal v.45 (Autumn' 91).


Zoubir, Yahia H. Pazzanita, Anthony G. The United Nation' Failure in resolving the

Weastern Sahara conflict. The Middle east journal v.49 (Autumn' 95), 614-628


Maren Michael. From the Moroccan - controlled Western Sahara.

Africa Report v.29 (Nov./Dec.' 84)


Maren Michael. From the Moroccan - controlled Western Sahara.

Africa Report v.29 (Nov./Dec.' 84)


Von Hippel, Karin. The non-interventionary norm prevails; an analysis of the Western

Sahara.. The Journal of Modern African Studies v.33 (Mar.'95)



Novicki, Margaret A. Bachir Mustapha Sayed: Polisario's polisies for peace. (interview)

Africa Report v.34 (May./Jun.'89)


Waiting still.( more dealay in Western Sahara referendum)

the Economist v. 335 (Ap. 22 '95) .





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