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This is the InFocus podcast from The Hindu. Welcome to the InFocus podcast. My name is John Shriram and I'm your host for Today. We turn to international affairs in this episode and we look at the recent Morocco Israel deal and its implications for the region. Here's the story. So far, Morocco has become the fourth Arab country to normalize ties with Israel over the last five months. On December 10. US President Donald Trump announced the deal, claiming that the series of normalization agreements between Arab countries, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and now Morocco and the Jewish state was bringing peace to West Asia.

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In return for Morocco's decision to establish formal ties with Israel, the US has recognized Moroccan sovereignty, although Western Sahara, a disputed territory in northwestern Africa, which has been under Moroccan control for decades, Morocco has long been campaigning internationally using economic pressure and diplomacy for recognition of its claims to Western Sahara. It appears now that it got what it wanted from this deal. But could the move end up reigniting adamant conflict? We discussed this today with the Hindus.

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International affairs editor Stan Lee joining.

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Stanley, welcome to the podcast once again, always a pleasure to do these international affairs episodes with you. Thank you for making time for us again. Thanks. Thanks for having me. Right. So Morocco, as I mentioned in the introduction, has become the first Arab country to normalize ties with Israel in the last five months. And this has come to Morocco, has managed to extract a fairly important price from this agreement, which is their claim on Western Sahara.

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So let's break it down. What is the what's the story behind this this normalization of ties with Israel and what's the claim on Western Sahara?

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See, the context is that, as you said earlier, Morocco is the first Arab country to have normalized twice in the last five months. So the Trump administration has been pushing Arab countries to establish formal diplomatic relationship with Israel. And in most number of cases, you can see that the Trump administration is giving something some you know, some what we say say some diplomatic concessions to these countries to establish ties with Israel. For example, in the case of the UAE, the Trump administration has agreed to sell them the F-35 aircraft despite vocal opposition from the Israelis.

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In the case of Sudan, we saw this week that the State Department removed the country out of the list of the state sponsors of terrorism. In the case of Morocco, the United States has recognized that about sovereignty over Western Sahara, which is a disputed territory. So these are the concessions. We don't see anything specific in terms of Bahrain, but we understand that it could be part of a larger bill, which might happen, I know, between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the future.

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So what we see is that the Trump administration is making diplomatic concessions to get these countries, Arab countries, to normalize ties with Israel. So Morocco is the latest one.

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And here the the problem is that, you know, by recognizing Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara, which is a disputed area. Right. It's not a it's not a settled issue because even if you look at the UN General Assembly resolutions, even if you look at the 1991 cease fire document that brought that at least froze the conflict in Western Sahara. So everything says that. I mean, everything sees Morocco as an aggressor, as an occupying force, because it does not.

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The history is a bit complicated here because Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. And in the 1970s when Spain withdrew, Morocco moved it. And you have a local guerrilla group within Western Sahara that is fighting Morocco. And it fought Mauritania as well, because in the 1970s, late 1970s and 1980s, both Mauritania and Morocco had occupied Western Sahara. So this local guerrilla outfit, which is the Polisario Front, so Polisario had been resisting these groups, these two countries.

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So Morocco, Mauritania finally got out of Western Sahara, but Morocco continued to occupy these territories. So Morocco says that Morocco claims that Western Sahara is part of the Moroccan kingdom. You know, so it was Spain that came and occupied Western Sahara. And then one month the Spaniards were ordered as our legitimate whatever claim over this region. So we are reoccupied. We are reallocating this territory. That's what the Moroccan claim is. But it is a disputed claim.

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So the problem is that now, since 1991, there is a cease fire. And then the ceasefire has of late has become fragile because, you know, a few months ago there was an attack by the attack from the Moroccan side on the buffer zone, which is manned by the United Nations between between the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara as well as the eastern flank of the region that is controlled by Polisario. So after that, Polisario said that we are returning to the wall fire.

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So but it didn't actually the war didn't actually break out after that. But now with the Trump administration recognition, it's like it could reignite an old conflict. And Polisario has already issued a statement that we would continue to fight until Moroccan forces are withdrawn completely, irrespective of what the United States position is. So the real challenge is that by getting Morocco to recognize Israel, the Trump administration might inadvertently reignite one of the oldest conflicts in Africa. Right, and the Polisario is backed by rebels, backed by Algeria, but is Algeria the only country that's backing the Polisario?

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That's right. I mean, in a sense, I think the Polisario has political backing from different countries. For example, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic area, which was the country which Polisario in 1976 declared that declared an autonomous country in Western Sahara, Saidiya and I. They are also recognized by several countries, including the African Union, even now as Serbia has, is considered a member of the African Union. So despite all efforts by Morocco, African Union continues to recognize Saidiya and Polisario is the ruler.

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So politically speaking, Polisario has support. But in terms of I think if you look at the military aspects, because Polisario is not just a political force, it is a military political force. So in terms of its you know, if you look at the military action, the the main supporter is Algeria, because this relationship actually goes back to the 1970s or even before that, because in the 1970s, when Spain came under pressure internationally, also locally in Africa to vacate its colonies, it was at that time Libya.

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Libya was then ruled by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and Libya and Algeria came together. And then they helped found this organization, which was largely an Arab socialist, left leaning organization that was fighting the Moroccan occupation, Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation, and especially in the southern region, southern part of Western Sahara, which was occupied by Mauritania. The Polisario fought very well in the early years and they forced the forced Mauritania to withdraw. But as soon as Mauritania withdrew from the region, the Moroccan troops moved there because the Moroccan king, King Hassan, the second war.

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He claimed that that I mean, as we discussed earlier, that Western Sahara is actually part of the kingdom of Morocco. So then he moved troops across the border and then he moved troops southwards and then started occupying most of the country. So the ceasefire was reached under the UN mandate in 1991. So by the time the ceasefire was reached, you know, almost 80 percent of Western Sahara was occupied by was taken over by Morocco. So what Moroccan troops did that they built this huge sand wall, which they called boat.

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And then and it stretches from the Atlantic coast in the south to the mountains of Morocco in the north. So this huge sand wall that built which divides this territory is controlled by Morocco and Polisario. So the regions that close to Algerian border Algeria and then on the Mauritanian border that is controlled by Polisario and also Algeria is also hosting close to 200000 refugees from the sarabi community in Western Sahara. So Polisario is powerful within this in these refugee camps as well.

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So basically, the support is coming from Algeria. As you know, this is the context of the support. It is a historical relationship. And Algeria continues to support Polisario and Algeria continues to host refugee camps because the total population of this region, which is largely it's a desert region and Western Sahara, the total population could be some 600000 people, of which roughly 200000 people are living in Algeria. So you can imagine how the region is split between these two.

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Right. And what's the what's the status of the conflict been over the past few years? Has there been occasional flare ups of violence? Is this an active conflict, so to speak, in that sense?

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No, it's kind of a frozen conflict. So since 1990s, because in the 1990s, the Polisario was actually pushed to the eastern flank. So they were losing the battle. And on the eastern flank, they kind of they were resisting the Moroccans because they were supported by Algerians, et cetera. So they accepted and on the other hand, also interfered. And so they accepted the truce. Both sides accepted the truce in 1991. But upon the condition that, you know, there would be an independence referendum and the local population would choose what they want, whether they want Western Sahara to be an independent country or whether they want Western Sahara to be part of Morocco.

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So this was written into the 1991 cease fire and the Moroccans had agreed that. But this never happened. And there were repeated attempts by the UN. The UN was trying to push for not just the UN, that other international actors such as Ireland had issued repeated statements. Even Russia is in favor of a UNmandated settlement to the conflict. So all these international countries, international powers had issued statements, but the referendum never happened. What Algeria did Algeria say Algeria kind of mobilized its in its presence in the region it controlled, whereas Polisario was actually there were pushed to that eastern side and then they were controlling.

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They were holding on to that region from the eastern flank, as well as the Algerian regions where the Salafis were residing. So it's kind of the conflict has been frozen since then. The problem is that the settlement, according to the ceasefire or the UNmandated settlement, is that it has to be resolved. Through a referendum which never happened, which the Moroccans never actually agreed to holding the referendum, and then because there were there are UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly resolution is that and then there was an International Court of Justice verdict is there, because in the 1970s, before the Spain actually evacuated the colony, the UN General Assembly asked for the International Court of Justice to look into this conflict and find if the Moroccan claims that this was Moroccan.

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A Mauritanian claims at that time, both countries had made claims over Western Sahara if their claims that this region belonged to them were true. That was I was asked to look into that and I that that and in its report, what I said was that there were no evidence whatsoever that suggested that any illegal ties or sovereignty existed between Western Sahara and Morocco or Western Sahara and between Western Sahara and Mauritania at the time of the region, got colonized by Spain in 19th century.

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So there was no legal source of revenue at all. That's what the UN that's what the report found. But the ICJ also said that. But some tribes, only some tribes within Western Sahara remained loyal to the sultan of Morocco. So what the Moroccan king in 1970 is that can have some the second did. So he took only this bit that some tribes remained loyal to Moroccan king Moroccans have done, took that bit from the ICJ report and said that this vindicates the Moroccan government's position that Western Sahara was part of the kingdom of Morocco and then he sent troops to Western Sahara.

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That's what he did in the nineteen in nineteen seventy five. But then. Yeah, but if you look at the U.N. documents, it clearly states that this has to be settled through referendum, independence referendum. That never happened. So the conflict was never resolved. But it was it was not an active conflict. It was a frozen conflict. Now the risk is that now with the status quo changing now, with Morocco's claims getting international recognition from the United States, it could reignite the conflict because Algeria could be upset.

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And the Russians have already issued a statement saying that the Trump administration's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara is a violation of international law. That's what I mean, I'm quoting. So this is the risk is that it could go back into active conflict now. Right.

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And just zooming out, finally, I lead, as we said at the start of the Pakistan. Morocco is the first Arab country to normalize ties with Israel. And this is all happened in a very short period of time. And do you foresee more instability in this region because of these moves by the Trump administration to get these deals signed with Israel? Is there more in the pipeline like this, say, in terms of deal?

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I think there was a report. I think The Wall Street Journal reported that in the meeting in Neon between Saudi Crown Prince and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, this issue of normalization came up. But the Saudis backed out primarily because this meeting happened after the US elections and the Trump administration lost President Trump. Donald Trump lost the election. So a new administration is coming up. So the Saudi crown prince did not want to normalize ties with Israel now because he would use that as a diplomatic a bargaining chip with the upcoming U.S. administration.

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So I think in theory, if you look at that, Bahrain has established ties with Israel and the UAE has established ties with Israel. Both the UAE and Bahrain have very good ties with the Saudis. So if not the entire Saudi government, at least a dominant section within the Saudi government, I think is in favor of opening up to Israel. And it could happen. It's it's I think it's a matter of time. It could happen maybe under a violent administration as part of a bigger deal.

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So it's possible because the you know, the sands are shifting now. The sands are shifting in a sense, the Sunni bloc or the Sunni monarchies. And there and the countries that supported them on the block, they are building better ties or they are moving closer towards Israel. It's now a process. This will only go on. But on the other side, if you are talking about instabilities, what? Could happen is that these countries, Saudi Arabia or the UAE or Bahrain or Morocco or Sudan, these countries are looking at the Palestinian question doesn't mean that the Palestinian question is resolved by the Palestinian question is that the Palestinian issue is the.

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So when these countries are moving all over the Palestinian issue and building stronger ties with Israel, they are leaving a vacuum and this vacuum will be filled by other countries. So you have Turkey, which is a very aspirational power, and you have Iran, which is backing a very vocal supporter of the Palestinian militants.

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So what will happen is that I think the entire region, the Middle Eastern region, is going through a all, you know. So while these two traditional opposing blocs are coming together, the Gulf monarchies and their allies with Israel on the other side, the Palestinian issue will be taken up by other countries, which are becoming more and more active in the region, such as Turkey and Iran. So this would go on, I think, right?

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Certainly, I think that was really fascinating. And I think we ended on a good note, kind of zooming out and looking at the larger picture as well. And we wrap it up there. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast once again.

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Thanks. Thank you very much. InFocus will be back soon with analysis of the biggest news issues in the meantime, you can find our podcast on Spotify, Apple, podcasts, Stitcher and other platforms. Just Search for InFocus by The Hindu. We'll see you soon.