A forgotten conflict on the fringes of the Sahara desert is heating up — and Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory is set to make it worse. The US recognition of Rabat’s claim to Western Sahara — in return for Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel — risks aggravating fighting between the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the region, and Moroccan troops manning a 2,700km-long fortified sand wall that divides the desert land, diplomats and analysts say.

“I think we can safely say that this move makes the resolution of the current bout of violence much harder,” said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa director at International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think-tank. “This will also make Sahrawi youths angrier, mobilized and committed to resolving the conflict through force.” Fighting resumed last month after the end of a 30-year ceasefire. Polisario said it was returning to war because Morocco had breached a 1991 ceasefire agreement by sending forces into a demilitarised buffer strip. The purpose of the Morocco incursion was to clear Sahrawi protesters blocking a key highway for trade to sub-Saharan Africa.

“We are now in a state of open war,” said Sidi Omar, Polisario’s representative at the UN. “We are firing at static Moroccan targets along the wall. Our main objective is still the liberation ofWestern Sahara. We did not want this war but Morocco has been emboldened by the inaction of the international community. ”

The hostilities could spiral out of control leading to a full-blown war that might even draw in neighbouring Algeria — the main sponsor of the Polisario Front. This would deepen instability in an already troubled region, where Libya is embroiled in a civil conflict that has drawn in mercenaries and foreign powers and Mali has been fighting a jihadi insurgency in the Sahara, diplomats say. “For now, this is a low-intensity conflict but it could escalate,” said a western diplomat. “Algeria could at some point join the battle to support Polisario. We are talking here about the risk of a regional conflict. ”

For its part, Rabat, which has received an enormous boost from the US endorsement, denies there has been any fighting at all. “These reports are unfounded,” a Moroccan diplomat told the Financial Times. “Morocco is attached to the ceasefire and to the political process.” About 600,000 people live in Western Sahara, a desert roughly the size of the

  1. When Spain, the former colonial power, withdrew from the territory in 1975, Morocco took it over. Polisario engaged in a 16-year war with the kingdom that ended with a ceasefire and plan for a referendum on independence. That process has been stalled for decades because the two sides have failed to agree on who is eligible to vote.