Written by Piero Messina.
Morocco is a lion that roars to conquer the Western Sahara Desert. But now the roar of that lion frightens Spain too.
Since 1836, Morocco has been a valuable ally for the United States in Africa, so much so that now it has been called a “non-NATO ally, eligible for priority delivery of defense material, defense research and development programs”. It is for this reason that the United States, since 2007, has been engaged in joint military exercises with Morocco called the African Lion.
At the 2021 edition, the largest US military exercise ever conducted on this continent, participate 7800 troops (coming from nine nations Nato’s partner), located between Morocco, Senegal, Ghana and Tunisia. African Lion is conducted by U.S. Africa Command, also known as Southern European Task Force. African Lion is linked to U.S. European Command’s Defender series exercise. African Lion cost amounts to 28 million dollars.
African Lion plans to deploy over 7,800 military, 21 fighter-bombers, 46 transport aircraft, 100 land-based heavy vehicles and several naval units from nine countries (in addition to the United States and Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Italy, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Brazil and Canada), the direct contribution of NATO and 21 “international observers” (African Union, Burkina Faso, Chad, Denmark, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Gabon, Djibouti, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Qatar)
For the American military, African Lion 21 is a “multi-domain, multi-component, and multi-national exercise, which will employ a full array of mission capabilities with the goal to strengthen interoperability among partner nations and enhance the ability to operate in the African theater of operations.” The war games are integrated between sky, land and sea. Air training exercise are coordinated by the U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa, will feature U.S. and Moroccan air maneuvers including bombers, fighters and aerial refueling. But also is a naval maneuvers include a naval gunfire exercise and multiple sea-based maneuvers involving U.S. and Moroccan navies and crisis response capabilities.
On a geopolitical level, Spain’s absence from these war games is very important.
Spain has withdrawn its participation from the joint-military exercise African Lion 2021. Spain’s Ministry of Defense officially cites budgetary restrictions for withdrawing. But according to the reconstruction made by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the truth is different: Spain’s government does not wish to “legitimize the occupation of the Sahara.”
The Spanish armed forces had participated in African Lion every year. But the choice to make them in Western Sahara made it impossible for the Spanish troops to deploy. Rabat has chosen as scenarios the areas of Tan Tan (in southern Morocco, facing the Canary Islands, where it has a maneuvering field built by the United States), Mahbes (north-east of Western Sahara, just over 100 kilometers from the Saharawi refugee camps from Tindouf, Algeria) and Dakhla (the ancient Villa Cisneros, southwest of the former Spanish colony).
The dispute over the Western Sahara began in 1975 when, following the withdrawal of Spanish rule, Morocco annexed a part of this area, located on the north-western coast of Africa. In response, in 1976, the Polisario Front, formed as a movement on May 10, 1973, announced the birth of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), establishing a government in exile in Algeria and waging a guerrilla war for independence that lasted until September 6, 1991, the year in which a ceasefire was declared, promoted by the United Nations Mission for the referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
To date, the government of Rabat claims its sovereignty over Western Sahara, while the Polisario Front continues to fight for a referendum to be held for the self-determination of its territory, where about half a million individuals lives.
About 30 years after the ceasefire was proclaimed, tensions rekindled on November 13, 2020, when the Moroccan authorities decided to intervene in the buffer zone of Guerguerat, a small village in the extreme southwest of Western Sahara, to respond to the “dangerous and unacceptable provocations” of the Polisario Front. In reality, already on 21 October, according to what reported by Moroccan sources, armed groups loyal to the Polisario Front, equal to about 70 fighters, had closed the border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania and had infiltrated the Guerguerat area, hindering the movement of people and goods, as well as limiting the work of the military observers of the UN Mission MINURSO.
Overriding the position of the United Nations, with the support of the American government (Trump or Biden makes no difference), Morocco is about to settle definitively on that territory disputed with the Polisario Front. Madrid also has another problem. The Moroccan army has become an extreme competitor.
In theory, the goal of the Moroccan arms race is to challenge Algeria to regional hegemony. But, now Spanish military sources acknowledge that the balance with Spain has also been altered: there are capabilities in those where both countries are nearly equal and others where Morocco has taken the technological lead. And Spain has never been too loved by Morocco.
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