The Iranian fingers reach North Africa. The Polisario and Western Sahara issue re-emerges but not by accident

After many years of relative peace it is no longer quiet on the Western  Front.

The Western Saharan map. over a hundred thousand Sahrawi refugees live in Algeria The pink line is the Sand Wall.

The thumbnail sketch of the issue. 1884 Spain colonized Western Sahara, formerly populated by Muslim Berber tribes.Over time they became Arabized. IN 1934 It becomes a Spanish province known as Spanish Sahara. Many of the men served in General Franco'[s Moorish legions that July ultimately defeated the communist/socialist “republicans” for control of Spain in the Spanish civil war , 1936-39.It actually  began with a revolt by nationalist Army officers in Spanish Sahara.

It is a totally desert area, with one of the lowest population densities in the world. The  native tribespeople are generally bedouin tribes people, and some were fishermen.  Until Spain controlled it it was basically left untouched by foreigners, mostly because few thought it was with worth  much. The Spanish, however took great pride in being a colonial power, and when huge  high grade phosphate deposits ( 1.7 billion tons) were found in the region  it became much more important to the Franco regime.  Then in the early seventies, a one hundred mile conveyer system was built to bring the ore from the inland desert to the port constructed for it. ( al Aiun)

Generalissimo Franco

The Spanish rule of the region was marked by high handed methods, sometimes brutal, and through the elders of the  Arab Sahrawi tribes. The Spanish were not known as subscribing to the “Hearts and Minds” approach to foreign internal development.As it happened so often the taste for nationalism originated with Europeans, Spaniards who were still longing for the lost  “Republican” regime in Spain and that infected the Sahrawi youth.

The “Green March”

1973 Tribes in region began an insurgency against the Spanish and in 1975 the Spanish departed as General Franco lingered on his death bed so long it became a standing joke on late night TV. Immediately a three way battle began as Morocco, Mauritania and the newly formed Polisario Front , the armed wing of the proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic  Republic (SDAR) claimed the region. Poor Mauritania was unable to contend with the Polisario guerrilla warfare and gave up their claim in 1979.  Morocco did not, and so the warfare continued until 1991.  The United States brokered an accord in 1993 and an UN organization known as MINURSO deployed to oversee a referendum which has not happened. Bangladesh has contributed to most troops to theMINURSO.

Spanish Legion troops in Western Sahara

The war between the Polisario and Morocco was a bloody one with the Sahrawis inflicting many casualties on the Moroccan army of ill trained villagers lost in a desert environment. Again and again road bound Moroccan convoys were ambushed  and wiped out. Even with French active support, mostly air and special elite troop trainers,  and  American materiel aid, the Moroccans  were humiliated time and again. The Polisario perfected the operations conducted by David Stirling and his jeep transported troops in WWII. Special Air Services (SAS) troops drove through the desert and attacked German and Italian units and lines of communications hundreds of miles behind Enemy lines. The Polisario perfected this and many other tactics that were later used by the ISIS, using Toyota pick up trucks armed with heavy machine guns. They on several occasions crossed the border into Morocco and attacked Moroccan towns at one time traveling 500m kilometers through Moroccan territory with 1500 men and 200 jeeps. This tactic convinced  the Moroccan king that something had to be done.

Spanish and colonial troops

The Polisario, on the other hand were being  generously supplied with Soviet weaponry by Algeria, North Korea, and Libya,   supplying weapons, including some armor, and  sophisticated Air Defense  weapons. The Cubans were supplying  training teams. Of course world “elitist” opinion at the time held the attitude that revolutionary warfare was always destined to always win and that the revolutionaries were possessors of the holy grail.The war in Vietnam,  Palestine, and  in various South American countries had indelibly embedded that belief. The Polisario had the advantage of having the support of the Sahrawi people, the “informed” class in Europe ,and also the benefit of being able to run back into Algeria when being pursued by the Moroccans.

the sand wall “the Berm”

At this point It should be noted that Algeria and Morocco have been traditional enemies since the departure of the French.  They fought a border war in 1963 in which the Algerians were soundly trashed. Having spent time  in both countries I can attest to the vast difference in character. the Algerians having bought into socialism have suffered the inevitable effects that socialism always brings, principally inertia and a lack of individual initiative. They are not a happy people, usually at war with themselves. Crossing into Morocco was like traveling from a dark night into  bright sunshine. Morocco is not a shining example of a democracy but it has at least  a  generally benevolent authoritarian rule—-comparatively—-  in any event. Compared to most Arab countries, Morocco has enjoyed decades of stability although  the late King Hassan narrowly  escaped a couple of assassination attempts.

Sahrawi women

The Moroccan  military leadership was notoriously inept until a young General  by the name of Ahmad Dlimi  came on there scene. He is a great example of the” great man”theory in a smaller vein.. KingHassan retired his cronies in the military leadership, finally accepted the seriousness of the situation and took measures to stop the Polisario incursions and  devastating attacks on Moroccan army units.

The losing war war for Morocco changed radically when General Ahmad Dlimi convinced King Hassan to let him run the war (1979) He dismantled the many small Moroccan outposts which were  frequently being overrun by the Polisario, reorganized the army, concentrated on training, used lessons learned, ( something  most Arab armies disregard), replaced slow moving vehicles with jeeps and  Toyota  type vehicles, and made use of American Special Operations training  putting an offensive sprit back into the army. The Polisario did not fold their tents and creep away however, and their attacks continued, disappearing into the mountainous regions and the vast desert as well as fleeing back into Algeria.

MINURSO troops

In 1980 General Dlimi came up with the concept of the “strategy of walls” and the berms. The Moroccans over  the years have constructed a wall of 2,700 kilometers of sand and rocks,  with a 5 kilometer wide minefield in front of the wall. With the help of the Americans, many sensitive detection devices were installed and 300 fortified posts and and observation points.  It encloses about 80% of the Western Sahara leaving 20% of desert to the Polsario. About 150, 000 Moroccan soldiers man the berm and the Algerian border fortifications.

Sahrawis celebrating

All through the eighties the Polisario launched attacks against remote parts of the wall but gradually both sides realized then war was not winnable and in 1991 an accord was signed and the MINURSO,  ( United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara)the UN peacekeeping organization deployed to the Western Sahara, which today consists of 493  personnel, including 245 Military personnel. It has been mostly successful for the simple reason that returning to war was not an option for either side, so the cease fire held for 29 years……until the ” Abraham Accords” became a reality and as it appeared that Morocco might join the UAE and Bahrain in entering into the accord with Israel, Algeria and Iran got nervous. Morocco has never been in the forefront in the forever war against Israel and would seem to be on course to join 6the Accords, inciting Algerian officials to aver that they will will never allow the Zionist state (Israel) on their border, meaning watch out Morocco. So in early December this year  the Polisario set up road blocks on the main road from Morocco to the western part of North Africa, while Polisario officials made war noises and pledged never to allow Morocco to obtain full sovereignty over the Western Sahara.


Hezbollah, one of Iran’s most trusted surrogate  groups, and one of its best, has been involved in training Polisario groups and Iran has launched a full throated propaganda campaign to influence the direction of the opinion on Western  Sahara.

Polisario troops

I have not really gotten into the the rights and wrongs of the issue.  But there are a couple of points that should be noted. MINURSO is there to oversee a referendum of the native people, but it will never happen because Morocco  knows  it will lose…..despite the famous “Green march”in 1975 in which King Hassan sent thousands of Moroccans to settle in the Western Sahara. Morocco had been one of the most consistent American allies in the diplomatic arena, and President Trump recently offered his support to Morocco in their claim of ownership.

Birds of a feather; Iran’s long reach

My opinion was summarized in a statement made by Moammar Gaddafi in one of his lucid moments, “the last thing the Arab World needs is another small state.”







About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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