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A seismic shift in U.S. North African policy

By THOMAS A. NASSIF, MICHAEL USSERY, FREDERICK VREELAND, MARC GINSBERG and MARGARET TUTWILER, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Oct. 9, 2008 at 1:20 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to appoint seasoned U.S. diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria and Syria Christopher Ross as his personal envoy for Western Sahara. This appointment hopefully will continue the momentum of the current negotiations process to end the three-decades-old conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed rebel movement that has challenged Morocco's historical sovereignty over a Colorado-sized desert territory in North Africa (sometimes known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic).

Despite a cease-fire that dates back to 1991, the United Nations has had little success in resolving this dispute or bringing relief to the thousands in Polisario-controlled refugee camps whose lives hang in the balance.

As former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco who closely follow U.S. policy in the region, we were encouraged by the recent significant shift in how the U.S. administration addresses this long-standing conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Over the past months the U.S. government publicly, and on several occasions, acknowledged that compromise, in the form of autonomy for the Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, is the only viable and realistic solution. This new development creates real possibilities for ending the conflict in the Western Sahara, which has contributed to significant economic and political instability in North Africa.

This compromise did not appear by chance. Determined to end this conflict "from a long-gone era," as described by Morocco's King Muhammad VI, Morocco has compromised its long-established position for integrating the Sahara by offering broad-ranging autonomy consistent with international standards for self-determination. This opening enabled the Security Council to sponsor negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict and ending the humanitarian crisis for the tens of thousands of refugees held in camps around Tindouf in southwest Algeria.

Since April 2007, when Morocco presented its compromise proposal, the United Nations has mediated four rounds of negotiations between the parties, which have shown promise, but little progress. At the conclusion of the fourth round of negotiations, Ban and his personal envoy Peter van Walsum briefed the U.N. Security Council on the status of the negotiations, after which the members unanimously opted for "realism" rather than prolonging the stalemate that has existed for more than 30 years. The United States played a significant role in this sea change, noting in its statement following the briefing, "For our part, we agree with Mr. van Walsum's assessment that an independent Sahrawi state is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution."

This position and its subsequent elaboration by U.S. State Department and White House officials represent an enormous step forward in engaging the parties to finally resolve the Western Sahara conflict. This shift in U.S. policy, and the appointment of Ambassador Ross, may provide the impetus for overcoming the challenges that have bedeviled U.N. efforts to date.

The U.S. Congress has also strongly endorsed Morocco's compromise initiative. In fact, 173 members of the House, including its bipartisan leadership and most of the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, signed a letter circulated by Reps. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., supporting the Moroccan initiative.

Ending the Western Sahara conflict makes sense for the parties themselves, the refugees and U.S. national interests.

Resolving this conflict would clear the way for greater economic cooperation among the five countries of the Maghreb, which is long overdue.

The increase in terrorist activities in the region can be combated effectively only through transnational strategies based on greater cooperation between Morocco and Algeria. Algeria must be strongly encouraged to support this U.S. policy shift to advance our mutual interests in the region. And giving the refugees the opportunities for normal lives, a return to their families and an end to the isolation of the refugee camps is a goal that should be achieved sooner rather than later.

This change in U.S. policy and the support of the Security Council bring resolution of the Western Sahara conflict into the realm of the likely; we should not let this real chance for peace be squandered.

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(Thomas A. Nassif, Michael Ussery, Frederick Vreeland, Marc Ginsberg and Margaret Tutwiler served as U.S. ambassadors to Morocco under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, William J. Clinton and George W. Bush.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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