On November 13, a standoff over access to the Guergarat border crossing between the Western Sahara* and Mauritania broke a nearly three-decade ceasefire in the Western Sahara conflict between Rabat and the Polisario Front. Morocco says it fired on Polisario fighters in retaliation for what Rabat called their days-long blockade of the road, holding up some 200 trucks and threatening trade with Mauritania. Polisario, in turn, characterized the situation before the incident as locals peacefully protesting against Morocco’s presence in the area.

Parts of the road toward the crossing are under Morocco’s de facto control, while others fall in the thin buffer zone controlled by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. There is concern that the episode could reignite armed conflict between Morocco and Polisario. This would add to instability in North Africa and the Sahel after the war in Libya and the insurgency in Mali.

Following the skirmish, Polisario pointed out that Morocco’s actions violated the ceasefire and the group’s secretary general, Ibrahim Gali, declared war on the kingdom. Meanwhile, Morocco has given no sign that it seeks to escalate the situation. The Moroccan government framed its intervention as necessary to guarantee the movement of people and goods across the only access road to Mauritania. In that regard, Morocco received support from many traditional allies, including the Gulf monarchies. However, European partners, France, and the European Union have been cautious, indicating only tacit support for Morocco’s actions. That was likely to avoid alienating Algeria, the Polisario’s main backer, and to not antagonize activist groups in Europe that have grown more vocal about Morocco’s occupation of, and human rights violations in, the Western Sahara.

While the Guergarat crossing has long been a source of tension between the two sides, the strategically important road is not under complete Moroccan control, something that Rabat would like to change. But for many Sahrawis, what took place was a consequence of their broader disappointment over the failure of Morocco and Polisario, as well as the international community, to resolve the long-running Western Sahara conflict. The dispute over the former Spanish colony has been ongoing since 1975, when Morocco annexed the area ahead of Spain’s withdrawal.

Morocco and Polisario engaged in armed conflict between 1976 and 1991, when the United Nations brokered a peace agreement. This was based on the promise that a political process would follow—an integral part of which was a referendum of the Saharawi people to determine the territory’s fate. However, disagreements over who should be polled and from where provoked an impasse. In recent years, Morocco has abandoned the agreement to hold a referendum and instead pushed forward a plan that would allow greater autonomy for the provinces that make up the Western Sahara.

Morocco has tended to portray the issue as being frozen, with the two sides remaining far apart. Rabat will only accept autonomy under Moroccan rule, while Polisario will only consent to full independence. Such entrenched views harden the status quo, which for Morocco represents an acceptable solution.

Algeria’s support for Polisario has had both philosophical and practical benefits, and makes it an indirect party to the conflict, with an important role. For decades, Algeria’s anti-colonial stance predisposed it to sympathize with the Sahrawis’ cause and it views the Western Sahara as a decolonization issue. But for Algiers, Polisario has also functioned as useful leverage in the tense Algerian relationship with Morocco. Morocco’s monarchy, on the other hand, continues to present the Western Sahara conflict as source of legitimacy and popularity—the great struggle uniting Moroccans. Furthermore, the dispute has not prevented it from developing the area as it would any other part of its territory, in fact more so.

Polisario’s willingness to declare a war against Morocco now probably indicates a desire to create momentum to resolve the Western Sahara issue due to the front’s own internal challenges and changes in Algeria. Polisario’s leadership is facing dissatisfaction inside and outside the refugee camps it controls in Algeria. The population that Polisario governs in Sahrawi camps and those supporting it within Moroccan-controlled territory have faced years of hardship waiting for a political resolution, but nothing that Polisario has done has brought this any closer. In addition, Algeria’s domestic circumstances have changed substantially over the past year and it is difficult to assess if its support for Polisario will remain the same indefinitely.

Morocco, likewise, might see a moment of opportunity to gain a greater advantage in the conflict. Already the country has moved to secure control over the Guergarat crossing, and to build a barrier through the narrow corridor that connects Morocco to Mauritania—an extension of the sand berm it had built to separate Moroccan-controlled areas from those under Polisario’s authority.

Whether Morocco’s action is legal is a daunting question on which the UN has yet to publicly speak. With the international community focused on combating the Covid-19 pandemic, general fatigue over the long-running Western Sahara conflict, and a rocky political transition taking place in the United States, Morocco may see an opening to pursue its agenda. If the Trump administration pushes for agreements between Arab states and Israel before leaving office, for example, Morocco might be tempted to go along with this if it leads to U.S. recognition of Moroccan control over the Western Sahara.

While armed conflict threatens to resume between the two sides, the region continues to struggle with the impact of Covid-19, the economic pressures it has generated for already ailing economies, and the social and political weaknesses it has highlighted. Morocco faces its own social and economic challenges that would make a conflict less than ideal. The Algerian government, in turn, is facing significant economic pressures because of diminishing oil and gas revenues, and a lack of legitimacy among a population calling for widespread reform. While in certain cases such problems could make conflict more probable, for Morocco and Algeria today the costs would outweigh the benefits—especially since both gain from the status quo. Meanwhile, the fate of the Sahrawi people remains in limbo.

So far, the situation is looking increasingly like the sort of low-level conflict that it was during the 1970s and 1980s. On November 15, gunfire was reported in a few spots along the sand berm. However, there has been little information from the Moroccan Army about the attacks. A Polisario spokesman, Ould Salek, announced that his group was mobilizing “thousands of volunteers.” Morocco has indicated that it would not shy away from responding. Meanwhile, the Algerian military released a statement last week urging both sides to show restraint, a fairly subdued response compared to past statements.

Still, the border incident—and the whole conflict—is a reminder of the dangers of the unresolved problem in the Western Sahara. It also highlights the extent of the dysfunction in the relationship between Morocco and Algeria, and the lack of security or political coordination among states across North Africa.

*This sentence was corrected because of an error.