The US: Last warning to end war in Tigray

Lamis El-Sharqawy, Friday 24 Sep 2021

The US is running out of patience with the fighting in northern Ethiopia

A woman holds a child during a screening for malnutrition in pregnant and lactating women by UNICEF
A woman holds a child during a screening for malnutrition in pregnant and lactating women by UNICEF and partners in Gijet in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Tuesday, July 20, 2021. AP

After months of failed attempts to stop the fighting in Tigray, Washington has announced a new raft of sanctions to be put in pace should the warring parties fail to reach a ceasefire or block humanitarian aid.

The executive order signed by US President Joe Biden and issued on Friday was an explicit warning that sanctions will extend to all parties involved in the conflict and punitive actions will include the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara regional government “to target those responsible for, or complicit in, prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia, obstructing humanitarian access, or preventing a ceasefire”. The announcement reveals that Washington has hit a dead end in the 10-month conflict that left reportedly thousands of people killed and hundreds displaced.

The Ethiopian forces entered Tigray in November after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that government forces had been attacked by elements of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional party that dominated national politics for nearly three decades until 2018.

Recently in August, Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, called on Ethiopians to join the armed forces to support them in the war on Tigray. This took place following a dramatic turn in June when Tigrayan forces recaptured the regional capital, Mekelle, and the Ethiopian army largely withdrew, despite Abiy’s pledges to end the conflict and achieve a “swift victory”. Abiy intransigently did not respond to various calls by the international community and African leaders to sit down for talks with Tigray, and continued to launch military offensives against the region.

Since July the war has spread from Tigray to two other Ethiopian regions, Amhara and Afar, displacing hundreds of thousands, local authorities said. The new pressure move pushed Abiy to respond in an online letter to Biden’s administration, accusing the US of failing to support Ethiopia in its struggle against the TPLF, which Ethiopia labels as a terrorist group.

Abiy Ahmed also rebuffed a request to meet face to face with Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in Tigray, dealing a blow to US efforts to end a conflict destabilising a country that was once an ally against terrorism in the Horn region.

In May, the US put visa restrictions and economic sanctions on some officials from Eritrea and Ethiopia as a part of Washington’s effort to bring the conflict to a halt, by imposing penalties on the Ethiopian government and other entities and individuals in the war.

The US Trade Representative Katherine Tai informed a government senior trade adviser, Mamo Mihretu, that if Ethiopia doesn’t address the ongoing human rights violations in Tigray’s conflict, this could affect Ethiopia’s future African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility. AGOA presents the Ethiopian economy with a crucial trade programme that allows the sub-Saharan country to import US goods duty-free. However, the US administration confirmed that Washington will put the sanctions on hold if Ethiopia and Tigray enter peace talks and apply a ceasefire.

“The United States is determined to push for a peaceful resolution of this conflict,” Biden said in a statement.

Ethiopia has been in an accelerating humanitarian catastrophe exacerbated by the continued determination of Tigrayan, Amhara, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to pursue a military solution, according to Jason Mosley, a research associate at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University. Mosley believes the US framework for sanctions is “unlikely to lead to a shift” in positions in Ethiopia in the short term, and expects that the move is “more likely to push Abiy Ahmed and the elites that back his government closer together.”

Mosley feels the US has better tools to put pressure on Ethiopia. “US leverage in Ethiopia is extremely limited. However, if the United States wanted to have a more positive impact, it could look to police the activities of Ethiopian diaspora activists in the US, or using US based social media. Many of these activists are US citizens,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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