International and regional calculations in the Tigray crisis

Amani El-Taweel
Thursday 19 Nov 2020

The growing conflict in Ethiopia is more than a national issue, potentially destabilising the strategic Horn of Africa

The current armed conflict in Ethiopia constitutes one of several vengeance cycles and dangerous frictions spanning decades. They are founded on ethnic and national factors not yet integrated into the national Ethiopian state.

This Ethiopian case is one of the most significant national security threats in the Horn of Africa, closely associated with regional and international interests not to be underestimated, especially those linked to Red Sea security.

Moreover, this conflict also clearly impinges on the stability and the makeup of a number of neighbouring countries, such as Eritrea and Sudan. Furthermore, it is anticipated that Somalia will be affected if interventions are not made to appease this armed conflict.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Ethiopia constitutes a locale of strategic importance for Western interests, crystallised in Israeli approaches since the mid-20th century.

Israel has been interested in Ethiopia from two perspectives.

The first is related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, due to the fact that Ethiopia is a contiguous country to Arab countries and is capable of influencing its regional environment.

The second is religious and cultural, for the Ethiopian Falasha Tribe is considered the thirteenth lost tribe of Israel, according to Jewish legend.

According to these estimations, Ethiopia’s significance has risen in Western circles, especially with the advent of Islamic extremist movements in both Sudan and Somalia starting in the 1990s. Ethiopia has launched proxy wars, especially in Somalia against Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab (the Somali Youth Movement) since that same decade.

In the light of Ethiopia's weight, it seems that the international standpoint, especially the American one, traditionally stands against state disintegration in Ethiopia, like in Somalia. The intensity and violence of Ethiopian conflicts is far greater and incomparable with Somalia, which enjoys national, religious and denominational integration.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons behind the West’s approach in scaling in Somalia and wagering on Ethiopia. Consequently, that the Americans were slow in having a standpoint towards the outbreak of conflict is related to betting on Abiy Ahmed’s ability to end it militarily.

The US administration didn’t issue any statement denouncing military operations, except on the level of the US Embassy in Addis Ababa and the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

But military decisiveness is doubtful, putting into account that Tigray possesses long range missiles, according to the region’s governor Debretsion Gebremichael, and that the Tigray army launched attacks on Asmara in Eritrea and airports in Bahir Dar and Gondar in Amhara region.

On the European side, rapid political intervention didn’t crystallise to prevent escalation in Ethiopia. However, the EU urged in a statement the necessity of ending this military conflict.

On the other hand, China remained silent towards this internal conflict, which cost it a part of its investments in Ethiopia when Abiy Ahmed bombed the Tekezé Power Station in Tigray. China built this station within an umbrella of investments totalling approximately $1.5 trillion as of the end of 2018 as a result of cooperation agreements signed in 2014.

On the regional level, the continuance of this conflict in Ethiopia represents a suitable environment for redrawing maps of conflicts and alliances whether internally in Ethiopia or externally in the Horn of Africa.

As for the Horn of Africa, Eritrea occupies a major position in the dynamics of this armed conflict on account of the Tigray ethnicity being a divided ethnicity between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

This in its turn makes Asmara’s considerations aim against the strengthening of Ethiopian Tigrayans, which would have repercussions on Eritrea’s internal balances. In this context, we can understand the alliance between Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki, which made Asmara a target for bombardment by the Ethiopian Tigray region.

On the Sudanese level, the economic cost that Sudan bears appears big as a result of those fleeing the war and seeking asylum there. However, the political cost, and the effect on stability on eastern Sudan, will be tremendous if the Eritrean Beja supported the Sudanese Beja against Beni Amer in eastern Sudan — an area that witnesses tensions right now. Thus, Sudan decided to seal off its borders with both Ethiopia and Eritrea so as not to let anyone except civilians fleeing from the scourges of war pass.

Somalia isn’t far from these interactions, for the jihadist Al-Shabaab organisation might view this conflictive environment as suitable to take revenge on Addis Ababa, which fought a war against it in Somalia, especially that the Ethiopian army withdrew its personnel participating there within the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Perhaps the region’s countries, due to this environment of conflict in the Horn of Africa, are the first to interact in the raging war in Ethiopia from the perspective of each party’s own interests. If we agreed that Israel has firm relations with Ethiopia, then leaks mentioning that there is Israeli military support for Addis Ababa would be logical, especially providing Abiy Ahmed with drones.

In the same context, Turkey’s Erdogan offered his services to Addis Ababa, in order to complete the “arc” of Turkish influence starting from Somalia, as well as “aggravating” Cairo.

But regarding negotiating with Tigray region leaders, it seems that the Ethiopian stance is still far from taking this step. That has been asserted by Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, during his visit to Kampala, saying that Addis Ababa believes it is too early for solutions based on negotiations.

It also seems that Ethiopia's refusal of political solutions is based on two factors: Abiy Ahmed’s perception that conducting Ethiopian general elections, which he postponed in August, will be one of the mechanisms of a solution. Another point concerns the future federal formula, which Abiy Ahmed attempted through his Prosperity Party to terminate, instigating opposition that reached the extent of war. 

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