As Ethiopia’s conflict with its Tigray region intensifies, with rockets being fired at Eritrea’s capital Asmara, the danger of the conflict drawing in regional actors heightens.
Over the weekend the conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dramatically escalated when the TPLF fired rockets into Eritrea’s capital Asmara.
“As long as troops are here fighting, we will take any legitimate military target and we will fire,” said the Tigray state president Debretsion Gebremichael, who accused Eritrea of intervening in the war on behalf of Abiy Ahmed with 16 battalions.
The rockets appeared to be aimed at Asmara Airport, which Gebremichael said was being used by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), not long after Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF figure, threatened they would take action.
Tibor Nagy, the US’s top diplomat for Africa condemned the TPLF’s attack as “unjustifiable” and its wider “efforts to internationalise the conflict in Tigray”. The TPLF views its attack on Eritrea as retaliatory, though Eritrea denies any involvement in the conflict. Abiy Ahmed also tweeted that the Ethiopian government can realise the “objectives of the operation by itself.”
Gebremichael has appealed to the African Union to mediate, as well as appealing more widely for negotiation from regional bodies and the international community. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni hosted Ethiopia’s foreign minister in a move viewed as an attempt to de-escalate the crisis. But Prime Minister Ahmed has insisted that this is an internal issue, which will be swiftly resolved through the federal government “law enforcement operation”.
This conflict, always carrying the risk of bleeding over into Ethiopia’s turbulent neighbourhood, has also developed a regional dynamic.
Getachew Reda, a member of the TPLF’s Executive Committee has accused Abiy Ahmed of “enlisting the support of UAE drones” based in Eritrea’s Assab. No evidence was provided for this claim but it remains to be seen if the UAE will tolerate hostilities against a nation hosting one of its bases.
Eritrea gave the Saudi-led coalition access to its airspace and opened its strategic Assab port to coalition forces, which the UAE was a part of in its war against the Houthis in Yemen. The UN also reported that 400 Eritrean troops took part in the operation. Abiy Ahmed developed a close relationship with Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki after coming to power in 2018 and won a Nobel Peace Prize for ending that conflict.
Mohamed Kheir Omer, a political blogger and former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, which fought with Ethiopia to create Eritrea, tells TRT World that many “local sources from the field in Eritrea tell us that Eritrea is fully engaged in the fighting.”
“Ethiopian soldiers are brought by planes to Eritrea and then fight with Eritrean soldiers along the border and local sources tell us that there are many wounded Ethiopian soldiers in the hospitals of Barentu and Hijferai near Hagat in western Eritrea” Omer continues.
The Tigray state was the frontline in Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea in the late 90s, and played an outsized role in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition - the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) - during that period. The relationship remained bitter until Abiy Ahmed came to power, sidelining the TPLF in the ruling coalition and founding the Prosperity Party which replaced it.
The TPLF described the alleged collaboration between Ethiopia and Eritrea against them as “the most shameful betrayal in history” on their Facebook page. “Our country is attacking us with a foreign country, Eritrea. Treason!” said the Tigray state president more recently. A few days before the conflict started, the Eritrean embassy in Ethiopia posted an article which said “game-over!” targeted at the TPLF leadership.
“But Eritrea denies involvement because it would embarrass the Ethiopian Prime Minister as he says we are doing it alone” Omer says.
Despite reports about Eritrea being actively involved, Asmara hasn’t formally declared war against the TPLF. Mohammed Ibrahim Shire, a Lecturer in Security Risk Management at Portsmouth University, with a focus on east Africa, says “Eritrea is avoiding being plunged into this conflict, mainly because it plays into the TPLF’s playbook of transforming it from a local conflict to a regional conflict.”
“Eritrea’s restraint to retaliate against TPLF’s aggression is a strategic move to contain the conflict within the borders of Ethiopia and avoid using the foreign invasion by Ethiopia’s ‘archenemy’ as a rallying card” Shire tells TRT World.
The conflict also has serious implications for Sudan whose border has provided an exit point for civilians fleeing the conflict. Despite the prime minister’s assurances of a swift and clinical operation, the humanitarian situation appears to be deteriorating. On Sunday, the UN’s refugee agency said the number of people who have arrived in Sudan has risen to at least 20,000 as the conflict enters its 11th day. Sudan’s refugee agency put the number closer to 25,000.
The regional complexities
Sudanese prime minister Abdullah Hamdok, recognising the risk posed by prolonged conflict in Ethiopia, offered mediation in his capacity as chair of east Africa’s regional intergovernmental body IGAD. The offer was quickly snubbed, with Ahmed insisting on the internal character of the conflict.
Sudan historically had close ties with the TPLF during Omar Al Bashir’s presidency, helping the TPLF before it came to power in the mid-90s and even moving towards the Ethiopian position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. But soon after Abiy Ahmed was made prime minister, popular protests began in Sudan which eventually ousted Bashir in 2019.
Whilst Sudan’s military and civilian leaders have maintained a close relationship with Ahmed, partly due to the mediating role he attempted to take earlier in the transition, relations could get complicated should Sudan attempt to exploit the conflict in the Tigray state for strategic leverage over Addis Ababa.
Sudan has a number of issues with Ethiopia. It has an unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia at its agriculturally rich Fashqa Triangle. Whilst the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took a conciliatory tone following skirmishes at the border in April this year, Sudan might use the Tigray conflict as a way to exact concessions from Abiy Ahmed in exchange for guarantees that it will cut off any supply lines to the TPLF through its border which is “awash with contraband weapons smuggling”.
Sudan also recently carried out military exercises over the weekend. “Nile’s Eagles-1”, the name given to the exercise, will be carried out in Sudan until the end of November, and is the first since Bashir was overthrown last year.
Both countries share concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its potential impact on the flow of water downstream to Egypt with both Egypt & Ethiopia courting Khartoum to win support for their opposing positions on the project.
President Trump recently said Egypt would “blow up” the dam if an agreement isn’t reached, infuriating Ethiopian officials, with the foreign minister at the time summoning US ambassador Michael Raynor to explain Trump’s provocative comments.
“Sudan believes Abiy is not sincere on the border issue and dismissive of the demarcation lines being sought by Khartoum, and also believe Abiy has been shooting from the hip on the regional issues including the Gerd dam” says Sami Hamdi, Editor in Chief of the International Interest.
This is the context in which these military operations take place, Hamdi continues.
“It is a clear message from Cairo that it will support Khartoum in resisting pressure from Ethiopia, and that Abiy’s only hope for respite in his war with the Tigray is in making concessions. The risk however is that Abiy wins the war regardless, and brings his anger to bear against a Sudan that remains fragile, and an Egypt that is running out of options.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres already emphasised the importance of Ethiopia for stability in the wider Horn of Africa region, calling for an end to the conflict but its in Somalia where there is a huge risk short-term posed by Al Shabab.
At least 200 Tigrayan troops in Ethiopia’s AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia have reportedly had their guns confiscated. Ethiopia has also reportedly redeployed 3000 troops which have been helping Somalia fight against Al Shabab. The dismissals have impacted the African Union, whose security chief, Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese, was sacked following a request from Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government has since claimed it arrested several members of Al Shabab and ISIS operating in Ethiopia, but inconsistencies in this claim have been highlighted. Al Shabab also denied the Ethiopian account, describing it as “politically motivated”.
Ismail Osman, former deputy head of Somalia’s intelligence agency NISA tells TRT World, that “Sector 3 of AMISOM is the first line of defence against Al Shabab to stop a possible capture of Gedo, Bay & Bakool regions. Shabab is on high alert & will be watching this too closely.”
AMISOM’s peacekeeping mission has helped the Somali government maintain control over many towns which Somali forces have recaptured from the militant group. But Al Shabab has been recently emboldened, carrying out attacks against Ethiopia, Kenyan and American forces.
“Somali National Army alone cannot defend these regions,” Osman says, “and it is very likely Shabab will gain territory in the coming days or months.”
Kenya will also be watching closely as a possible security vacuum might give Al Shabab breathing room to increase operations against Kenya.
The threat posed by Al Shabab in Kenya has grown in recent months with the US requesting permission to extend its drone campaign in Somalia into Kenya. This comes after Al Shabab managed to carry out a cross border attack on Manda Bay, a Kenyan base which houses US troops killing three US servicemen.
The group has been declared the “most capable terrorist group on the African continent in terms of the ability to potentially threaten Western interests regionally.”
“Al-Shabab is actively following this ongoing event. For years, it has been trying to gain a foothold in Ethiopia but to no avail” says Shire. “As such, it is not much of whether they will increase their violent operations against Kenya but whether they can exploit Ethiopia’s incipient civil conflict.”