Foreign Policy

Sudan will determine the result of the Ethiopian civil struggle

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – As the world prepared for the US elections in early November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a war against the northern region of Tigray. Located in the region is the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front – the party that ruled Ethiopian politics for decades and has since been driven out and withdrawn when Abiy tried to consolidate power and make peace with the archenemy of the TPLF, Eritrea, close.

But the TPLF didn't go quietly; In September, the regional government she heads held local elections, which the central government did not recognize in October. Then, on November 3, following provocations from Abiy, it took control of personnel, military equipment, and equipment from the federal army's northern command, prompting Addis Ababa to declare war on a region where a sizable section of the Ethiopian Confederation live and the arsenal the armed forces of the army are because of their position along the long-contested and still undefined border with Eritrea.

Abiy has long accused the TPLF old guard of trying to sabotage his government and its alleged reforms. But now, in the face of an all-out war against a formidable enemy, the outcome will affect the choice of Ethiopia's neighbors – Sudan and Eritrea.

Members of the Tigray Region Special Police Parade during the 45th anniversary celebrations of the start of the “armed struggle of the peoples of Tigray” in Mekelle, Ethiopia on February 19. MICHAEL TEWELDE / AFP via Getty Images

Although Tigray is small, it is well armed and its forces are battle-tested. Tigray's regional special forces, which a senior Ethiopian diplomat estimates has grown to at least 20,000 commandos – led by senior Tigrayan officers who were forced into retirement by Abiy, as well as a permanent group of reserve special units made up of militia-trained militias and armed peasants – have an estimated 250,000 armed fighters. Until recently, however, they lacked the heavy weapons to directly confront a fully equipped division.

As of last week, the TPLF has taken control of half of the soldiers from the five divisions of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) who remain in Tigray. This means it has recruited 15,000 soldiers, according to three sources: a senior Ethiopian diplomat was briefed on the latest developments, a senior retired intelligence officer in Tigray who continues to work for the TPLF, and a source in Tigray who is overseeing the situation. However, the seizure of Ethiopian military equipment and equipment has increased the importance of logistical supplies to the TPLF, which will inevitably depend on the attitude of Sudan.

Sudan has a number of strategic reasons to support the TPLF in the civil war against the Ethiopian government, or at least consider it supportive.

While Sudan has officially closed the borders between Tigray and the Sudanese border states of Kassala and Gadaref – Tigray's only logistical link to the outside world in terms of fuel, ammunition and food – it could use threats to help the TPLF Extract concessions from Addis Ababa for the controversial Fashqa triangle.

Fashqa is approximately 100 square miles of prime agricultural land bordering the Ethiopian state of Amhara, which Sudan claims under an agreement signed in 1902 between the United Kingdom and Ethiopia under Emperor Menelik II and subsequently reinforced by various Ethiopian leaders, including the TPLF .

The Fashqa dispute remains a major complaint for the ethnic Amhara farmers in Ethiopia near the border trying to cultivate the land and is an obstacle in the negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Like Egypt, Sudan has rejected Ethiopia's proposal for guidelines that would anchor Ethiopia's future ability to control the annual Blue Nile flow at its own discretion, and Khartoum is already using the issue as a lever to pressure Abiy on Fashqa to where Ethiopia and Sudan continue to have a military presence.

However, if Sudan backs Tigray, which also borders Eritrea, the civil war will certainly be a protracted affair, and the strategic impact on Khartoum's relations with Addis Ababa and Asmara could be too high. Indeed, the region could quickly return to the state of proxy conflict that preceded the rise of Abiy and the collapse of the regime of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – or spark a major regional fire.

Thousands of people in Sudan have fled Ethiopia for a week, including officials from the ENDF, when they spoke to the Sudanese civilian premier Abdalla Hamdok about the matter. While Bashir has allied himself with Ethiopia's former TPLF-led regime, the TPLF's influence in Khartoum has been limited since Bashir fell from power and because he no longer controls the Ethiopian state.

The state of Sudan is already fragile and it wants to ensure that it has at least minimal relations with its neighbors. For now, Khartoum orders focused on alienating neither Addis Ababa nor Asmara – a message that has fallen on the Sudanese armed forces stationed on the borders with Ethiopia, a senior Sudanese military officer said.

Sudan is not the only neighboring country that has a keen interest in the outcome of the civil war. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki's envoys traveled to Khartoum on November 11 to visit the chairman of the Sudanese Transitional Council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, presumably to urge the Sudanese military, which has real power, to shut down any potential logistic support of the TPLF.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will meet with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan from Sudan on June 7, 2019 in Khartoum, Sudan. AFP via Getty Images

It was clear from the start that Abiy wanted to provoke, but he didn't expect the TPLF to replace an entire military command. At the end of October, a week before the TPLF took control of the remaining northern command in Tigray, Abiy created a new regional command in the Ethiopian state of Amhara, adding to its ranks the two divisions of the northern command already stationed in Amhara.

The northern command comprises eight of the 32 divisions of the ENDF. Three of them have been stationed outside Tigray for two years since Abiy expanded the northern command's area of ​​operations: one armored division in the north of the Ethiopian state of Afar and two divisions in Amhara. Military maneuvers against Tigray are now underway on three fronts: from Eritrea, Afar and Amhara, with Eritrea and Amhara being used to cut the TPLF off from Sudan.

On November 1st, a few days after Abiy had created the new command, Burhan flew to Addis Ababa with the director-general of the Sudanese secret service and the head of the military secret service. Control of the Ethiopia-Sudan border has been announced, suggesting Abiy attempted to completely orbit Tigray prior to a premeditated confrontation with the TPLF.

Both Abiy and Isaias, who went to war against the leaders of the TPLF two decades ago and led to a bloody Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict that lasted 20 years, are on a bloodlust for the TPLF. This shared hostility towards the former Ethiopian regime, rather than any kind of brotherly love, was the main motivation for establishing diplomatic relations two years ago for the Abiy was celebrated with last year's poorly judged Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee failed to see that the award was rewarding a peace process that really intended to end one war while laying the groundwork for anotherhow it is today.

According to sources in both Tigray and the Ethiopian government, soldiers in divisions of the ENDF Northern Command in Tigray split into three groups over the past week: half of the TPLF, a quarter – Abiy loyalists and mostly ethnic Amhara officers – fled to Eritrea, and the rest refused to fight the Bundeswehr and were locked in barracks. The sources in Tigray were able to speak to us at times via the satellite internet and thus bypass the shutdown of telecommunications imposed there by Abiy.

While the TPLF had considerable success last week in taking control of the personnel, military equipment and equipment of the divisions of the ENDF's Northern Command, continued success in a protracted civil war will ultimately depend on Sudan's support.

Sudanese protesters hold national flags of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia as they gather for a march in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum on April 25, 2019. Tens of thousands of demonstrators from all directions gathered at the headquarters of the Sudanese army after they held a “million-dollar demonstration to demand the relinquishment of power by the ruling military council. OZAN ​​KOSE / AFP via Getty Images

Sudan has a long history in Ethiopian and Eritrean affairs. Even before the TPLF and Isaias came to power in the 1990s, Sudan secretly assisted both the TPLF and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in enabling the passage of military and humanitarian logistics across their borders. (Isaiah later split from the ELF, which has since formed a number of factions). At the time, Sudan's commitment was critical to their success, but it would be difficult for Sudan to revert to the same tactic.

If Khartoum does this, it has a lot to lose. Abiy could reciprocate by supporting Sudanese rebel groups after unstable peace agreements they signed with the Sudanese transitional government in October – for example in the Sudanese state of Blue Nile, which borders the Ethiopian state of Benishangul-Gumuz, where the GERD is located. Isaiah could also support subgroups of the Beja – a group of tribes living between the Red Sea and the Nile – in a tactical alliance with him against the Beni-Americans ethnic group in eastern Sudan and Eritrea, traditionally associated with the ELF Dissatisfied Sudanese opposition figures who were previously stationed in Eritrea from the mid-1990s to 2006 are trying to win this too. Since the fall of Bashir, tensions have erupted in eastern Sudan, including Kassala, Gadaref and Port Sudan, between groups affiliated with and against the government of Eritrea.

In the meantime, Eritrea is getting involved. It hosts the ENDF on its territory, although it remains unclear whether Eritrea's own armed forces are involved in fighting. On Tigray state television, Tigray's regional president Debretsion Gebremichael said that forces allied with Isaiah bombed Humera – a strategic Tigrayan city on the triple border between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, with heavy artillery targeting the Eritrean and Sudan on November 9 Tigrayan forces fight at the border, and that the ENDF forces have otherwise been restricted in their movements. While Abiy & # 39; s government earlier claimed it had captured territory from Humera to Shire, about 160 miles east in Tigray, it quickly withdrew that claim.

Despite initial success, the TPLF may not have Sudan's support to move on, especially if Abiy and Isaias can compromise to gain Sudan's support. Although everyone from Hamdok in Sudan to the African Union to Pope Francis and the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee are calling for a ceasefire and negotiations, Abiy will only call for talks if the ENDF and other security forces continue up to fragment a point of no return and fail on the battlefield. Without Sudan, the TPLF's only remaining hope seems to be to overthrow Abiy's government or to assassinate him with the support of his many other enemies.

Construction workers at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba, Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP via Getty Images

Both Sudan and Egypt continue to be at odds with Ethiopia for the filling and operation of the GERD, which could ultimately improve the already existing allocations of water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Currently, Sudan is continuing to leverage its leverage in the Tigray conflict and dam negotiations to ensure the official demarcation of the Fashqa Triangle from Abiy – a formal transfer of a significant amount of territory into Sudan. Since the beginning of the civil war, Sudan's sovereign transitional council has already announced that, according to the Sudanese news agency, it will not compromise with Ethiopia "on any inch of Sudanese territory".

Sudan could always use its official border closings as a pretext to supply the TPLF and deny the ENDF and Abiy loyal forces the ability to attack the TPLF from Sudanese territory. Both Kassala State and Gadaref State are full of smuggled weapons that the Sudanese military could shut down completely – but only if they so choose. If Ethiopia gives Sudan the concessions it wants when it comes to sharing the waters of the Nile and returning the Fashqa Triangle, Khartoum could make the difference.

Officials who were privy to private conversations between Abiy and Sudanese officials earlier this year informed us that Sudan was keen to implement the 1902 Border Demarcation Treaty during the GERD talks. Through this agreement, Sudan continues to seek full control over Fashqa. These sources told us that Sudanese officials were worried by Abiy's petty approach to the matter and the subsequent exchange of fire between Ethiopian and Sudanese soldiers on their border after Sudanese protests that armed Amhara farmers were making further incursions.

If Sudan makes the formal transfer of fashqa an explicit condition for refusing to provide logistical support to the TPLF, it could prove fatal for Abiybut it would be a risky move; Several regime changes in both countries over the past century have pushed Fashqa into the background, and Bashir tolerated his unsolved status thanks to good relations with Ethiopia's former TPLF-led government.

If Abiy were to admit he would lose the expansive support he envisions among the ethnic Amhara. Much like so-called ancestral lands that were removed from Amhara in the 1990s and tied to Tigray by the TPLF, Fashqa is an issue for which Amhara will lay down her life. and if Abiy refuses, Sudan could support the TPLF.

According to the high-ranking Ethiopian diplomat, numerous ill-equipped irregular Amhara forces have been killed along the border between Amhara and Tigray in the battle to recapture these ancestral lands since last week. He said such unpublished failures both sparked Abiy's reshuffle of Amhara regional president (an Abiy loyalist who is now director general of the National Intelligence and Security Service) as well as deepening dissatisfaction there, leading to another Amhara uprising would lead to establishing a tough regional line leaders who could be more severe than an internal spasm last year.

Abiy's recent reshuffle in his military, intelligence, security, and foreign affairs establishments suggests that he is increasingly dependent on a small network of alleged Amhara loyalists – and they could ultimately turn against him and take power for themselves if he doesn't move on to serve their interests against the TPLF and their plans to restructure the Ethiopian state in their image.

An armed member of the community security forces stands outside a school where a polling station is located during Tigray's regional elections on September 9 in Tikul, Ethiopia. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP via Getty Images



Ethiopians who fled their homes due to ongoing fighting are pictured on November 12 in a refugee camp in the Hamdait border area in the eastern Sudanese state of Kassala. AFP via Getty Images


If the TPLF is able to divert personnel from a war, it is already fighting on three fronts – Amhara, Afar and Eritrea – and invading Eritrea and bringing about a regime change there that will give it access to additional territory and logistics through the US could be Red Sea. Tigray is already home to several Eritrean opposition groups, as well as small military bases for them, but it's a big job.

The TPLF would rise to the challenge of defeating both the Eritrean Defense Forces and the ENDF in Eritrea, which is home to a naval and air base for the United Arab Emirates, with which Abiy has developed close ties. On November 6, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan noted the UAE's "solidarity" with "friendly countries in their war on" terrorism – suggesting that Abiy and Isaias are turning against the TPLF. Abu Dhabi could use its significant influence over Burhan and other key figures in the unstable Sudanese government to achieve its goals.

In Sudan, a retired senior officer who was a member of the ELF told us that Isaias had been designing additional conscripts in various parts of Eritrea since October. He said some Eritrean soldiers – mainly from the Beni Amer and related tribes – refused to fight and moved to Kassala state in Sudan. This could indicate that at least some groups in the Eritrean Defense Forces are unwilling to fight. In Kassala, Beni Amer – who are also present in Eritrea – are curled up to fight against Isaias & # 39; regime.

Both the TPLF and Isaias see Kassala as their strategic backyard. The TPLF established relationships with anti-Isaiah groups among the Beni Amer in Kassala after the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998-2000, and Isaias knows that any challenge for control of western Eritrea can come from Beni Amer, who is with the ELF is allied.

A fall of Isaiah in Eritrea could only realistically happen if the Sudanese military supports Eritrean opposition groups in Sudan and only if the TPLF penetrates into Eritrea at the same time – even with tacit Sudanese support.

Although the former Kassala governor was a Beni-American with close ties to the TPLF and the Bashir regime army, Isaias may already have tipped the balance against the TPLF. After Sudan deposed military governors as part of the reforms of the new regime, another Beni Amer, Saleh Ammar, was proposed as governor. However, his appointment was abandoned due to protests from Beja sub-attributes related to Isaiah.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Tigrayan officers are being disarmed and Tigrayans are being targeted in various government structures. In the federal police force, the officers on duty told us that the Tigrayans had been asked to say goodbye. and even in the African Union mission in Somalia fighting al-Shabab, two senior officers said more than 200 Tigrayan officers had confiscated their weapons.

As the war worsens, Abiy appears to be reading from the same script as his TPLF predecessors, even as he tries to oust them. He organizes state-sponsored rallies for the war, imprisons journalists and calls countless opponents who fight against his hypocrisy terrorists.

There is more at stake in the civil war in Ethiopia than a Tigrayan uprising. In the worst-case scenario, officers from across the ethnic Ethiopian military will join a chaotic rebellion and the military will become increasingly entangled in an already disastrous web of inter-ethnic struggles across Ethiopia and its borders – a regional disaster that affects both Eritrea and Sudan and Sudan will potentially affect more actors.

War is already underway on the Eritrean front and Ethiopian military commanders appear on the border between Tigray and Eritrea. And if the Ethiopian army fails to strangle the TPLF from the small piece of land between Tigray and Sudan – Abiy & # 39; s chief of staff claims, but high-ranking sources say the battle there is still unsolved – Sudan will be the outcome determine the civil war in Ethiopia.

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