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Ethiopia’s Tigray war has potential to escalate: Experts

Experts believe, dragging of military campaign may cast shadow on other regions in Ethiopia and neighboring countries

Addis Getachew and Tufan Aktas  | 17.11.2020 - Update : 17.11.2020
Ethiopia’s Tigray war has potential to escalate: Experts


After resisting public pressure for more than two-and-half years, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally launched a full-scale military operation against Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), ruling the northernmost Tigray region.

Ethiopian officials said the TPLF crossed a red line on Nov. 3, when it allegedly organized a multi-pronged attack on the Ethiopian military's Northern Command. Abiy described the attack as treason, vowing that it will never be forgotten.

Inhabited by the Tigrayan, Irob, and Kunama ethnicities, the Tigray region has been at logger's heads with the federal government in Addis Ababa since 2019. The tensions further escalated when Tigray authorities defied the federal government and went ahead by conducting elections in September. Abiy government had rescheduled elections due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Lt. Gen. Asrat De Niero, Communications head with the Ethiopian Defense Forces, the armed personnel belonging to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front had barged into the northern command headquarters and killed soldiers mercilessly during the night when they were sleeping.

“On the same day, the numerous divisions of the army that spread across more than 700 kilometers [434 miles] bordering areas with Eritrea, from Humera to Zalambessa were attacked by the special forces of the TPLF and infiltrators,” he further said.

Since 2018 when Abiy came to power on the back of three years of incessant public uproar and anti-government protests, observers believe that he had been trying to curb the TPLF dominance in the region, where they are holding a stranglehold for decades.

Over the past two weeks, war is raging between the federal army and the TPLF forces at a heavy humanitarian cost including the massacre of civilians at Mai-Kadra in Western Tigray near the border with Sudan.

-Potential to escalate

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the situation has the potential to escalate into a dangerous situation.

“Whether it is a civil war or not can perhaps be debated. But while the federal government holds advantages, and claims sole legitimacy, this is still two well-armed entities confronting each other and it has the potential to slide into a much more dangerous situation,” he said.

While international media has apprehended the situation may slide out of control, the Ethiopian government said it was undertaking a “limited law enforcement” operation.

The government has stipulated that its objective is to recapture or destroy lethal weapons like the long-range missiles currently with the TPLF. Other objectives are to bring TPLF leaders to justice and ensure the Tigray region was safe and secure, said government officials.

Last week, the TPLF forces demonstrated their capability by firing rockets to neighboring Amhara state’s cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar targeting. They also fired a rocket targeting the airport in Eritrea’s capital Asmara.

“While the federal government is committed to bringing the TPLF leaders to justice for attacking the military’s Northern Command, dialogue should still be pursued, as the alternative may be hugely damaging,” said Davison.

The Ethiopian government has classified the TPLF leadership, which is in control of the region as criminals.

“The conflict may have direct regional ramifications if Eritrea becomes involved. Also, Sudan has already closed its borders, but is being impacted by an influx of refugees, and may get further dragged in,” said the ICG analyst.

Abiy’s bigger strategy

According to Aleksi Ylonen, expert and teacher of International Relations with the US International University in Nairobi, Kenya, Prime Minister Abiy’s had desired for a long to weaken the hold of TPLF significantly.

“During the initial days of the campaign, fighting has been intense and has led to many casualties. The government has made clear that it will be a short campaign to subdue the current TPLF leadership, but there is a fear that the confrontation will drag on and expand to other regions in Ethiopia,” he said.

He apprehended that other armed groups like the Oromo Liberation Front may also intensify their activities against the federal government.

“Ethiopian government has the opportunity to deliver a crippling blow to the TPLF. I believe this is part of Abiy’s bigger strategy because weakening the TPLF significantly, even if not eliminating it, should allow closer collaboration with the Eritrean government and advance common projects across the border which have been hindered by the current strength of the TPLF,” he added.

But he said, if the campaign drags, there is a possibility of extension of the conflict to other regions as well.

“And also, if the conflict spreads, there is potential for further instability at least in the already unstable border regions of South Sudan and Kenya. In this case, some external powers, such as Egypt, could seek to find ways to further destabilize the Ethiopian government but this is not a likely scenario because the interest of most external players in the region is to benefit from working together with the Ethiopian government,” he said.

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