Jeffrey Feltman is headed to Ethiopia on Thursday for meetings with senior government officials to discuss prospects for peace talks, two weeks after Tigrayan forces announced their withdrawal from the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.
The Ethiopian government responded days later by halting its offensive against Tigray, creating a rare opening for talks after 13 months of war.
“This is, in some ways, an opportune time for the special envoy to engage with senior Ethiopian government officials, with Tigrayan forces having withdrawn into Tigray, and the Ethiopian government stating it does not intend to pursue those forces into Tigray,” state department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday. “We do believe this offers an opportunity for both sides to halt combat operations and come to the negotiating table. That will be an issue of discussion when the special envoy is in Ethiopia later this week.”
Tough talks ahead
The new diplomatic push comes as Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leader Debretsion Gebremichael wrote to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on 19 December to announce his forces’ withdrawal from Afar and Amhara.
“We trust that our bold act of withdrawal will be a decisive opening for peace,” Debretsion wrote in the letter, which calls for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” followed by negotiations.
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On 24 December, the Ethiopian Government Communications Service responded with a statement claiming the successful liberation of Afar and Amhara and a pause in military operations. The pause aimed to avoid a repeat of “massive targeted attacks” from behind by Tigrayan forces and defuse the “ruthless ploy” of “fake genocide narratives” that have gained traction in the West, the agency said.
At the time, the US viewed the Tigrayan withdrawal as a positive sign after months of fruitless talks.
“If we do see a movement of the Tigrayan forces back into Tigray, that is something we would welcome,” Price said at the time. “It’s something we’d call for, and we hope it opens the door to broader diplomacy.”
But experts warn that despite battle fatigue on both sides, a peaceful resolution to the conflict remains far off.
“There has been something of a potential opening for diplomatic efforts over the last month,” says William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group. But the Tigrayan withdrawal after a series of battlefield reversals is likely to encourage the Ethiopian government to dig in.
Do not let another opportunity for peace pass without decisive action.
“The challenge that the US and others face is that this has strengthened the hand of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his allies,” Davison tells The Africa Report. “Therefore they will be unlikely to offer any kinds of concessions to their Tigrayan opponent. Instead the message from Addis Ababa might well be that Tigray’s forces are all but defeated, boxed in back in Tigray, and the ball is therefore in Tigray’s court to make an attractive peace offer. If that’s the case, there won’t be much that the US or any other interlocutor can do to alter Addis’ thinking.”
Further complicating matters, the Ethiopian government has accused the US of favouring the TPLF, which it deems a terrorist group. Addis Ababa is also furious over its expulsion from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) duty-free trade pact, which went into effect at the beginning of the month.
But the TPLF may prove equally rigid.
“Then it would be a question of what kinds of concessions can they extract out of Tigray’s leadership,” Davison says. “But those leaders think they’ve already softened their positions and, as they believe Tigray faces an existential threat, they are unlikely to agree to any demand to significantly downsize their forces. So, it’s still difficult to find the right formula.”
Sudan border threatens to erupt
Already, both sides have made clear they are ready to keep the fight going for as long as needed.
In his letter to the UN, Debretsion declared Tigrayan forces to be “intact and undefeated on the ground.” He called for an international mechanism to withdraw Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amharan forces that continue to occupy parts of western and northern Tigray.
The letter also seeks the establishment of a no-fly zone for “hostile flights of aircraft and drones” over Tigray as well as arms embargoes on Ethiopia and Eritrea. Other priorities include the creation of an airbridge or humanitarian corridor to deliver food and aid to Tigray, an “all-inclusive dialogue” with Ethiopian parties and constituencies on a path forward and accountability for perpetrators of war crimes.
“Do not let another opportunity for peace pass without decisive action,” Debretsion wrote.
Meanwhile, the Abiy government has made clear it is ready to re-enter Tigray if violence flares up. According to the Government Communications Service, the decision to pause operations “takes into account the fact that the Ethiopian government would order its forces to advance further into Tigray, whenever deemed necessary under any circumstances, to defend the territorial sovereignty, national interests as well as peace and stability of Ethiopia.”
Tensions are particularly high in western Tigray along the border with Sudan, where Amhara forces and Eritrean soldiers remain in control, Davison says.
“It’s a major military and political objective for the Tigray forces to reclaim that territory, and so it threatens to be a new theatre of the conflict.”
Feltman’s last hurrah
This could well be the final official trip to Ethiopia for Feltman, who is stepping down at the end of the month, according to Reuters.
A former senior diplomat at the State Department and the United Nations, Feltman came out of retirement in April 2021 to take on a tough set of crises including the conflict in northern Ethiopia, tensions between Addis Ababa and Khartoum, and the regional dispute over Ethiopia’s Nile dam (GERD). He is expected to be replaced by the current US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield.
A former acting secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Satterfield is notably well-positioned to carry out the Biden administration’s warning to US allies in the Middle East to temper their military support for Ethiopia. In the first half of December, Feltman traveled to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are allegedly providing armed drones to Addis Ababa, as is Iran.
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