Ethiopia: Four scenarios for the Tigray conflict; from peace to ‘Syria on steroids’

By Tom Gardner
Posted on Wednesday, 14 September 2022 17:44

A choir member sings during the Ethiopian New Year's Eve celebration in Addis Ababa.
A choir member sings during the Ethiopian New Year's Eve celebration marking the beginning of the year 2015 on the Ethiopian calendar, at the Biftu Bole Lutheran Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 11, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

While peace may be one possibility - and the defeat of the Tigray rebels another - the restart of hostilities in Ethiopia means a range of outcomes have opened up.

We trace out four of the most likely scenarios, from the likelihood of fighting spilling into Eritrea, to a grinding continuation of the conflict for several years.

Scenario 1 – Peace – Medium probability

Hopes for a negotiated end to Ethiopia’s nearly two-year-long civil war were given a boost this week following the announcement by Tigray’s leaders that they were ready for a ceasefire and would accept the African Union’s stalled mediation efforts. The statement followed a round of secret talks in Djibouti last week.

AU mediation, should it continue, will likely involve multiple parties, including the US and the EU. Kenya, which has just concluded a contested election, will probably step back into a supportive role under William Ruto, the new president, in order to mitigate Tigrayan concerns about the impartiality of the AU’s chief mediator, Olusegun Obasanjo.

South Africa – whose president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is in Washington this week – might also play a part in these efforts as one of a mooted ‘African panel’ of mediators. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has insisted that all talks take place under the auspices of the AU.

Publicly, officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, say the federal government remains open to talks. However, it has yet to respond to the Tigrayans’ ceasefire offer and has continued drone strikes in Tigray – reportedly hitting a university campus in Mekele, the Tigray state capital, on 13 September.

There is also little sign of a serious shift in its position regarding Tigray’s key demands: The restoration of basic services – such as telecoms, banking and electricity – and the return of disputed Western Tigray (known by Amharas as Wolkait), annexed by Amhara regional forces at the start of the war in November 2020.

Addis Ababa says talks should proceed without such preconditions.

It may also be emboldened by the capture of the Tigrayan town of Sheraro in recent days by a combination of Ethiopian and allied Eritrean forces from the north. It remains possible – though still unlikely – that the two armies will manage to push deep into Tigray, possibly as far as Mekele. If they do so, they could set the terms of any negotiations with the TPLF – or refuse talks altogether.

Scenario 2 – Fighting continues – High probability

Nevertheless, if – as remains probable – fighting continues, the focus of further escalation will likely be on Tigray’s western flank. Although much of the latest round of fighting – which broke out on 24 August – has been concentrated around Tigray’s southern border with Amhara, another long southwards march by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) towards Addis Ababa is unlikely. Last year’s attempt to storm the capital to remove Abiy by force was aborted and there is little appetite in Tigray to try again.

In a televised briefing on 31 August, the Tigrayan general, Tadesse Wereda, said Mekele’s military aim was simply “to force the Ethiopian government to lift the siege and come to peace talks”, but to do this it is likely to try to wrest control of Western Tigray as well as the adjacent border with Sudan.

Addis Ababa certainly has toys at its disposal, which will make it very difficult for them

“If Tigray succeeds in liberating these areas, Addis Ababa will sit for serious negotiation,” a Tigrayan diplomat told The Africa Report in late August. “Because it will also break the logic of the siege.” The theory is that by winning control of the Sudan border, the TDF might be in a position to resupply itself and escape encirclement by Ethiopian as well as allied Eritrean forces to the north.

However, there are numerous drawbacks to such a strategy. Much of the territory in Western Tigray and the Sudan border area known as Al-Fashaga is hot and flat, with little by way of air cover from federal drone strikes. “Addis Ababa certainly has toys at its disposal, which will make it very difficult for them,” a European diplomat tells The Africa Report. Added to this is the heavy presence nearby of Eritrean troops as well as forces from Amhara – both the regional special police and the Fano, a volunteer armed militia.

“It will be very difficult to regain that territory – and then controlling it will be a daunting task,” says an Ethiopian political analyst in the capital. “The territory is sandwiched between hostile forces.”

TPLF leaders are also keen to have the international community use a corridor through Sudan to supply aid in order to stave off famine in Tigray. However, a so-called “cross-border relief operation” on the model used by aid agencies to tackle Tigray’s 1984-5 famine would almost certainly be rejected by Addis Ababa.

A UN official tells The Africa Report this would therefore require a UN Security Council resolution, which would likely then be vetoed by Russia and China. “Even if they reach Sudan, there is no guarantee that there will be assistance coming in there, at least not in the form of humanitarian aid,” says the official.

Scenario 3 – Fighting spills over international borders – Low probability

Even so, there is an ominous scenario in which this strategy leads to the widening of the conflict across international borders. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s de facto president, is sympathetic to the TPLF and at odds with Addis Ababa over fertile farmland in the disputed Al-Fashaga region, as well over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam being constructed on the Blue Nile. “We see some incentives on the Sudan side for Burhan to consolidate himself by stepping into the conflict,” says the European diplomat.

So far, Burhan’s support for the Tigrayans appears to have been limited. It has permitted some Tigrayan fighters to organise on the Sudanese side of the border – a TDF unit has reportedly engaged in the fighting in Western Tigray in recent weeks – and allows TPLF representatives to operate out of Sudan’s capital Khartoum. Smaller Ethiopian armed groups, such as the Kemant Liberation Army, are also active in Sudan – and smuggling routes across its border appear to have helped the TDF get hold of additional light arms and fuel. On 24 August, the Ethiopian government claimed it had shot down a plane ferrying arms from Sudan to Mekele.

However, Burhan’s deputy and rival, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti), is more aligned with Abiy. He is said to oppose Sudanese armed support for Tigray, meaning that the scale of Sudan’s involvement in Ethiopia’s civil war may therefore hinge on the ongoing power-struggle inside the Sudanese military junta.

Nevertheless, it could also turn on whether the war spreads into Eritrea: Tigrayan leaders have repeatedly hinted at a northwards offensive to remove Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president and a key ally of Abiy’s. Burhan – like the TPLF – is at odds with Isaias, who has backed disaffected tribal leaders in the restive Eastern Sudan. The Sudanese leader might therefore offer support to any TDF move against Eritrea.

For now, such a move is low probability. The TPLF has sounded out Western governments about a military offensive inside Eritrea and has been warned against one. In the latest round of fighting, the Tigray’s northern front has come under particularly heavy assault by the Eritreans, so they are in no position to do so either; yet the longer the war rages the greater the chance the Tigrayans decide to try their luck: Isaias and the TPLF see each other as an existential threat. “As long as both are in power, the war will not stop,” says a resident of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital.

Scenario 4 – Fighting spreads within Ethiopia – Medium probability

Perhaps more likely than the internationalisation of the war is its continued spread inside Ethiopia. Even if talks do begin soon they will – for now – include only the TPLF and the federal government. This leaves a host of other armed groups out in the cold – including the TPLF’s southern ally, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

The OLA made significant advances in the first part of this year – at times reaching within 100km of the capital, but since the resumption of fighting in Tigray it has been notably quiet. It did not sign a statement on 13 September with the TPLF and seven other opposition groups calling for an “all-inclusive” negotiated settlement.

Even so, it may well be biding its time before taking advantage of the Ethiopian government’s distraction in Tigray and elsewhere. “We have a joint grand plan with TDF, and all operations will be undertaken in accordance with that plan,” a senior OLA source recently tells The Africa Report. On 31 August 2022, General Tadesse Wereda also said the TDF would soon integrate operations with the OLA.

Abiy therefore faces battles on multiple fronts – at a time when Ethiopia’s economy is in crisis and his own popularity is at an especially low ebb. “Abiy is at his weakest ever,” says a senior Ethiopian journalist in Addis Ababa. “His popularity has dipped so much.”

This will make mobilising armed forces for a prolonged fight against the TDF a tall order. In parts of Amhara, there are already signs of war-weariness and sinking morale: For example, there have been reports of recent clashes between officials and farmers who have refused to enlist. Sources from the minority Kemant community in Amhara also report forced recruitment. In early September, a high-profile Amhara journalist was arrested after writing on Facebook about battle-fatigue among Amharas.

However, the disillusioned Amhara are just one source of future trouble for the prime minister: He also faces the heightened threat of Islamist militants from neighboring Somalia following major incursions in July, all of which helps explain the broader sense of pessimism and insecurity across Ethiopia as the war continues.

“I don’t see TPLF coming down here; I also don’t see Abiy taking Mekele,” says a prominent opposition leader in Addis Ababa. “What we’ll see instead is Syria on steroids.”

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