The Gulf Arabs recognize a strategic reality that has eluded the stove-piped U.S. foreign and security policy bureaucracy for too long: The Horn of Africa is an integral part of the Middle East’s security landscape, and increasingly so. No country demonstrates this more clearly than Ethiopia. That country’s escalating internal crises pose an increasingly grave threat not only to the country’s citizens but to international peace and security and to the interests of the United States and its partners in the Middle East, principally Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Ethiopian refugees purchase basic supplies in a makeshift open market in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Ethiopian refugees purchase basic supplies in a makeshift open market in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

As a recent bipartisan study group convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace concluded, developments in the Horn of Africa are not only shaped by the states of the Middle East “but also have a direct impact on [these states’] political, economic, and security environments.” Ethiopia’s internal and external borders are being changed violently, and the centrifugal forces of nationalism that now dominate Ethiopian politics are indicative of the weakness of the central state, not the strength of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed or the federal government. These intrastate fissures are undermining the country’s territorial integrity and morphing into interstate conflicts involving, to date, Eritrea and Sudan.

The armed confrontation that erupted Nov. 3 between the federal government and the regional government in Tigray state precipitated what Abiy characterized as a “domestic law enforcement operation.” The involvement of Eritrean combat forces, however, as well as the federal government’s use of airstrikes, mechanized ground units and ethnic militias undermines the credibility of that characterization. Similarly, assertions that the operation has succeeded in stabilizing Tigray is belied by the persistent violence in the region; a worsening humanitarian emergency; the government’s unwillingness to allow adequate access for a humanitarian response; and reports of severe human rights abuses, including of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed or forcibly returned to Eritrea.

The war in Tigray is symptomatic of a national political crisis in Ethiopia, which preceded Nov. 3 but has been exacerbated by the nationalist rivalries that have been unleashed since then. Much of western Tigray may now be occupied by Amhara regional state forces, and a border war has erupted between Amhara militias and the Sudanese military. Ethnically motivated killings of Amhara, Oromo and others in Benishangul-Gumuz regional state have precipitated the intervention of Amhara security forces, an unprecedented military deployment by one of Ethiopia’s states into another. In addition, the federal government has been engaged in an intensifying campaign against insurgents in Oromia regional state for months. While each of these conflicts involve historic and complex claims over territory, resources, identity and political representation, the pursuit of those claims by force of arms has set the country on a trajectory toward fragmentation.

The fallout for the states of the Middle East is significant.

Read more about the ramifications for the region in al-Monitor, where this article was originally published.

Jeffrey Feltman is the John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. He was United Nations under-secretary-general for political affairs (2012-2016) and a U.S. foreign service officer for nearly three decades, including as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

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