In August, the devastating conflict in northern Ethiopia resumed, effectively ending the March 2022 humanitarian truce between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan forces, which many hoped would pave the way for a negotiated cease-fire and peace talks. This week, the African Union’s chairperson called for an immediate cease-fire and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called on the parties to cease hostilities and participate in talks organized by the African Union. What comes next in Ethiopia will have major implications for its people, the strategically vital Red Sea arena and for U.S. interests in the region. Stepped up, senior-level U.S. engagement is direly needed to get Ethiopia on a path toward peace.

Tigray Defense Force fighters survey the wreckage of an Ethiopian Air Force plane downed in Mekelle, Ethiopia, June 23, 2021. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)
Tigray Defense Force fighters survey the wreckage of an Ethiopian Air Force plane downed in Mekelle, Ethiopia, June 23, 2021. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)

A Shattered Truce

Amid the flurry of accusations, counteraccusations, propaganda and disinformation it is hard to know how hostilities escalated and why, but a few facts seem clear. Initial clashes in the eastern sections of the Tigray-Amhara border led to the capture of the border town of Kobo by Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF). Within days hostilities had spread to other sections of the line of control, including Tigray’s border with Eritrea, with Ethiopian federal forces, Amhara militia and Eritrean troops launching a series of offensives on Tigrayan positions accompanied by aerial attacks across the Tigray region.

A September 11 offer by Tigrayan authorities to engage in African Union-led peace talks, in line with earlier public commitments made by the federal government, failed to blunt escalatory momentum. An initiative by the African Union (AU) to convene talks has also been postponed while consultations on the format and role of a panel of facilitators, along with the structure, agenda, security provisions and basis for the talks continue. In the meantime, the parties are now engaged in all-out war on multiple fronts, and a return to peace looks like a remote possibility.

The latest round of fighting should come as no surprise. It was preceded by weeks of steadily increasing tensions between federal and Tigrayan authorities over humanitarian aid flows, the resumption of core public services in Tigray, the structure of peace talks and alleged military provocations. In the background of the wrangling — played out through backchannel dialogues, dueling public statements and endless diplomatic maneuvering — loomed a difficult but important question: Did the parties to the conflict actually want a political solution, and how far were they willing to go for peace?

The Stakes Could Not Be Higher

From the moment the war in northern Ethiopia began in November 2020 it was apparent it posed a serious threat to regional stability and U.S. interests. An October 2020 report by the USIP Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena highlighted Ethiopia’s role as a U.S. partner in peacekeeping, and peace and security in the Horn of Africa more broadly. In a statement in November 2020, the Senior Study Group warned with concern that “the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be largest state collapse in modern history.”

This new chapter of the conflict raises the stakes considerably. A recent report by the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia and earlier reports by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and a joint U.N. investigation have established that war crimes and crimes against humanity occurred in the previous cycle of war. Two years of bloody hostilities have only magnified the impunity, insecurity and grievances that animated earlier mass atrocities and could drive another more catastrophic round of harm to civilians.

The concern is magnified by the evolving battlefield situation and the risk that the TDF may return to asymmetrical warfare retreating from Tigray’s cities, towns and villages. The Ethiopian government announced on October 17 that it will assume immediate control of all airports, federal facilities and installations in the region. Both dynamics leave civilians in and around the region vulnerable to further repression and abuses. Broader humanitarian conditions in Tigray and conflict-affected zones of Amhara and Afar also grow worse by the week, and continued conflict and access constraints risk provoking a famine of unprecedented proportions.

This war is now being internationalized in alarming ways. Eritrea’s full-scale re-entry into the conflict has major strategic consequences and threatens to draw in other parties more directly, in particular Sudan and Egypt, which view Asmara’s military intervention in Ethiopia as a national security concern. Neighboring Djibouti quietly shares this alarm and risks being destabilized. The UAE and Turkey were active in earlier phases of the conflict and may find reason to re-engage depending on how the battlefield pendulum swings. Further afield is Russia, which has a track-record of exploiting African conflicts for geopolitical gain and has long sought opportunities to enhance its presence along the Red Sea corridor.

The resumption of war in northern Ethiopia will only reinforce deteriorating political and economic conditions across the rest of the country.  The Oromo Liberation Front remains active in western and southern Oromia and large parts of the region sit outside the government’s effective control. Debates about the approach to war — or peace — in Tigray and Oromia are rippling into the Amhara region, where the regional authorities are key partners in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s governing coalition. Intercommunal violence is persistent and wide-spread, and conflict and drought have left millions food insecure across the country. The economy is stumbling, encumbered by inflation, debt and hard currency shortages. And the closing space for political opposition — or even calls for peace — runs counter to the promised democratic reforms so central to Abiy’s first years in office, the country’s long-term stability and U.S.-Ethiopia ties.

Refocusing U.S. Engagement

With much hanging in the balance, there is an urgent need for U.S. policymakers to take a high-level, all-hands-on-deck approach. Blinken’s October 14 call for the parties to cease their escalatory conduct —  including the ongoing joint offensives by the Eritrean and Ethiopian militaries — underscores the message that there is no military solution to the conflict and attempts to impose one will be rebuked. How Washington responds — and how it’s perceived to be responding — to the present moment will have strategic, long-term consequences for Ethiopia, the Horn and broader U.S. interests.

U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer is working tirelessly with his counterparts at the AU, the U.N. and in Europe to halt the violence and move the parties to formal AU-led talks. The recent announcement of a U.S.-South Africa joint high-level group to focus attention on Ethiopia could be an important engagement. These efforts demand attention, support and public engagement from the senior-most levels of the U.S. government. Who delivers important diplomatic messages matters. President Biden did raise Tigray in his recent U.N. General Assembly speech. Still, many around the region talk about an impression that the Biden administration has become disengaged and even indifferent to the looming catastrophe. Some speculate that the Russia’s war on Ukraine has shifted the attention of senior policymakers away from Ethiopia.

Renewed senior, principal-level U.S. engagement with the warring sides and relevant international partners should be part of a broader strategic push that involves several elements, including the following:

  1. Press for the immediate announcement and convening of talks to silence the guns, and activate U.S. atrocity prevention capabilities. Dates, location, format, agenda and logistical arrangements for African-led talks — which would be supported by additional African partners, the U.N., the United States and Europeans — need to be agreed. Similarly, the mandate of those facilitating or mediating needs to be agreed based in consultation with the parties and anchored in the African Union’s own policies, frameworks and principles. Swift action in this regard would circumvent further haggling about the structure of negotiations and call the bluff of those actors not ready to sit for dialogue. An immediate cessation of hostilities and mechanisms for ensuring the credibility of commitments need to be central agenda items for talks. Such talks also need to offer a clear path to a nationwide political dialogue that can resolve the country’s broader challenges. Even more immediately, the atrocity prevention capabilities of the U.S. government can be activated to take steps to mitigate the risks of further mass violence.
  2. Move to impose material costs on those fueling the conflict, restricting humanitarian assistance and obstructing investigation and documentation of abuses and crimes. The Biden administration’s recently renewed executive order on Ethiopia offers significant scope for action. At a minimum, existing measures on the Government of Eritrea applied under the executive order should be strengthened.
  3. Catalyze a regional conversation with neighboring states committed to a peaceful settlement of the Ethiopian conflict, with the goal of managing the strategic fallout of the crisis, containing spoilers and supporting a path to peace and stability. Relevant extra-regional players, including those in the Middle East, should be consulted in this process. If the mandate of the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa is to remain limited, it is all the more essential that senior U.S. officials help drive this effort, particularly in conjunction with top officials from partner countries.
  4. Sustain significant levels of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, despite competing needs in many other global hot spots.

There is little doubt that the above approach — more direct and robust — will not be welcomed by some or all parties to the war. Up until now, U.S. policymakers have sought to capitalize on the halting steps toward peace through quiet diplomacy that eschewed confrontation. Such an approach made sense in the context of the now shattered humanitarian truce. But with the latest escalation of violence and the risk of mass atrocities, a new strategy is needed. Washington must act with the leadership, pace and urgency that meets the moment.

Ambassador Johnnie Carson and Ambassador Alex Rondos are co-chairs of USIP’s Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena.

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