July 1, 2022

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Tigray Ethiopia conflict

Tigray conflict: 17 month-long Ethiopian civil war in a new phase

Tigray Ethiopia conflict

Tigray conflict started in November 2020. On November 3, Tigray forces attacked the Ethiopian army’s Northern Command military bases in the Tigray region. Hours after that, Ethiopian federal and regional forces launched a major military offensive on the Tigray region.

Eritrea, the Ethiopian neighbor, sided with Ethiopian federal forces. Eritrean and Ethiopian governments kept on denying the presence of the Eritrean military in Tigray for months. But later it was established that the Eritrean army was on the ground in Tigray.

By the end of November, Federal forces had taken over Tigray capital Mekele. Tigray spox Getachew Reda and other leaders like Debretsion Gebremicahel and Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe were accusing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of providing combat drones support to the Ethiopian government forces. But Tigray’s political and military elite, pushed into Tembien mountains of central Tigray, fought on.

It was June 2021 when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire and its forces started withdrawing from Tigray. The government said that it was pulling its forces out to give Tigray farmers an opportunity to press ahead with their farming activities. Tigray, on the other hand, rejected the unilateral ceasefire and termed the withdrawal as a military defeat.

Despite the withdrawal of Ethiopian government forces, Tigray was still under a blockade. Communications, banking, electricity were cut off and the region was encircled on all sides by hostile forces.

Tigray vowed to keep on fighting until the withdrawal of all forces from its territory. Ethiopian government forces and the Eritrean army were still in control of Raya, Himora, Welkait, and Tsegede– long-standing disputed territories between the Tigray and Amhara regions of Ethiopia. The territories were part of Tigray before the start of the Tigray conflict.

Tigray map

In July last year, Tigray forces launched a military offensive to take back Raya (Southern Tigray) and Himora, Welkait, Tsegede (Western Tigray). Korem, Alamat, and other major towns in Raya were captured by Tigray forces but western Tigray remained under full control of ENDF, Amhara regional forces, and the Eritrean army.

Then came TDF’s military adventure to push deep into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. From July to November, Tigray Defence Force (TDF) kept on making territorial gains in both regions. In Afar, Tigray forces moved east from Raya and captured Yalo, Golina, Ewa, and Ura woredas and tried to move towards Ethiopia Djibouti road. The highway is the lifeline of the Ethiopian economy with the bulk of its imports and exports moving along it. Being a landlocked country, Ethiopia relies on Djibouti ports for its imports and exports, and this main highway links Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Tigray General Tsadkan Gebretensae was heard saying that it was a matter of time before Tigray forces would cut off the strategic Ethiopia-Djibouti road.

In the Amhara region, TDF’s advance was quicker. In Wag Himora, North Wollo, South Wollo, Oromia Special Zone, and North Shewa zones, key cities like Sekota, Kobo, Woldia, Lalibela, Dessie, Kombolcha, Kamisee, Senbete, and several other main towns and cities were swiftly seized by Tigray forces between July and November.

Tigray forces struck a military alliance with Oromia-region-based armed group Oromo Liberation Army OLA in August. And the two groups started their march towards Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. TPLF Presidential spokesperson Getachew Reda and Tigray Generals had deliberations to form a transitional government after the anticipated removal of Prime Minister Abiy’s government.

While Tigray was seeing no force stopping it from reaching Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian government was receiving modern combat drones from Turkey, UAE, Iran, and China.

Tigray Ethiopia drones
Satellite image showing Chinese Wing Loong drones on Ethiopian Harar Meda airbase

Iranian Mohajer 6, Chinese Wing Long 1, and Turkish TB-2 changed the battlefield picture in days. Tigray forces were almost paralyzed. They started suffering military setbacks in both Afar and Amhara regions. They had to start their journey back home towards Tigray at the start of December last year.

Regional and Federal forces chased retreating Tigray forces but decided against entering Tigray. The siege of Tigray went on with clashes on the Tigray border with Amhara and Afar regions. In the first week of January this year, Prime Minister Abiy’s government showed the first signs of reconciliation when several political prisoners from the Tigray and Oromia region were released from prison. Top leaders of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) including Sebhat Nega, Kidusan Nega, Abay Weldu, Mulu Gebregzihaber, Abadi Zemu, and Kiros Hagos were granted amnesty and released.

At the end of January this year, Tigray forces launched a military operation into the neighboring Afar region. Tigray government accused Afar forces, backed by the Eritrean army, of making border incursions into Tigray. Abala, Megale, Erebti, Berhale and Koneba woredas came under TDF control.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation was becoming catastrophic. More than 6 million under a blockade since November 2020 were left with nothing to eat.

With the facilitation of the African Union, US and Kenya indirect talks started around two months ago which bore fruit this week.

This week the Ethiopian government announced a humanitarian truce to ensure the supply of aid to Tigray. It urged Tigray fighters to withdraw from the neighboring regions. The Tigray government has reciprocated positively. It says that it will try its best to make this humanitarian truce successful. At the same time, it warned that linking political and humanitarian issues would be unacceptable. In its statement, Tigray government evaded the question of withdrawal from the neighboring regions.

In Afar region, Tigray forces are in Abala, Megale, Berhale and Konneba woredas. While Tigray forces could start withdrawing from Afar, their withdrawal from the neighboring Amhara region could prove to be difficult.

TDF is mainly in control of some areas in Wag Himora and North Gondar zones of the Amhara region. Amhara forces backed by the Eritrean and Ethiopian army are deployed to Western Tigray (Himora, Welkait, and Tsegede). Western Tigray has been a disputed territory between the Amhara and Tigray regions for years. Amhara forces took control of these areas after the start of the war in November 2020.

The strategic area shares a border with Sudan. Tigray forces have been trying to take back this area to open a corridor with Sudan but the attempts remained unsuccessful. Will Tigray forces withdraw from the neighboring Amhara region while Amhara regional forces are in control of disputed western Tigray? Western Tigray is a major sticking point among warring factions amid reports of weakening ties between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad and his allies from the Amhara region. Read more…

The US has been gradually increasing its pressure upon the Ethiopian government for a peaceful solution in recent days. Two bills proposing sanctions on the Ethiopian government, HR-6600 and S. 3199 are pending with the US House of Representatives and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations respectively.

It seems that the 17-month long Tigray conflict has entered a new phase with both sides having realized that continued armed hostilities would be counterproductive. The Ethiopian government is under serious economic pressure. Continuation of war and imposition of new sanctions could lead to devastating consequences for the economy. On the other hand, Tigray regional government can’t afford to keep on fighting forever while millions of its people are in urgent need of food aid.

The humanitarian truce is the first step in the right direction which must be reinforced by confidence-building measures including restoration of banking, electricity, and communication services in Tigray. Only through inclusive political dialogue with the participation of all political parties and armed groups, a lasting solution to the Tigray conflict can be found.