With the entry of Eritrean forces into the war in Tigray, and the missile strike by Tigray on the Eritrean capital, Asmara, this is now an international conflict.
What is unclear is which regional powers and international actors will be supporting either side.
But first it’s worth recalling just how the last war between Eritrea and Ethiopia ended.
How it could end
The Algiers Agreement which ended the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war in December 2000 used almost exactly the same terms as those that had been offered in a Framework Agreement hammered out by Rwanda and the USA in November 1998.
Susan Rice, the US Assistant Secretary of African Affairs, played a major role in this plan.
Perhaps similar actors will work to end the current conflict in Tigray.
The USA would seem to be out of the picture at present (given the interregnum between Trump and Biden) but Uganda is actively involved.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni announced that he had held discussions with the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Demeke Mekonnen at his Gulu State Lodge.
President Yoweri Museveni stated that their discussion focused on the peace and security issues affecting Ethiopia currently.
Ethiopia has denied that these are peace negotiations, but why else did the visit take place?
Will Uganda play role that the US and Rwanda did back in 1999? Perhaps.
The International Actors – who backs whom?
Getting to grips with this is like playing three-dimensional chess.
But consider the interests of those involved.
- Attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood who were crushed in Egypt in 2013, is one important vector. Qatar and Turkey are sympathetic to their cause, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bitterly opposed.
- Turkey now expounds a “Neo-Ottoman” expansionist foreign policy, extending its reach into the Red Sea and Somalia.
- Russia is also expanding its influence, both along the southern coast of the Mediterranean (in Libya) and in the Red Sea.
This has resulted in a scramble for influence across the region, and the establishment of foreign bases.
The UAE was among the first new actors – with a base in the Eritrean port of Assab, which served its war in Yemen. The Saudis also had a foothold here.
Today the Red Sea is home to navies from around the world, with the UAE having extended its influence considerably.
Foreign interests in the Tigray war
If this is the context, then who might back the Ethiopian government and who could the Tigrayans turn to?
This is hard to say, but consider these factors.
- Sudan is critical. Both Eritrea and Egypt have been working hard to win Khartoum to their side.
- Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked in a conflict over the Great Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.
- The Eritrean port of Assab has been used by the UAE to fight the war in Yemen and to transport troops and armaments to the war in Libya.
- Russia has held talks with Eritrea about a possible naval base.
- Turkey would like to extend its current influence, which stretches as far as Somalia.
- The United States needs Ethiopia to help in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
- The Saudis and the UAE put substantial sums of money into Ethiopia and Eritrea after the signing of their peace agreement in 2018.
- The Europeans need Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan to try to prevent migrants fleeing across the Sahara and then attempting to cross the Mediterranean to land in Italy or Spain.
This is only a partial list of interests, some of which are cross-cutting and contradictory.
Eritrea and Ethiopia – currently attempting to crush the Tigrayans from both north and south – would appear to be in a strong position.
For Tigray, Sudan will be vital, if it is to maintain the supplies of fuel and ammunition so critical to its war effort. Ethiopia and Eritrea are fully aware of this and will be straining every muscle to cut this supply line.
One other complication will be the ethnic tensions within Ethiopia itself.
Neither the Oromo nor the Somalis have a stake in Prime Minister Abiy’s “greater Ethiopia” project. They will be keen to maintain and – if possible – extend their autonomy. Will they be willing to see their sons die in the mountains of Tigray for a cause in which they have only a limited interest?
Clearly much is in play; little is certain as this war continues.
How long, and how bloody, will it be before it is finally concluded?