This is a chapter from the report: Tigray War and Regional Implications, which you can The Tigray War and Regional Implications – Volume 1.
Progress of the war
By Ermias Teka
There is a fierce controversy about the events that led to the war. There are two antagonistic and mutually contradictory views: one from the Ethiopian government and the other promoted by the Tigrayan regional government. They revolve around which side started the war and also the incident that led to the conflict. The Tigrayan authorities claimed that sometime late in the evening of 3 November, 2020, the federal government airlifted commandos to Mekelle in an attempt to eliminate the Tigrayan leadership. The ‘surgical operation’ led to an intense fighting that lasted about half an hour but apparently failed to achieve its objective. The Ethiopian government rejects the accusation, while conceding that it sent planes that evening as part of a scheduled arrangement to replace old currency.
Immediately following this incident, the Tigray Special Forces (TSF) are reported to have carried out a “highly organized” offensive against many camps of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) Northern Command, at various sites in Tigray. The swift and highly coordinated TSF’s attacks on the Northern Command suggested that they were pre-planned and meticulously organised, well before the event. The Prime Minister later admitted that over 200 camp sites were simultaneously hit by the Tigrayan forces.
The following day a statement claimed to have been released by the Northern Command was shown on Tigray TV, controlled by the Tigrayan regional government, which claimed that the Northern Command had transferred its allegiance to the Tigray government. It said this had happened because the Federal Government was beyond its term of office and was therefore unconstitutional. The broadcast also called on other ENDF commands to follow their example. The question of how much of the Northern Command actually joined the Tigrayan forces remains ambiguous and controversial. What is certain is that, while a significant contingent of the Northern Command (primarily those in which Tigrayan soldiers were in the majority) did break ranks and joined the Tigrayan forces, many other units remained either hostile or uncooperative. The TSF was accused of ruthlessly attacking or besieging units that did not join it, including the command headquarters in Mekelle. At the same time sizable contingents near Tigray’s northern border fled into Eritrea, while camps in western Tigray were able to fend off the TSF attacks and retain their mechanised divisions.
4.1 ENDF offensives along the southwestern front
The federal authorities complained repeatedly that their troops had been ‘stabbed in the back.’ But credible evidences from different sources make it clear that the Ethiopian army was not sitting idly by when the attack occurred. An on the record admission by ENDF official revealed that the high command was making preparations of its own. Moreover, Mesfin Hagos, former minister of defense of Eritrea, relying on sources inside the Eritrean military as well as Eritrean opposition intelligence sources, reported that “large number of Ethiopian elite units had slowly trickled into Eritrea” which were to coordinate with the North command for a swift multi-frontal attack on Tigray.  Similar reports from various sources show that the ENDF had mobilised sizable contingents in the areas bordering on South and South Western Tigray several days ahead of the attack on Northern Command.
But it appears that before the Ethio-Eritrean coordinated attack was executed, the Tigray Special Forces outmaneuvered them by carrying out the surprise attack on the North command momentarily causing vulnerability for the Ethiopians. However, the “anticipatory” attack of the TSF only succeeded in inflicting a temporary setback to Abiy’s and Isayas’ plans. Their prolonged and extensive preparations enabled them to quickly improvise for a counterattack whose magnitude was beyond anything their antagonists expected.
On 4 November, claiming ‘provocations’ in Soroka and Kirakir (border villages between the Amhara and Tigray states) the combined forces of the ENDF, Amhara Special Forces and Amhara militia attacked on the southwestern front, particularly in the area of Dansha. Moreover and apparently by prior agreement, the Sudanese sealed off the border areas thus preventing essential supplies from getting through to Tigray.
The Tigrayans were clearly unprepared for the magnitude and intensity of the ENDF counterattack. In May 2021, an unnamed senior official in the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) gave a brief statement regarding the condition of the army and the course of the war.
“We entered the war before we had time to strengthen our forces, train the youth and equip ourselves sufficiently with weaponry. However, the (TDF) army encountered these challenges by using ambush and mobility tactic and faced the enemy by taking into account its strategies”.
He claimed the TDF had grown in strength over time and attributed the revival of Tigrayan forces to the fact that they are fighting a just war.
“The leadership has reformed itself anew and the youth also flooded in once again. The novices, as well as those who had acquired experience in warfare have gathered together. (TDF), using ambush, semi-ambush and mobile fighting, is scoring victory over the enemy. The power balance is shifting. After some time, once we are completed all the necessary preparations, we will start dominating the situation and will make the transition to full blown offensives. It can be said that right now the (TDF) army is in good shape.”
Officials of the Tigray government repeatedly accused the Ethiopian army of using the human wave tactic in Dansha and subsequent ferocious battles. This is plausible. The Tigrayans were forced to give up well fortified positions, including trenches, despite having trained forces, boosted by battle-hardened veterans and ex ENDF soldiers in their ranks. Local and international observers, who had expected prolonged and entrenched warfare to last for months before any significant territorial gains were made, were taken by surprise. The ENDF and their allies were able to advance rapidly, capturing several towns in South-Western Tigray. By 7 November, merely 4 days after the start of the war, ENDF had taken Mai Deliye, Dansha and Humera Airport. Moreover, Lugdi, a strategic town along the Ethio-Sudanese border linking western Tigray to Sudan, fell to the federal forces, thereby severing what would otherwise have been a key supply route into Tigray.
Aware that ENDF’s South-Western offensive was aimed at driving a wedge between Tigray and Sudan, Tigray Defence Forces mounted a fierce resistance near Baeker, on the hills just a few kilometres from Humera Airport. As long as they were able to keep hold of Baeker and Rawyan, Sudan was still within the Tigrayan’s reach. ENDF officers who took part in the battle of Baeker attested to the fierceness of the fighting. It was at this moment that the Ethiopian military reportedly decided to involve their Eritrean counterpart. Debretsion Gebremichael, president of Tigray regional state, later claimed that, in the heat of the battle, the Eritrean army carried out a blanket bombardment of Humera town from their side of the border. This forced the TSF to divert resources from the Baeker defensive line. Humera residents who fled to Sudan confirmed that the town was indeed shelled with heavy artillery from across the Mereb river. It appears the Ethiopian side, when confronted with the stubborn resistance which was likely to keep their offensive in check for days, invited Eritrean mechanised units to intervene. This was the first instance in which the Eritrean army was overtly involved in the conflict.
With the fall of Baeker, the ENDF quickly moved to seize control of the north western towns of Rawyan, Humera and Mai Cadra, probably without stiff resistance. Tigrayan sources indicated that the Eritrean army, which crossed the Ethiopian border the very next day, involved its ground forces during the capture of these towns. With the capture of Humera and Rawyan the first mission of the ENDF – sealing off Tigray from the West and Sudan – was complete. It was completed in only one week.
The TSF’s direction of retreat from the western front appears to have been along the Tekezze river towards Waldibba and Mai Tsemri. They were rapidly pursued by ENDF and Amhara forces. However, before the main body of TSF’s western corps, including its leadership, was able to cross the Tekezze river and head towards the better fortified town of Shire, an Eritrean contingent (possibly assisted by ENDF units of the Northern Command that had crossed to Eritrea during the initial Tigrayan attack) quickly moved South from Badme, capturing Shiraro, Asgede Tsimbla, Alogen and finally the Tekezze bridge. At about the same time a joint ENDF-Amhara contingent moved up and captured Waldibba and Mai Tsemre, thereby almost completely encircling the retreating Tigrayan forces. General Migbe, one of the leaders of TSF military corps described just how dire the situation was in a speech to Tigrayan forces, which was leaked:
“The enemy came in the direction of Waldibba; it also came through Tselemti – Mai Tsebri. About two divisions of Sha’abiya (Eritrean Defence Force – EDF) came through Tekezze from up top. They took control of Debre Abay and Aloguen; Tekezze too. It occupied the bridge you crossed and approached nearer. We had wounded among us. Leadership was with us …”
Despite this, before the encirclement was complete, the Tigrayan forces managed to find an opening and evade capture to be reunited with TSF regiments in Zana. After the capture of Welqait and Humera, ENDF divisions which came all the way from South-Western Tigray joined Eritrean forces that arrived southwards from Shiraro in time for a combined assault on Shire.
Tigrayan forces attempted to delay ENDF/EDF advance by destroying bridges, including on the Tekezze, and digging holes at several spots along the B-30 highway. But that doesn’t seem to have slowed down the momentum of the advance to an appreciable extent.
4.2 The northern fronts
On 13 November, the Eritrean army began powerful offensives on four fronts along the northern border. Tigrayan media claimed that 16 divisions of EDF, in conjunction with ENDF Northern Command detachments, attacked simultaneously at Rama, Tsorena, Gerhu Sernay and Zalambessa.  Mesfin Hagos provides extensive details of the Eritrean divisions deployed through one of these fronts:
Through Zalambessa alone, the Eritrean president sent in the 42nd and 49th mechanized divisions and the 11th, 17th, 19th and 27th infantry divisions. On reaching Edaga-Hamus, south of Adigrat and north of Mekelle, these divisions were reinforced with addition five Eritrean divisions, including the 2nd brigade of the 525th commando division. He also unleashed the 26th, 28th, and 53rd infantry and 46th and 48th mechanized divisions on the Adwa front along with only one division of the Ethiopian federal army.
The Eritreans used blanket bombardments of the towns, with Zalambessa shelled for 13 consecutive hours. The Tigrayan forces responded by rapidly withdrawing from the towns in an attempt to minimise damage to the urban areas, but fierce fighting continued nearby. Wave after wave of relentless Eritrean offensives, at several points along the border, coupled with indiscriminate bombardment of towns with heavy artillery and air raids, overwhelmed the Tigrayan defensive line, which was spread thin in face of the multi-frontal attacks.
The Tigrayan strategy appeared to be to deal with the Northern Command (more than half of the entire ENDF army) by capturing or neutralising those members who opposed their cause and co-opting those that would support the Tigrayan resistance. With its newly acquired mechanised divisions, the TSF hoped to force their opponents to the negotiating table. Initially the strategy appeared to be having some success. But the Tigrayan side counted on the much-needed heavy artillery, which they had were seized from the Northern Command, to counter the enemy’s firepower. However, much to the dismay of the Tigrayan forces, the large weaponry they had amassed were neutralized before they could be used to influence the course of the war to any appreciable extent.
The Ethiopian government claimed its air force was able to destroy the tanks and heavy artillery, while capturing those that remained, in just days after the start of the conflict. The Tigray regional government, on the other hand, reassured the Tigrayan public, during the first phases of the war that it was still in possession of the weapons, but claimed that it needed time to regroup and remobilise its newly formed mechanized division to support its ground forces. By 15 November, however, the Tigrayan side began accusing the UAE of using its base in the Eritrean port of Assab to launch drone strikes in the unfolding war. Since the Ethiopian air force lacked precision guided missile technology to single out specific targets, its claim of effectively neutralizing the entire arsenal of the Northern Command by air force attacks was hard to credit.  Though the UAE’s Assab base did indeed contain drones, only limited evidence has been provided of their use in Tigray. Independent investigations of the drone allegations by Bellingcat came to the following conclusion:
“In sum, the claims made by the Tigray forces are not impossible, but so far they seem improbable. Satellite imagery confirms the presence of Chinese-produced drones at the UAE’s military base in Assab, but that is all it confirms. There is currently no further evidence that these same drones have been involved in operations in support of the Ethiopian air force, though there have been confirmed sightings of Ethiopian jet fighters in the conflict zone.”
Despite this, one fact remains incontestable. Regardless of how it happened, most of the artillery of the Northern Command (which constituted more than half of the entire Ethiopian military arsenal) was destroyed before it could be put to use by Tigrayan Special Forces. Of course, the TSF was still in possession of significant missiles and rockets till mid-November, which it used to strike airports of Gondar, Bahr Dar and Asmara. The apparent aim was to disable EDF/ENDF aerial attacks. However, these systems were incapable of halting the enemy advance. 
4.3 The Southern Front
In contrast to the swift advances of ENDF and EDF from the West and North respectively, the southern front remained relatively stagnant with no significant territorial gains. The forces deployed to break through TSF defensive lines included (in addition to the ENDF and the EDF) Amhara Special Forces, and Amhara militia, as well as Somali troops. Alamata, a border town in South Tigray, was captured by ENDF and Amhara forces on 16 November, two weeks after the war broke out. Even then, advancing further North against the Tigrayans proved costly and difficult. Battles around Mekoni and Chercher, which were the two pivots of attack from the south, proved indecisive. There was intense fighting that lasted several days without any meaningful territorial advance. Tigrayan sources claimed that the TSF was able to repulse Ethiopian offensives with its much smaller defensive units repeatedly inflicting huge losses on the advancing forces.
4.4 The ENDF’s strategy
Addis Ababa’s approach to what it labelled ‘law enforcement operation’ was simple. It had set a daringly tight schedule and was therefore prepared to use all means, and pay any price, to take control of Mekelle in less than a month. The stories that emanated from eyewitnesses about the capture of scores of Tigrayan towns, including Dansha Shire, Zalambessa, Adigrat and Wukro, all followed similar patterns. First the towns were indiscriminately shelled with heavy artillery, resulting in huge civilian casualties and property damage. Similarly, air raids were carried out by the Ethiopian air force, allegedly targeting the towns rather than the entrenched TSF defensive lines.
The aim seems to have been to cause a sudden, all-consuming terror and confusion among both the Tigrayan civilians and the defending forces. This was designed to cause momentary indecision and bewilderment in the Tigrayan chain of command. It was also claimed to have been used to intimidate and subsequently force the withdrawal of the local forces who were keen to keep the towns intact. This was followed by, and at times coupled with, the alleged use of ‘human wave’ tactics. Hundreds of soldiers were made to rush straight onto entrenched TSF lines, forcing the defending troops to retreat and give up their strongholds. This is what appears to have taken place at May Kadra, with the Amhara militia taking many casualties. It was followed by attacks on civilians when the Amhara and Ethiopian forces finally took the town.
These tactics enabled the advancing force to speedily capture several areas, albeit at the cost of heavy casualties and material losses. The Tigrayans also accused their opponents of deploying thousands of barely trained and ill-disciplined local militia and regional Special Forces on the frontlines as cannon fodder, to minimize the casualties of the better trained and disciplined national armies of the EDF/ENDF. This apparently enabled the advancing force to conserve its core strength, while simultaneously forcing their opponents to prematurely use up their firepower. In just five weeks the war in Tigray fought scores of battles, with some of the bloodiest and most brutal confrontations.
By 25 November, the combined forces of the Ethiopian and Eritrean coalition were able to make major territorial advances on all the three critical fronts. They captured Shire, Axum and Adwa from the West; Adigrat and Idaga Hamus from the North and Chercher, Mekoni and Hiwane from the South. The combined forces then proceeded to approach Mekelle from three directions, i.e., via Nebelet-Hawzien – Abraha we Atsbaha; Frewoyni –Negash and Hiwane. The forces that followed the first two lines of advance probably came together at Wukro, while Hiwane served as a point of convergence for the contingents which mobilized from Korem and Chercher. On 27 November, Prime Minister Abiy announced he was launching of the final phase of the ‘law enforcement operation’ which was to culminate with the capture of Mekelle.
Despite the ENDF advances on all fronts, the Tigrayan leadership remained defiant. News of victories on several battle fronts, of Tigrayan forces repulsing wave after wave of enemy attack, was broadcast repeatedly on Tigrayan controlled stations: Demtsi Weyane and Tigray TV. They concentrated on the huge human and material losses TSF was able to inflict on their adversaries. Territorial concessions were presented as strategic withdrawals. At one-point Getachew Reda, a senior leader and spokesperson for the Tigray regional government, insisted: “Our aim is not to prevent them from taking cities, but to make it impossible for them to keep them”.
Behind this façade of defiance, the leadership in Mekelle seems to have realised soon after the fighting started that they would lose a conventional war. As the Ethiopian forces inched closer to the regional capital, the TPLF leadership rapidly adjusted their military strategy and started to prepare for an inevitable withdrawal to the hills to pursue guerrilla warfare. The TSF strategy in many of the battles fought after surrendering western Tigray can be interpreted in this light. Tigrayan units sought to hold out as long as they could, inflict as much damage on the advancing army and then withdraw before incurring significant losses. Roads and bridges were destroyed to slow down enemy advances, to give enough time for the leadership in Mekelle to make preparations for the inevitable future life in the hills. News of victories started to incorporate slogans like “our struggle is bitter but short; yet our victory is inevitable.” These were versions of slogans last used during the 17 years guerrilla war that ended in 1991. On 27 November, the Tigray regional government came out with the statement that the Tigrayan forces were to pursue a ‘unique struggle’ befitting the circumstances thus cryptically admitting the transition of Tigrayan resistance to guerrilla warfare.
4.5 Retreat and consolidation
On 28 November, the Ethiopian led forces began their direct assault on Mekelle. The capital was indiscriminately bombarded for several hours. As a result, 27 civilians were killed and 100 wounded. A few hours later the Ethiopian government announced that it had taken control of the city. Debretsion Gebremichael, president of Tigray regional state, later confirmed that Tigrayan forces had indeed withdrawn from the city, apparently after discussing with the city’s respected elders and businessmen. He claimed the decision to leave Mekelle was not because of a military defeat, but to save the city from destruction by the enemy, whom he accused of looking for an excuse to reduce it to rubble.
In reality the Tigrayan leadership was far from being in control of the situation. On the contrary, it seemed momentarily to have been in disarray. Accusations were reportedly thrown around, accusing the leaders of not making adequate preparations for the war, though the signs were evident from early on. Many, even within the leadership, lamented not taking heed of the warnings and advise from those who had seen the danger early on.
There was also indecision over how to react to the mass exodus of civilians who followed the retreating Tigrayan force as they withdrew from Mekelle. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, former TPLF central committee member, described the frantic nature of the withdrawal:
“So many people moved out of the cities of Tigray towards the rural areas following the army, including some of their families. So, we were caught in between…. Are we going to defend these people who flocked out of the cities with their families? Or are we going to fight? I mean, the army was caught in between.”
Nevertheless, fighting continued in the outskirts of Mekelle as the retreating Tigrayan army was determined to slow down its withdrawal into the highlands of central Tigray. Meanwhile its leadership sought to cut their losses and instead focus on securing safe areas, somewhere deep in central Tigray, where political leaders, who had little contribution to make in the armed conflict, could evade repeated manhunts by the Ethiopian forces.
After the capture of Mekelle, the vicious Tigray war appeared to be culminating in a defeat for the regional government and the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans who supported them. The leadership was on the run; unimaginable atrocities were being committed on civilians on a daily basis. The public struggled to deal with the unexpected defeat of Tigrayan forces and this led many to descend into despair. In addition, faced with the absence of communication equipment, the TPLF leadership remained disconnected from Tigrayan militia who had lost touch with the main forces in various areas across Tigray. Confused and isolated, some chose to surrender. At the same time many Tigrayan troops remained defiant and continued mounting isolated resistance in small units throughout the occupied territories. Hence local militia of Wejerat, Atsbi, Ahsea, Bora Selewa, Neksege, Mai Maedo, Tselemti kept carrying out small scale ambushes against EDF, ENDF and Amhara forces.
At the same time the main corps of the Tigray Special Forces appears to have remained intact. The assault and retreat strategy that it followed more or less guaranteed that it was able to avoid incurring significant casualties. But rushed withdrawal meant it faced severe shortages of arms and military equipment. Moreover, numerous manhunt operations carried out throughout December, by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, forced the troops to constantly shift their positions. Tigray forces prioritized mobility over size and were rumoured to have temporarily halted military recruitment. Getachew Reda later recalled that, in these times, TDF units were repeatedly at risk of being encircled by EDF and ENDF contingents. He claimed they were able to successfully break out, preventing Tigrayan forces from being trapped an annihilated.
Even during the tumultuous times of December and January, fierce fighting continued along the outer peripheries of TDF strongholds. These consisted more or less of the districts of south-central Tigray – Medebay Zana, Naeder Adet, Abergelle, Kola Tembien as well as parts of Asgede Tisimbla, Abergelle and Degua Tembien.
As ENDF and EDF forces attempted to move away from the main highways, which they had secured, and penetrated into rural areas of south-central Tigray, Workamba, Zana, Adet, May Kinetal, Nebelet, Migulat Edaga Arbi and Hawzien, they came under repeated attack. The Tigrayans used sudden ambushes as well as swift attacks from the enemy’s rear, using small, agile units. The attacks from the rear, known among Tigrayans as ‘Qoretsa’ – a military strategy the TPLF military leaders devised during their guerrilla years – was claimed to have proved decisive in frustrating ENDF/EDF offensives. These areas became sites of small scale, but fierce fighting, accompanied by massacres of civilians. With the exception of the battle of Workamba, where a well-built TDF entrenchment was claimed to have been captured by ENDF forces, other battles remained bloody but inconclusive. Meanwhile TDF units, deployed along the B-30 and A-2 highway, carried out repeated ambushes aimed at disrupting EDF and ENDF supply lines. These had a significant impact on the logistical capability of the occupying forces and also negatively affected army morale.
By the end of December, the TDF leadership had recovered sufficiently to re-establish a more reliable command structure. It was not a coincidence that it was at this time that the exiled government of Tigray issued its first statement since its retreat into the hills. Call to arms resonated throughout the statement, largely directed at Tigrayan youth. These calls were repeated on 9 and 15 of January, signifying that Tigray Defence Forces was ready to expand its military capacity.
4.6 Tigray Defence Force expansion and the start of semi-conventional warfare
The unexpected resurgence of Tigray Defence Forces, from near extinction to one boasting tens of thousands of fighters, was probably the result of several interrelated factors. The capture and the public ridiculing of veteran TPLF leaders and the apparently deliberate assassination of some (including the former minister of foreign affairs, Seyoum Mesfin) caused delight and celebration in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar. The Tigrayan public, however, were disgusted. Moreover, there was widespread indignation at the atrocities, rape, looting, persecution and mass murders routinely carried out by ENDF and EDF soldiers. These events, coupled with the apathy and subtle support from Ethiopianists, crystallised in Tigrayans a sense of betrayal and indignation that they had harboured for the previous 3 years. This was exacerbated by attacks on the territorial integrity of Tigray. This included open declarations by the Amhara regional State authorities regarding the extrajudicial annexation of parts of western and southern Tigray, as well as the occupation of a corridor along the northern border of Tigray by the Eritrean army. These developments were accompanied by programs of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans. These entrenched the animosities of many Tigrayans and invoked a strong desire for creating an independent Tigray nation among ordinary people.
The opening of pro-TDF radio stations, disseminating reports of battlefield victories of Tigrayan forces, also served to connect the leadership with people in rural areas, urban residents and the diaspora. The re-appearance of the popular leaders like Debretsion Gebremichael and Getachew Reda (who had been repeatedly declared dead by pro-government media) alongside opposition leaders like Mehari Yohannes of Tigrayan Independence Party (who joined the resistance despite political differences) broadened the appeal for the TDF cause among Tigrayans, even if they were not affiliated to the TPLF. As a consequence, support of the public for the struggling military leadership soared and encouraged many recruits to flood into TDF military training sites.
Throughout January and February 2021, TDF operations were confined to small scale skirmishes often involving brigade level encounters. By the beginning of March, however, Tigrayan sources indicated that as the capacity of TDF rose, their forces were able to increase the magnitude and number of combat engagements throughout central and southern Tigray. Getachew Reda identified the battles of Maekel Segli, in central Tigray and Werkedino, in Wag zone of neighbouring Amhara region, as the first instances in which several battalions of TDF were involved in semi-conventional engagement with large contingents of the EDF and ENDF. This heralded that the tide had turned. According to insiders this was the first time Tigrayan forces engaged directly with the Eritrean army since the capture of Mekelle. Additional battles in Tselego and Dengolat were also perceived to have shown the newly enhanced military capability of the TDF.
The beginning of April saw mounting international pressure which caused concern for the Ethiopian authorities that Eritrean forces might be forced to withdraw from Tigray. According to Tigrayan sources this led to renewed efforts to crush the TDF once and for all, before the Eritrean withdrawal took effect. This resulted in the EDF and ENDF carrying out large scale offensives in southern and central Tigray; areas which had remained TDF strongholds. This coincided with PM Abiy’s claim of ENDF fighting on 8 fronts and lent credibility to suggestions that large scale battles were indeed being fought inside Tigray. In the aftermath of the battles, Tigrayan forces claimed major victories, including inflicting huge losses on Eritrean contingents. ENDF also claimed victory. The assertions of both sides remained elusive and difficult to verify. However, the fact that the B-30 highway linking Adwa to Adigrat was closed for several days, allegedly blocked by Tigrayan forces, may show the enhanced the ability of TDF to fight in areas beyond its stronghold, as well as a corresponding decline in the ENDF and EDF’s grip on Tigray.
4.7 Overall War Progress: November 2020 to May 2021
After the capture of Mekelle, allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces sought to continue the momentum and quickly advanced on Ala’isa and Gereb Segen. The pattern of ENDF/EDF offensives remained consistent. Towns were shelled indiscriminately a few days prior the arrival of the ground troops and where the army encountered stiff resistance, massacres of civilians followed. The towns of Ala’isa, Hagere Selam, Agbe and Abi Addi were captured in quick succession.
Then, on 4 December, the ENDF mounted an offensive on Werqamba town, 17 km north of Abiy Addi, where they faced fierce resistance from Tigrayan forces. It was rumoured that the TPLF leadership was hiding in the town. After intense fighting (during which Tigrayan forces claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on their opponents) the ENDF eventually took control of the town. Yet, the TPLF leaders remained elusive. With the capture of Werqamba the road connecting Mekelle to Adwa, and through to Abiy Addi, fell into the hands of the Ethiopian forces.
On the southern front, the ENDF contingent advanced towards Gereb Segen, reaching Samre town towards the end of December, which was captured after brief but intense fighting. Simultaneously, Gijet town, a few kilometres away, was subjected to a blanket bombardment in preparation for a subsequent attack.
On the northern front, Ethio-Eritrean forces attempted to move beyond the B-30 highway and deeper into south-central Tigray. However, their attempt to capture Medebay Zana and Naeder appears to have proved unsuccessful, as the Tigrayans were reportedly able to repulse ENDF offensive around Adi Achelai. These areas remained TDF stronghold from which they were able to mount subsequent attacks. Fighting was also reported around Asgede Tsimbla, Edaga Hamus, Sasei Tsadaimba and Dengelat, with apparently inconclusive outcomes.
The beginning of January saw new fronts and deeper penetration of EDF and ENDF forces into previously unconquered areas of central and Northern Tigray. To the north west of Mekelle, the allied forces carried out offensives against the towns of Tsigereda, administrative centre of the mountainous district of Geralta, with the direction of attack likely originating from Ala’isa. To the south, forces mobilizing from Maichew attacked Amba Alaje and went as far as Bora town. Meanwhile, Eritrean troops had already set up secure administrative areas along the border with Tigray, including Zalambessa, Irob, Gerhu Sirnay, Rama and Shiraro. However, rural areas and towns between this buffer zone and the B-30 highway southwards remained under the control of the TDF and hostile Tigrayan militia. The Tigrayans targeted crucial supply routes along Rama-Adwa and Zalambessa-Adigrat roads. Intending to nullify these intermittent attacks, EDF offensives were launched from Kerseber town, between Adigrat and Zalambessa, to areas as far as Assimba Mountains. Similar offensives were carried out against Debre Damo and Bizet.
Ethio-Eritrean forces soon discovered that holding towns far from the highway was far more difficult than capturing them. The Tigrayans kept targeting supply routes and mounting unexpected attacks against the towns themselves, only to withdraw before supporting units arrived from nearby garrisons. Consistent with this pattern, the TDF launched a series of attacks on several towns of northern and central Tigray. As such, mid-January offensives by the TDF on Daero Hafash, Edaga Arbi, Mai Kinetal, Nebelet and Hawzen appear to have been successful and the Tigrayans were even able to occupy several of them, even if they were only held temporarily. Among these offensives, Daero Hafash, near Axum, stands out as one involving the most intense and lengthy fighting. Tigrayan sources claimed to have inflicted upwards of 4,000 casualties on EDF/ENDF forces.
Fighting intensified throughout February. Ethio-Eritrean forces continued to mount attacks on the mountainous areas of central Tigray. Conversely, TDF kept targeting the enemy’s supply routes and carrying out ambushes, choosing spots where the advancing force would be vulnerable. On the central front, rural areas around Nebelet remained a focal point of repeated clashes between the TDF and EDF, with the former persistently mounting surprise attacks, involving ‘Qoretsa’ maneuvers, to make sustained occupation untenable.
With the approach of the annual “Lekatit 11” celebration (18 February 2021), commemorating the start of Tigrayan armed struggle, the TDF leadership planned a series of high-profile attacks in an attempt to score victories that would reinvigorate popular support for the resistance. Consequently, on February 8th, Tigrayan forces carried out an operation named after the late Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin around Juamare, Kola Tembien. After a series of battles in the surrounding area, the TDF claimed to have defeated a battalion sized contingent of Ethio-Eritrean forces which had been drafted into the area.
By mid-February, even more significant battles were fought in Mai Kinetal, Gijet and Samre, lasting several days. In the aftermath of the fighting, Tigrayan forces temporarily recaptured the towns and allegedly inflicted heavy losses on EDF/ENDF before withdrawing to the mountains. In Mai Kinetal alone, Tigrayan forces claimed to have killed or captured more than 2,000 EDF soldiers. This was the first time since November when Tigrayan forces had faced such sizable enemy contingent. It appears to have served as a reversal of fortune for the EDF/ENDF while emboldening the Tigrayan side. In the aftermath of the battle, a TDF statement said: “the defeat showed that the Eritrean army is not as formidable as is being claimed to be.” To friend and foe alike, it was presented as evidence that the TDF was capable of moving beyond mounting guerrilla attacks and could openly engage the Eritrean army and come out on top.
On 20 February, the government of Tigray issued a statement listing its terms for peace negotiation. These included the unconditional withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray; an independent investigation of alleged atrocities committed in Tigray and a vehement denunciation of the Tigray interim administration, appointed by the government in Addis Ababa. More than anything, the statement revealed the Tigrayans belief in the ability of their military to maintain a sustained resistance that would be sufficient to force negotiation on their own terms. That, at least, was what the Tigrayan authorities wished the world to believe. The fact that the ENDF was by this time reportedly digging trenches around Mekelle, moving into a defensive posture, appeared to affirm a gradual shift in the military strength among the antagonists.
March saw evidence of the enhanced of military capability of TDF. Multiple semi-conventional battles took place involving several brigades from both sides, with correspondingly high human casualties. During the first week of March, major offensives were carried out around Samre, Bora and Ofla, by the combined armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and supported by Amhara regional forces, in an attempt to overwhelm southern Tigray and weaken TDF presence there. The fighting provided evidence of the involvement of Eritrean forces in southern Tigray. This coincided with reports of Ethiopian forces being redeployed to central and southern Ethiopia, to head off an increased threat from the Oromo Liberation Front. The ENDF was gradually yielding Tigray to Eritrea while moving its forces in Oromia. After several days of fighting, it appears that TDF units were able to carry out successive ambushes as well as entrenched engagements in the area. As a result, they wore down enemy attacks, neutralising thousands of EDF/ENDF soldiers in the process. This meant an increased presence of TDF in southern Tigray, which led to their subsequent infiltration attacks into neighbouring Amhara territory.
Towards the middle of March two major infiltration-type offensives were carried out by the TDF deep into Amhara territory. On March 18th Tsata town, an administrative center in the Wag Himra Zone of the Amhara region, was attacked by TDF infiltration units. Besides aiming to acquire much needed military equipment and supplies, while simultaneously weakening Amhara forces in the area, the TDF leadership also appears to have intended to make a statement that it was now a force to be reckoned with.
By the beginning of April, Ethio-Eritrean forces carried out huge operations described as ‘once and for all’ attacks. Several divisions of EDF/ENDF were mobilised in almost all fronts of central and southern Tigray. The Tigrayan media house, Demtsi Weyane, reported extended fighting around Endabaguna, Seleh Leha, Zana, Hawzien, Maikinetal, Edaga Arbi and Wojerat. The multi-frontal Ethio-Eritrean offensive, which involved mechanised divisions and aerial support, continued in full force until the middle of April. Both sides claimed to have achieved major victories, which is difficult to verify. However, it is evident that the Ethio-Eritrean forces terminated the operation before achieving their main objective – the complete eradication of the TDF. Contrary to ENDF claims, several videos of large contingents of TDF units celebrating victory, as well as mobilizing for another operation, were released on social media. This was followed, on April 26th, by another Tigrayan offensive against Nirak, located inside the Amhara region near Abergelle, with TDF infiltration units reportedly destroying a contingent of Amhara Special Forces that had camped in the area.
During the first week of May, TDF infiltration units are reported to have carried out a limited offensive against Eritrean positions near Gerhu Sirnay town, bordering on Eritrea. The offensive was similar to the ones undertaken inside the Amhara region. TDF activities in April and May suggests that, beyond attacks on supply highways, the Tigrayan resistance is likely to continue such limited scale offensives targeting weak spots of its opponents. At the same time, it appears unlikely that Tigrayan forces will seek to confront EDF/ENDF units head-on and try to make territorial advances any time soon.
It has now been more than six months since the start of the Tigray war and all the available evidence shows it’s unlikely to end soon. At the start of the war, faced with relentless attacks by the numerically superior allied forces of Eritrea and Ethiopia, Tigrayan Special Forces were forced to withdraw from major towns and retreat to the mountains, to conduct a guerrilla war. Subsequent campaigns, in December and January, by the EDF/ENDF into TDF strongholds of central and southern Tigray failed to crush Tigrayan resistance.
After barely scraping through its worst period, however, the Tigrayan resistance grew in strength. Numerous horrifying atrocities committed by armies of the EDF, ENDF and Amhara forces, as well as the annexation of Tigrayan territory, and the deliberate destruction and looting of public property, enraged the Tigrayan public against the federally appointed interim administration. This period has also seen the emergence of the TDF as a truly national resistance movement, not tied to any particular political party. Its status has been enhanced by the fact that TPLF veterans and opposition leaders joined its ranks, as did large number of Tigrayan youth. They were supported by the emergence of a pan-Tigrayan, and highly vocal diaspora which was able to consolidate and mobilise the Tigrayan public. These factors served to transform the resistance into an all-inclusive people’s war.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian army was facing a significant decline in its operational capability. With the Northern Command – its most potent segment – neutralized, the Ethiopian national army was at a disadvantage from the beginning. In addition, thousands of Tigrayan members of the ENDF, were swiftly side-lined or imprisoned by the Ethiopian government because of their ethnicity, without sufficient preparations for their replacement. Considering the fact that the Tigrayans were the most experienced members of the military, it is obvious that this would take a significant toll on the ENDF’s military capacity. Moreover, the brutal November campaign, where the Ethiopian command pursued a strategy that prioritized the swift capture of Mekelle over operational efficiency, had resulted in heavy casualties and the loss of essential equipment. Subsequent ambitious, but ill-conceived, campaigns into central Tigray, which attempted to completely eliminate the TPLF led resistance, coupled with TDF’s adept utilization of guerrilla warfare, resulted in the ENDF losing some of its most experienced troops. With most of its divisions tied up in Tigray, the rise of insurgency movements, like the Oromo Liberation Army and Gumuz Liberation Front in the rest of Ethiopia, as well as a border conflict with Sudan, compelled the Ethiopian government to be increasingly reliant on Eritrean forces in its Tigray campaign.
Eritrean forces were heavily involved in the Tigray war right from the start. Tigrayan sources had claimed that as early as the beginning of November, more than half of the EDF’s infantry divisions were already deployed on Tigrayan soil. After the fall of Mekelle, the Eritrean army annexed a part of northern Tigray instituting military administrations around Zalambessa, Rama, Irob, Gerhu Sirnay and Shiraro. Moreover, several divisions of EDF, including the infamous 525 commando division, were deployed alongside ENDF units, in ongoing campaigns into central Tigray. Numerous reports from residents illustrate that few, if any, areas of central and northern Tigray had not been visited by EDF contingents. As early as December, a permanent Eritrean presence was reported in several Tigrayan towns including, among others, Wukro, Adigrat, Adwa, Shire and Nebellet.
By the beginning of February, TDF affiliated sources were repeatedly insisting that two thirds of the Ethiopian national army had been ‘neutralized’ and that most of the fighting in northern and central Tigray was against EDF units. It was also claimed that, if the Eritreans were to withdraw, the ENDF alone would be unable to contain the Tigrayan Defense Forces. With mounting international pressure for the Eritrean army to withdraw from Tigray, reports started to emerge that the Eritrean army had started to wear ENDF uniform, with the aim of eventually merging with the Ethiopian army.
Meanwhile, public opinion in the rest of Ethiopia, beyond the current war, remained finely divided over the legitimacy and course of the conflict. The sharp and seemingly irreconcilable difference of opinion among advocates of the two sides appears to align with their respective attitude towards, and identification with, the previous history of Ethiopia, as well as their views of the best model of governance for the country to follow. Many of the most vocal advocates of the multinational federation denounced Abiy’s attempt to crush Tigray and his alliance with President Isaias. This explains the firm support by hard core federalists among the Oromo for Tigrayan resistance, despite the TPLF’s previous antagonism towards the OLF. This has resulted in a strategic, if unlikely Oromo alliance, with Tigrayans.
However, many federalists had been embittered by the behavior of the EPRDF, and TPLF’s role within it. As a result, many have remained perceivably apathetic about Tigray’s suffering and have not involved themselves in the conflict. Somali nationalists, as well as those of Afar and Southern nationalities, fall into this category. While the Special Forces of almost all the regional states participated in the war on the side of the federal government, it would be wrong to confuse their role with the position the elites of their respective nationalities towards the Tigray war. All in all, because of the previous experience that ethnic nationalists had of the TPLF, some, who might otherwise have supported Tigrayan resistance, have remained divided on the issue. Ethiopianists, however, apart from a small minority, have remained strong supporters of the government’s crusade against Tigray.
On the other hand, the people’s support for the federal government, hadn’t translated well when it came to providing recruits for the national army, or at least not as much as the federal government had wanted it. While it could be argued that there was good response to government’s calls for volunteer recruits during the first few months, as the war dragged on, and as gossip of the national army’s high casualty rates or the difficulty of fighting against Tigrayan insurgency begun to spread among the population, the number of volunteers started to dwindle while the governments call of arms began to appear desperate and frequent. Abiy Ahmed repeatedly criticized the youth for preferring to ‘fight on Facebook’ while the country was in desperate need of new conscripts.
With the failure of the April offensives to decisively defeat the Tigrayan resistance, it has become clear that the Tigray war is poised to become a protracted conflict, threatening to sink the Horn into instability. It is apparent that over the past couple of months, the operational capability of TDF has grown significantly and has now reached a point where it is deploying several brigades in its contacts with EDF/ENDF units. It appears capable of successfully defending its strongholds in the mountainous central and southern Tigray. Moreover, its ambushes targeting the A-2, B-20 and B-30 highways have severely constrained the supply routes of EDF/ENDF armies, making it increasingly difficult for its opponents to sustain a prolonged occupation of the region.
By May 2021 the rural areas of central and southern Tigray below A-2 and B-30 highway, as well as smaller towns found farther from the main roads, appeared to be firmly under TDF control. The Eritrean forces, on the other hand, have maintained a firm grip over the larger towns in central Tigray found along the B-30 and A-2 highways. Towns like Maikinetal, Werqamba, Abiy Addi and Nebelet, which are further south of the highway, were also under EDF control. However, as these towns are exposed to repeated TDF attacks, it will be difficult for the Eritreans to sustain control over them in the coming months, especially during the rainy season, which beings in July. ENDF units seem content with administering the bigger towns south of Mekelle found along the A-2 highway. Western Tigray, beyond Tekezze river, will probably remain under the control of Amhara forces and TDF attacks in these areas, especially aimed at sustained territorial advances, appear unlikely in the near future.
[Note: This chapter was written prior to the launching of Operation Alula which transformed the war in just ten days, from 18 June to 28 June 2021, with the Tigrayans re-capturing Mekelle and a string of other towns and villages.]
 The events surrounding the Mai Kadra massacre have been the subject of conflicting interpretations.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Alula. This was named after the general who led Ethiopian forces in battles against Ethiopia’s enemies in the nineteenth century, and is considered the greatest military leader Tigray produced. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ras_Alula#Battle_of_Adwa