September 04, 2007

Somalia comes full circle

Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting a proxy war in Somalia. With the US also conducting its global "war on terror" in the same arena, ignoring the more important clan-based realities on the ground in typical Washington fashion, Somali citizens are caught in the crossfire of the worst violence they have seen in 17 years of chaos and anarchy. From ISA.

By ISA staff (03/09/07)

Against the backdrop of the closing ceremony of the Somali National Reconciliation Conference, the capital Mogadishu has been at a standstill since 29 August. Security is tight and few, if any, cars can be seen on the streets. Somali and Ethiopian troops are at every street corner with their fingers on the triggers of their Kalashnikovs. Explosions and gunshots continued throughout the 29th and 30th , according to an ISA representative in the city.

While the US is fighting what it views as another front in the "war on terror," the conflict in Somalia is in reality about local clan-based rivalries and a struggle for regional predominance, particularly between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In December 2006 and January 2007, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to support the interim Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was struggling to push back Islamist rebels from the capital, Mogadishu, which they had seized last year.

In January, the TFG, backed by the US, the UN and, more tangibly, Ethiopian forces, retook control of Mogadishu from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and the violence since then has escalated markedly, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the displacement of an estimated 400,000 people.

Though the ICU was theoretically disbanded, its extreme elements established a coalition of insurgent groups that have launched a wave of attacks on Ethiopian and TGF forces in the capital. That coalition is believed to include the ICU's Al-Shabaab militia. What essentially happened when the Ethiopian and Western-backed TFG retook control of Mogadishu was that the dissolved ICU's leadership was returned to clansmen.

"The Court's defeat signals the return of clan-based politics to southern Somalia. Whereas the Courts drew their support predominately from the Hawiye clan, the TFG is widely perceived as dominated by Darod clan interests. TFG leaders reinforced this perception by pursuing policies that further alienated the Hawiye clan […] Hawiye alienation and TFG inadequacies left a vacuum into which the Courts expanded between June and December 2006, bringing a degree of peace and security unknown to the south for more than fifteen years […] Communities seemed prepared to tolerate a strict interpretation of Sharia law in return for peace and security," according to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

"Politically, Somalia has now been returned roughly to where it was when the TFG was formed in October 2004. The government is weak, unpopular and faction ridden, and the power vacuum in southern Somalia is rapidly being filled by the same faction leaders and warlords the Courts overthrew less than a year ago," the report continued.

In March and April, Ethiopian forces launched two major offensives in Mogadishu, leaving a trail of insurgent and civilian casualties in their wake.

Chiming in, the US conducted air strikes in January on targets in southern Somalia and in June in northeastern Puntland - the first US military involvement in the country since 1994. Those attacks were aimed at international terrorists who are believed to have sought shelter with ICU elements in those regions.

According to Terrence Lyon, Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, Al-Shabaab is an extremist group largely composed of Somali youth, many of them diaspora from the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and even Canada who "became very radicalized in the last decade or so and have gone back to Somalia to carry out what they would call jihadist activities in Somalia."

"There are not that many of them, hundreds perhaps. They are quite violent; they are engaging in roadside bombs. It is very difficult for the government in Mogadishu to expand its own authority beyond a very small area. There are these enemies that are created by the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia and its inability to withdraw," Lyon was quoted as saying in a 22 August article published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Proxy war, regional rivalries

Ethiopian and Eritrean denials that they are fighting a proxy war in Somalia ring hollow (even a cursory glance at the facts on the ground and the two countries historical rivalries are enough to make an educated deduction here) and US military intervention in the name of the "war on terror" is both narrow-minded and dangerous.

From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war that resulted in a border commission awarding a symbolic town in the border region, Badme, to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia, feeling empowered with its new status as a US ally in the "war on terror," has failed to comply with the agreement, and Washington has not found it politic to pressure it to do so. Eritrea, of course, holds the US responsible for the failure to resolve the border issue.

"That leads Eritrea to be frustrated and one manifestation of that frustration is that Eritrea began to support anti-Ethiopian groups in Somalia and within Ethiopia. And Ethiopia sends its troops into Somalia, in part, because it sees Somalia as a link to the Eritrean threat. Either way, Eritrea worries about Ethiopia so much that Eritrea will use Somalia to send insurgents into Ethiopia until Ethiopia is able to do something about it," Lyon told the CFR.

Eritrea has also reacted by targeting US diplomats in Asmara, arresting US Foreign Service personnel and opening diplomatic pouches for inspection. The US has responded to this - as well as to apparent evidence that Eritrea has been providing Islamic forces in Somalia with military aid - by threatening to place Eritrea on its list of state sponsors of terrorists. Last month, a UN monitoring group said massive shipments of arms, including surface-to-air missiles were making their way from Eritrea to Somalia. Eritrea denies those accusations. The UN report also criticized actions by Ethiopian troops in Somalia, accusing them of using white phosphorous bombs that killed both insurgents and civilians in Mogadishu in April.

These threats emanating from Washington come on the heels of a damning Human Rights Watch report, accusing all sides of committing war crimes in Somalia.

Ethiopia is also keen to solve its problems in the Ogaden, a predominately Somali-populated region of Ethiopia where clans such as the Sheikhal, Hawiye and Marehan are fighting for secession from Ethiopia under the "Greater Somalia" concept. Ethiopia has stepped up attacks in the region, as has the Somali Ogaden National Liberation Front, which Somali clans call a liberation movement and Ethiopia dubs a terrorist group.

While Ethiopia focuses on the extremist elements of the ICU's connections to Eritrea, the US focuses on the ICU extremists' alleged connections to al-Qaida.

"The United States characterizes itself as a strategic partner to Ethiopia but then becomes implicated or connected to regional rivalries. When Ethiopia engages in conflicts in Somalia or in the Ogaden right now, it often causes as a consequence an alienation of many of the Somali people, increasing recruitments of anti-American Islamist groups, and in that way complicates Washington's global war on terrorism," the CFR quoted Lyon as saying.

Widespread abuses

None of the parties appear be making a significant effort to distinguish between enemy combatants and innocent civilians, who are being used as human shields by the insurgents against Ethiopian forces, who have little if any regard for what or whom they are targeting.

"Since the major fighting ended in April, Ethiopian and Somali government forces have routinely violated the rights of civilians on the streets of Mogadishu," Human Rights Watch said in a press release accompanying the release of its 113-page report on 13 August. "Effective counterterrorism can only be built on respect for basic rights and an end to impunity for serious crimes."

"Ethiopian, Somali and insurgent forces are all responsible for rampant violations of the laws of war in Mogadishu, causing massive suffering for the civilian population," the press release said.

Insurgents, in their almost daily attacks on Ethiopian and TFG forces in the capital, have launched numerous mortar attacks from the city's populated residential neighborhoods. According to Human Rights Watch, insurgents have indiscriminately fired mortar rounds into civilian areas, deployed forces in densely populated neighborhoods, targeted civilian and TFG officials for assassination and summarily executed and mutilated those it has captured.

Ethiopian forces, HRW said, have indiscriminately bombarded heavily populated areas of Mogadishu with rockets, mortars and artillery. "Its troops on several occasions specifically targeted hospitals and looted them of desperately needed medical equipment," the group alleged. HRW also documented cases of Ethiopian forces "deliberately shooting and summarily executing civilians."

"Somali transitional government forces played a secondary role to the Ethiopian military, but failed to provide effective warnings to civilians in combat zones, looted property, impeded relief efforts for displaced people, and mistreated dozens of people detained in mass arrests," according to the HRW report.

Ethiopian offensives in March and April targeting these insurgent strongholds – situated in the midst of civilian populations - with rockets, mortars and artillery resulted in hundreds of innocent deaths, according to the HRW investigation.


A National Reconciliation Conference was launched earlier this summer, but little, if any, progress has been made. The conference was purportedly intended to work towards unity and to include groups that are not represented in the current interim government, such as the alienated Hawiye clan.

Without the Hawiye clan's participation, little progress can be made because of is massive influence in the country.

"It's [the Hawiye clan] a large clan and can really be a spoiler if you choose a government that does not recognize their interests," Lyon told the CFR. "Also, you have to include elements of the Islamic Courts. The Islamic Courts certainly did have some elements that were quite radical and were tied to international Islamic movements like al-Qaida, but it also had a large number of local leaders and moderate Islamists who simply saw the Islamic Courts as a vehicle to build law and order in their communities. The question is whether those more moderate elements can be split off from the more violent elements to build a broader-based government."

"The process of reconciliation has been extremely difficult and very slow to move ahead. It will require a power-sharing agreement, which means the leaders of the current Transitional Federal Government will have to give some of their power to those they regard as their enemies," Lyon said. "That's a very difficult outcome to arrive at. In Eritrea, some of the Transitional Federal Government leaders from Somalia who are anti-Ethiopian have organized themselves in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, opposing this reconciliation process and the Ethiopian role in Somalia. So, you can see how the Ethiopian-Eritrea rivalry complicates the search for a peace in Somalia."

The current violence could precipitate a type of anarchy and chaos that will be devastating even for Somalia - which has not had a functioning government since 1991 - if the international community fails to intervene in an appropriate manner.

The TFG must make moves to cement its legitimacy, firstly by looking to replace Ethiopian forces with international troops. The pubic does not accept the Ethiopian occupation of their country, and no government supporting this option will succeed. It must also take a sincere step towards reconciliation by including Hawiye and other alienated clans that have the power to make unity a reality. In return, those clans must move to subdue their extremist elements and push their moderate leaders to the forefront in the name of peace.

Finally, the US must re-evaluate is dangerously narrow purview of the conflict as a stage on the global "war on terror" and intervene in a way that recognizes the clan-based realities on the ground - realities that have much more to do with territorial control than with jihad. It must also balance its relations with Ethiopia and Eritrea in a way that ensures that this proxy war, being fought with Somali citizens caught in the crossfire, does not escalate to a region-wide conflict that would only serve to strengthen existing jihadi elements.

Copyright ISA Consulting. Republished with permission


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