Nearly a year since fighting broke out in Ethiopia's Tigray region, the US is weighing sanctions on the country’s government, warring factions and commercial entities fuelling the fighting.
Speaking exclusively to The National, a senior US official said President Joe Biden's administration is finalising an inter-agency process that would bring sanctions on people and entities responsible for the fighting.
Last November, Addis Ababa launched an offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Since then, the conflict has spread to the Amhara region and has displaced more than two million civilians and leaving 5.2 million people in urgent need of food aid, the UN has reported.
The Ethiopian federal government, the Amhara regional government, the Tigrayan regional government and the Eritrean government are all involved in the conflict.
This week, the Ethiopian military launched a ground offensive to try to reverse recent TPLF gains, western officials told The New York Times.
The offensive throws a spanner into US, European and UN efforts to broker an immediate ceasefire, and strengthens the argument inside the Biden administration to impose sanctions.
Last month, Mr Biden signed an executive order that approved the structure of potential sanctions against perpetrators of violence in Ethiopia.
“The hope is not to have to use this tool [sanctions]. We want to prepare for negotiations for all parties to come to the table to end this conflict, to stop the human suffering and to let humanitarian assistance flow into that region where so many people are desperately in need,” the senior official said.
“But where we are now is that neither the TPLF, nor the [Ethiopian] government and their forces have stopped their offences and counter offences, and they're not coming to the table, so we are currently looking at employing this tool.”
Asked about the targets of the sanctions, the US official mentioned “leaders, military forces or commercial entities who prolong the crisis, obstruct progress, or continue to hinder humanitarian access, or commit serious human rights abuses".
Such designations would first undergo a thorough process of gathering evidence and consulting across different agencies, the official said.
In an investigation last week, CNN revealed that Ethiopia's government used its state-owned commercial airline to transport weapons to and from neighbouring Eritrea during the first weeks of the conflict in Tigray.
But while readying sanctions, Washington is exhausting diplomatic avenues to reach a ceasefire.
“We don’t do this lightly. We're holding out some sort of glimmers of hope but unfortunately it's not looking very optimistic,” the senior US official added.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has described the war as a “law enforcement operation".
The UN estimates 400,000 Tigrayans are living in famine-like conditions and humanitarian organisations have documented extrajudicial killings and rape.
The US State Department has launched a legal review examining whether the Tigray humanitarian crisis amounts to genocide.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo to stress the urgency of finding a path to negotiations.
The Biden administration is also considering the expulsion of Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by the end of the month, which would further constrain its economy and cut its duty-free access to the US market for thousands of products.
“It’s required by the law of the United States, it must restrict AGOA eligibility for countries that have committed gross violations of human rights,” the official said.
William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia with the International Crisis Group, saw the imposition of US sanctions as highly probable in the next few weeks.
“Given the current situation and the likelihood of continued fighting, particularly in the Amhara region, I think we are likely to see the US implement targeted sanctions soon, maybe around the end of the month,” Mr Davison told The National.
The expert said commanders from the warring sides are likely targets.
“For the next few weeks at least, the parties are locked into more conflict and that's what makes it likely that commanders on all sides will soon face sanctions.”
Asked if such penalties would change the calculus on the ground, Mr Davison said not immediately.
“The immediate reaction to the sanctions will most likely be defiance from the federal government. I do not think it will change its policy on the war. By and large, that goes for the other actors in the conflict as well when their commanders are sanctioned,” he said.
For the calculations to change, “the overall pressure has to increase, on the security, political and economic fronts, in such a way that more people in the Ethiopian government and society start to think that the trajectory that the country is on is very worrying and needs to be altered,” he argued.