One year on, US ratchets up pressure on Ethiopia to prevent all-out civil war

Battlefield expands as humanitarian situation worsens, with Washington warning about potential fracture of Ethiopian state

The brutal conflict in Tigray and northern Ethiopia is entering its second year, having become one of the world's worst humanitarian crises that has no end in sight and only narrow US options available to stop it from spiralling into all-out civil war.

Beginning in November 2020 over a dispute between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the conflict has morphed into a protracted and expanding war across the country's north.

Forced starvation and what the UN calls “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade” have left about one million people facing famine and another 1.8 million on the brink of such conditions.

“In Tigray, 90 per cent of the population requires aid and up to 900,000 people are facing famine-like conditions,” US Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeff Feltman said at the US Institute for Peace on Tuesday.

The UN estimates about 5.2 million people are in need of aid across the Tigray and Amhara regions.

The government of Mr Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending 20 years of hostility with Eritrea, has blocked aid deliveries to the region in a bid to pressure the TPLF. But the move has only exacerbated human suffering without halting advances by the opposition.

In the past week, the TPLF, in alliance with Oromo rebels, claimed control of the two strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, about 380 kilometres north of Addis Ababa.

The fighting in Kombolcha, to the south of Dessie, has fuelled speculation that the TPLF is heading closer to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian government has issued a call to arms to its citizens in response.

In a Facebook post, Mr Abiy urged Ethiopians to use “any type of weapons … to block the destructive TPLF, to overturn it and bury it".

The Abiy government last month also expelled seven UN officials, accusing them of “meddling” in the conflict.

The conflict's humanitarian fallout is being fuelled by political paralysis and a lack of progress in mediation efforts. US, UN and African Union mediators have each failed to bring warring parties to the negotiating table.

“We're not getting much response and the military logic is still prevailing,” Mr Feltman said, noting that Ethiopia is facing full civil war.

“Studies show that the average modern civil war now lasts 20 years … A multi-decade civil war in Ethiopia would be disastrous for its future and for its people,” the US envoy said.

Absent dialogue and consensus, the war could lead to the deterioration of the integrity of the state, he added.

In its latest report, the International Crisis Group projected that the war is likely to worsen in its second year.

“The Tigray region’s forces recovered, compelling federal and allied Eritrean troops to retreat in June.

“Tigray forces then advanced into the adjacent regions of Amhara and, temporarily, Afar, causing mass displacement,” the group said.

The report pointed to deepening divisions and the alliance between Tigray and Oromo forces as increasing “the likelihood of all-out civil war” in Ethiopia.

US President Joe Biden in September authorised a sanctions mandate against the perpetrators of Ethiopia's conflict and Washington is resorting to punitive economic measures to pressure the opposing sides to negotiate.

On Tuesday, the US announced its decision to expel Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by January 1. The move would further constrain Addis Ababa's economy and cut duty-free access to the US market for thousands of products.

The US has also sanctioned the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces, which are fighting alongside Ethiopian troops in Tigray.

More designations are expected against people and entities from all sides of the conflict, US officials said.

Experts have cast doubts on the efficacy of US sanctions, especially if Ethiopia turns to external sponsors such as Russia, China and Turkey.

“There should not be high hopes that the sanctions regime will dissuade the warring parties from persisting in their dangerous course,” Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution wrote last month.

Still, she advocated targeted measures as a tool to avert full-scale civil war and drive de-escalation.

“By being able to deliver tough love to Addis [Ababa] and the TPLF, US policy has matured in the right direction,” Ms Felbab-Brown wrote.

Updated: November 3rd 2021, 8:11 PM