President Joe Biden’s first call to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has prompted a debate about whether the US could be shifting towards the conflict in the East African country.
Mr Biden requested Monday's call almost a year after he took office as the US looks to broker a ceasefire and avoid further instability in the Horn of Africa.
The call came as Jeffrey Feltman, the US envoy for the Horn of Africa, announced his plans to step down. He will be succeeded by career diplomat David Satterfield.
Mr Feltman has been in the role since April and met Mr Abiy last Thursday in Addis Ababa, a meeting that helped to enable Monday's call, a US official told The National.
Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald, the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, saw the call between Mr Biden and Mr Abiy as the “beginning of a small shift” in US policy towards Ethiopia.
“The fact that the two leaders spoke is big news in itself,” Ms Fitz-Gerald said.
Since the conflict broke out in November 2020 between the central government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the US has accused the Ethiopian government of blocking aid to the Tigray region where the UN estimated 400,000 have crossed the "threshold into famine".
Washington also authorised a broad sanctions framework last September and expelled Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act this month.
Those actions came amid reports of war crimes, extra-judicial killings, rape and torture in the conflict.
A UN report last November accused all sides of committing egregious violations, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity.
The Biden administration has focused its sanctions against Eritrean officials and military leaders who have entered the conflict to back Addis.
But the punitive measures have failed in brokering a ceasefire or the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopia.
Starting in October, and following TPLF advances that brought them close to Addis Ababa, the Biden administration increased its engagement with the Abiy government and intensified its push for a truce.
Mr Feltman met at least twice with Mr Abiy and warned the TPLF last November against pushing into the capital.
“The TPLF would be met with unrelenting hostility if it entered Addis today,” Mr Feltman said at the time.
Ms Fitz-Gerald said any US shift would have to come incrementally.
“It's unlikely that the United States does a 180-degree turn on their position in Ethiopia, but they have to do something because their major policy in the Horn of Africa is very incoherent and if allowed to continue, it risks creating all sorts of further divisions and inviting further destruction,” Ms Fitz-Gerald told The National.
She said the administration should be more vocal in criticising all sides of the conflict, including the TPLF, who "has interest in continuing to fight".
Last December, the US said it was halting a determination on whether to call the situation in Tigray a genocide and was shifting focus to diplomatic efforts.
A US senior official explained Mr Biden’s call to the Ethiopian leader was a result of “positive signals” that Mr Abiy sent by releasing political detainees on Sunday.
“We do see this as a moment of opportunity if the parties are willing and able to seize it," the official said.
The White House is looking for Addis Ababa to expand humanitarian access into Tigray and speed up efforts to reach a ceasefire.
Aid workers on Sunday reported a drone attack on a refugee camp in Tigray, which killed 56 people including children. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called their Turkish equivalents in the past week to urge support for a ceasefire in Ethiopia.
Turkey has been a major provider of drones to Mr Abiy’s government despite US concerns.
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, regarded Mr Biden’s call as capitalising on Mr Abiy's recent overtures.
“This feels less like a policy shift from the Biden administration and more like an effort to leverage what may in fact be a policy shift from Abiy,” Mr Hudson told The National.
“Abiy’s release of political prisoners and pledge to not recommit ground forces to Tigray, both of which have opened him up to no small amount of internal criticism, is being interpreted in Washington as a potential opening that we need to capitalize on to advance peace."
He expected Washington to strike a balance between acknowledging good behaviour by Addis Ababa to coax additional concessions while acknowledging “ongoing abuses and not letting Abiy and the other belligerents off the hook for past crimes".
Citing medical shortages, Reuters reported last week that a Mekelle hospital has identified 117 deaths and dozens of complications due to the blockade.
“Whatever encouraging signs we see must be tempered by the fact that there is still a devastating humanitarian blockade on the region and an increasing air war that is terrorising civilian populations inside Tigray,” Mr Hudson said.
Senior US Congress members including voices that are critical of the Ethiopian government welcomed the Biden-Abiy call.
Ranking member on the Senate foreign relations committee Jim Risch said the call was "overdue" but welcome. He urged Mr Abiy to cease hostilities and advance political dialogue.