With the humanitarian crisis in Tigray getting worse every day, humanitarian organizations and leaders of the western world (US, EU, Germany, etc.) and world bodies (G-7, UN, etc.) have been despairing to find a workable solution to the problem. Torn between taking too strong an action against Ethiopia and meeting the demands of the people of Tigray in their suffering, they have yet to find the elusive balancing act they are seeking. While all the balancing act does is provide the illusion of a coming resolution, it neglects the fact that in this humanitarian crisis time is everything.
Sadly, the three partners-in-crime (Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara leaders) are maximally exploiting the time ‘in between’ to execute their mission: first by delaying the withdrawal of Eritrea as much as they can; and, second, by conducting an all-out assault within that extended but limited time. The first requires diplomatic maneuverings to convince the West that they are complying with its demands; and the second requires an expedited, enlarged and widened war-and-famine campaign on the ground.
What is odd about the West’s response so far is that even as it puts pressure on Ethiopia, it completely bypasses Eritrea in its punitive approach—that is, even when the main issue is the withdrawal of its troops. Odd as it may seem, it has outsourced that task to Ethiopia, the partner-in-crime of Eritrea. There is no doubt more should be done in pressuring Ethiopia to make it comply with the West’s demands, but the shortest route to resolving this crisis happens to be through Asmara. And this is not meant to seek the Isaias regime’s agency, but to enforce the denial thereof.
Eritrea remains to be the most indispensable party in the military and humanitarian crisis in Tigray as well as in the wider regional crisis. Thus, forcing out Eritrea of the tripartite alliance would be the beginning of peace not only in Ethiopia, but also in the region.
So where has the West gone wrong? The idea that somehow it would be easier to convince Abiy than Isaias is the faulty premise upon which the West has been building its diplomatic edifice. To the contrary, it is easier to convince Isaias to withdraw his troops, if it only knows how to speak his language. He would comply with the demand of the West if the threat happens to be real. The problem is, through his dealings with the West for the last 30 years, he is able to sense when such a threat is harmless, late-coming or bogus.
Genocide to the rescue of Abiy and Isaias in their failed war campaign
Ethiopia seems to be dead set not to let aid reach the neediest people in Tigray. Now that it has realized it cannot win the war against TDF (Tigray Defense Forces) any time soon, it has put all its hopes on the emerging genocide to deliver it a victory. Already, at the initial stages of this genocide, massive ethnic cleansing, the displacement of millions and the killings of tens of thousands of civilians have taken place. The almost total destruction of the health system is meant to guarantee, at minimum, tens of thousands more victims. And the impeding famine is meant to deliver hundreds of thousands more victims in the final stage of that genocide.
Among Ethiopian nationalists, cooperating with the outside world to alleviate the suffering of the people of Tigray is taken as self-defeating. If even millions have to die for ‘Ethiopia to continue’ (as Abiy and Amhara nationalists love to put it), then the people of Tigray would have to be sacrificed—so goes the convoluted logic of the genocidal mind that is tragically dominating the political discourse in today’s Ethiopia. Sadly, the Ethiopian elite are becoming comfortable with the necropolis state they have been building; and death and displacement in huge proportions are getting normalized among the general population.
Similarly, the Eritrean government is unwilling to withdraw from Tigray without a fight. It is willing to test the will of the world, in general, and that of the US, in particular, before it relents. It too has put all its eggs in the same basket as Abiy’s. Isaias keenly realizes a premature withdrawal from Tigray will be the beginning of his end. Having gambled big time in this war, now he is afraid that Eritrea itself may soon turn into a battle ground. As the Isaias regime’s ‘last and final’ military offensive in Tigray seems to go nowhere, it too is counting on the genocide to deliver it a victory.
As the world is catching up in getting the greater picture of the Tigray crisis, it has become louder in demanding Eritrea’s withdrawal from Tigray. At least on that point, a consensus across the Atlantic seems to be emerging. But the incremental pressure on Ethiopia to enforce such a withdrawal it has adopted is not working. And this is mainly due to the West’s poor understanding of the nature of the genocidal beast they are dealing with; namely, Abiy.
A wedge between Abiy and Isaias that doesn’t exist
So far, the West’s strategy seems to be based on a false premise: on a distinction between Abiy and Isaias.
Various versions of this alleged distinction have been aired: that Isaias has been a bad influence on Abiy, but that the latter freed from the influence of the former would still be salvageable; or that Abiy is childish, but not the monster that the war and the humanitarian crisis portray him to be; or that he is comparatively young leader and still impressionable, but one that, with enough pressure, could still return to his reform days; or that he has blundered a number of times, but still remains indispensable to the unity of Ethiopia; etc. The Nobel Peace Prize has added one more layer—that of a ‘man of peace’—to an already multi-layered confusion.
This untenable distinction happens to be invoked both among dubious analysts, who strain to find a vindicating angle whenever writing about Abiy, and among sincere ones, who otherwise are appalled by the humanitarian crisis in Tigray.
The strained attempt to humanize Abiy is to be seen in almost every report the ICG (International Crisis Group) produces. Legitimizing the above mentioned distinction, it writes, “Getting Eritrean forces out may not be easy, given Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s apparent determination to crush the Tigrayan leadership, but Ethiopia’s foreign partners should hold Abiy to his pledge that these forces will leave.” Notice how Abiy is made to lack “the apparent determination to crush the Tigrayan leadership” despite him being loud and clear about it being his top priority a number of times. The ICG needs that fabricated distinction to make Abiy’s ‘pledge’ plausible.
Further, in its reports, ICG’s worry over what may happen if Eritreans troops leave Tigray remains as palpable as any Ethiopian nationalist’s, betraying the sincerity and purpose of the distinction between Abiy and Isaias it invokes. In one of its reports, it has suggested that the Abiy government “should curtail [instead of total withdrawal] the Amhara and Eritrean troop presences and let aid flow”. Another deceptive phrase it uses in the same briefing is for the government to “roll back Eritrean deployments”, hinting that it should be gradual rather than immediate.
Alex de Waal, who is earnestly worried about the developments in Tigray, also writes, “Abiy’s initial goal was cutting the TPLF down to size. But his coalition partners’ war aims appear to go much further.” No such distinction has ever existed; Abiy desperately wants what his partners-in-crime want: the total destruction of Tigray and the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from Amhara-annexed areas. When it comes to Tigray, Abiy has shown his genocidal tendencies soon after he came to power. His hate over everything Tigray or Tigrayan has been on exhibit from his early days as Prime Minister, something that the Amhara elite quickly realized and latched onto. How is it that Western analysts who know the region fail to see now what the Amhara nationalists saw early in the game?
Based on this faulty premise, Western governments (especially the EU and US) have adopted a strategy of creating a wedge between Abiy and Isaias. Their entire effort has been on how to convince Abiy to abandon Isaias—to evict Eritrean troops from Tigray—and to work for the return of peace not only in Tigray, but also in the wider region. The US has adopted the most quixotic approach: every time it fails in getting its message through, it keeps changing the messenger. This way, it has managed to keep its faith in Abiy intact.
But Abiy is not a fool when it comes to maintaining his political interests. He knows that his fate is now irrevocably tied to that of Isaias; if the despot of Asmara goes, so does he. If Eritrean troops withdraw from Tigray, he knows the Ethiopian army will find it hard to keep fighting for long. Under such a scenario, his only choice would be to settle for peace, one that would probably require his eventual resignation. But there is no such nobleness in him that would make him abandon his ambition for the sake of the nation. The only way he could end up doing that is if he is forced to, either through defeat at the battle ground or through the forced withdrawal of Eritrea by the outside world.
Thus, the world has gotten the logical order wrong. Per impossible, the world is trying to convince Abiy to agree to the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. Instead, what it should do is enforce the withdrawal of Eritrean troops on its own and then ask Abiy to come to the negotiation table. That is, it is necessary to weaken Abiy first before he is made to accept a truce. Those who are proposing a ceasefire now may have goodwill on their side, but not good judgement; for they are attempting to do the impossible.
It is not surprising then that Abiy has been plotting with Isaias to make it seem as if such a wedge does indeed exist—that is, as if he is salvageable.
Consequences of US statements if not followed by action
President Biden doesn’t seem to realize his mere being in the White House, let alone his statements, has unintended consequences on the people of Tigray. The main reason why the two leaders—Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea—are rushing to finalize the war in Tigray is the change of leadership in the White House.
Anticipating the Biden administration’s move, Abiy and Isaias finalized a ‘last and final’ offensive they hoped would deliver a knockout blow to TDF just after Biden moved to the White House. With Eritrea’s expanded presence, that final offensive is now being waged all over Tigray. And as Eritrea finds itself bogged down in all fronts, it has been increasing its presence by tens of thousands. The influx of soldiers from Eritrea to Tigray has not stopped till this day, with the mobilization of the last kind—women, child-soldiers, and retired men included—being scraped from the hollowed-out population of Eritrea.
It is by that much then that the Isaias regime has been heeding Biden’s warning.
But the point is that this expedited, enlarged and extended campaign is coming with huge consequences to the people of Tigray. Besides the usual ravages of the war, the unusual brutalities of the three armies mean daily massacres, thousands of rapes, burnings of villages, large-scale lootings, massive displacements, etc. Isaias is a desperate man; hence, his kitchen sink approach, throwing everything he has at the TDF (and the people of Tigray)—and all of this because he feels the Biden administration will not tolerate it for long.
So, it is essential to understand that for Isaias and Abiy this is a do-or-die mission. The total war conducted against Tigray with genocide as its ultimate goal is the wish of these two leaders. Any measure that the West entertains should take this as given.
Expedited ethnic cleansing
Another unintended consequence is the Amhara forces’ reaction: alarmed by the US’ warning for them to withdraw from Tigray, they have been expediting their ethnic cleansing at a massive level.
Secretary Blinken’s demand that the Amhara forces move out from Tigray was made with the aim of stopping the massive ethnic cleansing that has been going on in West Tigray—hundreds of thousands—in the four months since the start of the war. Yet, that very demand became a further reason to evict tens of thousands of Tigrayans more. These evictions are always accompanied with gross atrocities, not only with the intention of chasing out ethnic Tigrayans but also Tigrayan ethnicity from that area. Mass rape and the prohibition of Tigrinya language are meant to put a final dagger at the heart of the Tigrayan identity. Those who have been evicted have been repeating the glee with which the Amhara nationalists have been forcing them out of their homes, “Now we will see if America is going to save you!”
But this is not simply vindictive hate at work; there is a well thought out plan behind it. This is done with active collaboration from the Abiy government, with the intention of creating facts on the ground. Even as he claims that the incorporation of these lands into Amhara shouldn’t be done by force (meaning that he has no problem if it is done through ‘legal’ means), he has never opposed the actual ethnic cleansing—not even a word! And now, he has created a commission to eventually legalize the forced annexation. That is to say, it is with the full blessing of the Abiy government that the ethnic cleansing has been going on.
Having now established facts on the ground through terror and decrees, there is no doubt that eventually the Abiy government will claim that the Amhara forces cannot be asked to withdraw because these lands are officially located outside of Tigray. Part of the plan is, after having squeezed Tigray to a manageable size, to make it impossible for it to come to the negotiation table.
These new ‘facts on the ground’ will thus be a precondition for rendering Tigray as the belligerent party, and a sinister way of keeping the wedge theory alive. The ICG has notoriously proposed the land disputes between Amhara and Tigray should be assessed by “a federal boundary commission”—that is, literally by Abiy himself, since there is no such independent body that could adjudicate such a case in Ethiopia. To think that a nation at a time its genocidal hysteria has reached its highest level could be fair to Tigray could only come from an organization that is trying to save the Abiy administration no matter what.
Anyway, the point is again: if a statement made by the strongest nation on earth is not followed up with action, it creates unintended consequences to the very victims that statement is meant to help. If so, what is it that should follow up now, given the damage already done?
The answer is: focus on Eritrea. It would be a shortcut to all this mess.
Why focus on Eritrea?
Why should the world focus on Eritrea? Because Eritrea is the linchpin that holds it all together, be it in the military, humanitarian or regional crisis.
First, there is no way the Abiy government could defeat the Tigray forces without Eritrea’s help since it remains the backbone of the tripartite alliance. And now, with tens of thousands of Eritrean troops spreading to all corners of Tigray, the Abiy government’s dependence on Eritrea has become complete. Yet, even with all this support, the chance of winning the war is getting slimmer by the day. So, the best way Abiy could be coaxed towards the peace table is only if he sees the war option as impossible to attain; and that could be done sooner than later, and with certainty, only if Eritrea is forced to withdraw from Tigray.
Second, Eritrea’s share in creating the humanitarian crisis—this ongoing genocide—in Tigray is huge. That is to say, it is equally indispensable in creating the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in Tigray; in fact, it pioneered all the atrocities used in generating and facilitating this genocide.
It is no surprise that the Eritrean troops’ main targets to destroy and loot happen to be health centers, food supplies, livelihoods, universities and schools, worship places, historical sites and factories and businesses. Nothing should be left to chance: the totality of Tigray—its body, mind, spirit, history, industriousness, continuity and material possession—should be attacked. Within five months, this total war has achieved a spectacular success in creating the conditions for genocide. Already, there are 2.5 million IDPs and 4.5 million are believed in dire need of food aid, a huge share of this being accomplished by Eritrean troops. Already, 50 to 100 deaths per day due to starvation are taking place, these numbers being hints of the coming famine.
The absurdity of the West’s response to the humanitarian crisis without factoring in Eritrea’s (and Amhara’s) genocidal behavior can be seen in the ever-worsening crisis, as exemplified in the increasing number of IDPs. As the West is trying to meet the needs of the displaced and impoverished people, the three armies are doing their utmost to increase those numbers. With the Eritrean army now spreading all over Tigray, it is repeating all the horrors it has accomplished in northern Tigray. Lately, it is getting bolder: it is blocking trucks loaded with food aid from reaching their destination areas. It becomes a futile game where the West increases its help while the Eritrean army does its utmost to increase the misery, thereby creating a crisis that needs further help. USAID’s ever-increasing help follows this pattern.
But that is not all; while the world is preoccupied with addressing this crisis, Eritrea is already planning ahead for next year’s famine. The Eritrean troops have been killing and looting oxen and donkeys and destroying all kinds of farming tools (yoke, plough, etc.) everywhere they go, depriving peasants of the means with which to plough their farmlands. And, lately, they have been more brazen about their evil intention: they have been directly preventing farmers from ploughing or working on their fields—again, with the making of next year’s famine in mind. To talk about helping these peasants (as the West is doing) while a diabolical enemy is undoing what is being done and plotting to undo the future is the height of absurdity. First, that diabolical enemy will have to be removed from Tigray’s landscape for any aid to make a difference in the lives of Tigrayans, be it now or in the near future.
Thus, with the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, the huge humanitarian crisis the Eritrean occupation has generated would come to an end. And if done in time, the apocalypse of the genocide—at least, to the scope the three partners-in-crime have in mind—might even be averted. That, by itself, would be a monumental achievement.
Third, the mere presence of Eritrean troops everywhere in Tigray, and the genocidal horror that follows them wherever they go, has become a further reason why the Addis Ababa government doesn’t want to allow foreign entities (from humanitarian organizations to journalists) into much of Tigray. So far, the camouflages the Abiy government is coming up with are not working. It has been dressing up the Eritrean troops with Ethiopian military uniforms, even as their famous shida (sandals)—without which they can neither fight nor run—and their emaciated bodies keep betraying them. It has even tried to hide them, moving whole battalions around in a hide-and-seek game with journalists and aid workers. That is one of the major reasons why little of the aid has reached Eritrea-occupied areas.
Besides, even if food aid is allowed to enter areas occupied by Eritrean troops (and, in some cases, it already has), it doesn’t necessarily mean that the needy party will get it. The world can be assured the aid that reaches the most affected areas won’t be stolen only if the chronically looting Eritrean army is gone for good.
Thus, with the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, this bottleneck that is keeping millions on the verge of starvation would be totally gone.
And, last, this focus on Eritrea should also have a long-range aspect to it, since much of the problem in the region is instigated by its vindictive leader, Isaias Afwerki. For a long time now, Isaias has found out the only way he could remain relevant in the region is by involving the nation in multiple confrontations. Once, in a 2009 article, I wrote:
“The only good thing about Isaias is that he has never been a nationalist, but armed with his super-size ego this quality turns into a disaster for his ambition recognizes no borders. The problem with Isaias is that once he put himself in the nationalist straight jacket called ‘Eritrea’, he never managed to disentangle himself from it. He (and ghedli [the revolution]) needed to instill ultra-nationalism in his followers to be where he is now. Once he reached the goal of independence, that very ultra-nationalism became a hindrance to his insatiable ambition to be the most relevant leader in the neighborhood.”
With the coming of Abiy, Isaias found a rare opportunity to get out of that nationalist straightjacket to be relevant again; something that was eventually denied to him by Meles Zenawi. With the Tigray war, he has carved out the most indispensable role for the Eritrean army. Now, both Abiy and the Amhara nationalists depend on him for their morbid dreams to come true. If so, it is essential the evil man of Asmara be denied the relevance he actively seeks through endless confrontations—against Djibouti, Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia, and now, Tigray—in the neighborhood. The forced withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray would be the beginning of his downfall.
With that, the possibility of sandwiching Tigray between two mortal enemies (Eritrea and Amhara), a phenomenon that has been tempting genocidal elements from Ethiopia, would come to an end. Abiy (and the Amhara elite) would have never attempted to conduct total war against Tigray without having Eritrea on his side. Thus, any attempt at resolution that doesn’t include the end of the Isaias regime will fail, even if it succeeds in achieving a temporary truce between Ethiopia and Tigray. The genocidal elements will always attempt a comeback to wipe out Tigray so far as they believe Eritrea is on their side.
Time-sensitive action needed
What is needed is an action that takes the time frame within which the war-induced famine does its work into consideration.
All the steps that the world has been entertaining so far fail the time-sensitivity test. Cutting financial aid, imposing arms embargo or other sanctions, however harsh, won’t do the job because Abiy and Isaias believe they can weather any ‘sanctions’ imposed on them for a few months. They believe that is all the time they need for their dual war-and-famine strategy to deliver them a victory. After that, they believe the world would have no alternative but to accept the new reality on the ground, as usual prioritizing ‘Ethiopia’s stability’ in the region.
But the point is, whether they win or not, such an attempt is coming at a huge expense to the people of Tigray. If so, sadly, it is those who are wielding genocide as a weapon of subjugation that are heeding the time constraint, and not those powers that are alarmed by this humanitarian disaster—the EU, US, UN, G-7, etc.
What is needed is a tool that delivers in the shortest time possible. Any delay on Biden’s side to act would come at a colossal expense to the people of Tigray—as it has already done, to some extent—who will be massacred in enormous proportions because of the morbid calculations of Abiy, Isaias and Amhara leaders.
The gradual and incremental approaches that the EU and US are using to pressure Ethiopia are time-insensitive that do not take the war-and-famine strategy into consideration. So is it with the UN-led strategy: its procedural bottlenecks meant a lethal delayed action, if ever. Thus, there is a need for a strategic shift in both the enforcer and the target of the enforcement. The West (the US or EU or both—NATO) should act unilaterally to enforce the withdrawal of Eritrean troops by focusing mainly on Eritrea.
It is only by taking these two measures that the West could escape the dilemma it has created for itself, and be able to deliver on a timely basis. Eritrea should be given an ultimatum to pack its armaments and get out of Tigray. Even as aid cuts, arms embargo and other sanctions for both Ethiopia and Eritrea are welcome, the latter nation should be singled out for additional punishment.
The West could start with a no-fly-zone imposed over Eritrea, to be extended to Tigray if Ethiopia does not comply with the demands of the outside world. A no-fly-zone would not be considered as harmless as the various forms of sanctions (not when time is factored in, anyway) and as invasive as outright armed intervention. Besides giving respite to the people of Tigray, it would be taken as a serious move to be followed up by further action if not adhered to.
And as a last resort, there is one acceptable target with the least collateral damage: Isaias Afwerki himself. Targeting one of his many hiding places (they don’t even have to kill him) would bring immediate results than any other aid cuts, arms embargo or sanctions would ever deliver.
Whatever action the West takes though, the main focus should be on Eritrea, and with a big stick behind it. That is the only way the world can avoid a genocide of epic proportion, one that could easily surpass that of Rwanda.