Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
Faced with mounting evidence of an immense humanitarian catastrophe in the embattled Tigray Regional State, compounded by the ongoing perpetration of a multitude of war crimes and crimes against humanity by most if not all belligerent parties involved in the conflict (including the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Eritrean Armed Forces, regional militias from neighbouring Amhara Regional State, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front), international pressure is building demanding that Ethiopia’s Federal government stop blocking international access to the region for humanitarian purposes (limited access has been permitted to some areas, but much of the region remains strictly off-limits). More recently, the demands of an increasing sector of the international community have expanded to include the withdrawal of all Eritrean military forces from Tigray.
It appears that the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, perhaps convinced by his own profusion of lies and propaganda, is sinking deeper into a state of denial and delusion as he persists in refusing to acknowledge the presence of Eritrean military forces in Tigray, notwithstanding contradictory affirmations from a wide range of sources including senior officials of the Ethiopian military (LINK), the interim mayor of Mekelle (LINK) and Tigrayan opposition political parties, reports that have been confirmed by a large number of international reports and sources since early December including satellite imagery, intercepted communications, and other intelligence sources.
Even the leadership of the interim regional administration of the Tigray region (which was itself appointed by the Federal government shortly after hostilities broke out in early November) has recently released a unanimous statement calling for the immediate withdrawal of all Eritrean military forces from Tigrayan territory. LINK
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pompously claimed victory in the war against the TPLF on the 28th of November, three and a half weeks after hostilities broke out, after the capital city of the Tigray region (Mekelle) was captured by Federal forces. The speed of the Federal forces’ advance took most analysts by surprise given the widely reported battle experience and well-stocked arsenals of the Tigray region’s armed forces – some of which belonged to the locally deployed bases of the Federal army but whose loyalties remained in doubt during the early days of the conflict, other stockpiles belonging to the TPLF and other Tigrayan security forces and militia groups.
How to explain the succession of victories and rapid progress made by the Federal troops? Superior weapons, training and discipline? Maybe, but the majority of the Federal forces received exactly the same training as their counterparts from the Tigray region. Air superiority? This was undoubtedly a significant factor as all elements of the Ethiopian air force remained under the control of the Federal government, but it is doubtful that the battlefield advantage provided by the Ethiopian air force was so great as to explain the speed of the advance of the Federal troops and their allies from the Amhara region of itself – according to available information, the air force was not at all well-equipped (relevant forces including a small number of mostly out-dated air transport and ground attack aircraft and helicopters). LINK
One aspect that was particularly notable was the speed with which Federal forces captured towns and strategic points located in the far north of the country (such as the airport at Humera), far removed from their supposed starting points in Ethiopian territory south of Tigray but very close to the border with Eritrea. From the outset of the military campaign the Federal government has denied emphatically that Eritrean military forces have participated in the offensive against the Tigray region.
However, as time has passed details of the large scale of Eritrean involvement in the conflict have emerged providing an ever clearer picture not just of what transpired in the first months of the conflict, but of the elaborate joint preparations that were made by Federal and Eritrean forces prior to the commencement of hostilities.
Nonetheless, although Federal forces have captured most of the major townships in Tigray and continue to consolidate their control over many outlying areas, the few reports that are emerging from the region as well as other secondary indications (in particular the ongoing refusal of Federal authorities to permit international humanitarian agencies access to the region to provide food, medical and other emergency aid) suggest that fighting is ongoing in many areas and the conflict is far from over.
In early February three opposition parties (i.e., political rivals of both the TPLF and the Prosperity Party) of the Tigray region – the Tigray Independence Party, the National Congress of Great Tigray and Salsay Weyane Tigray – released a joint statement in which they estimated that at least 50,000 civilians had been killed in the three-months of the conflict up to that time (from a variety of causes including targeted attacks, crossfire, disease and starvation), and they requested the international community to provide urgent assistance.
The joint statement further noted that large numbers of cattle have been killed and stolen, crops burned and houses looted and destroyed by the invading forces, and accused the Federal government of “using hunger as a weapon to subdue Tigray since it has been obstructing international efforts for humanitarian assistance.”
It would appear that in many parts of Tigray the region’s inhabitants have in effect been compelled to resist what is increasingly perceived as a campaign of collective punishment if not an attempted extermination (LINK1, LINK2) and although a large number of arrests (and extra-judicial executions) have been made of people linked with the TPLF, most of the senior active leadership of the TPLF – whose capture and trial constituted the declared objective of the ‘law enforcement operation’ which supposedly was brought to a successful conclusion in late November – remains at large despite the offer of large rewards for information leading to their capture.
Mounting evidence of direct Eritrean involvement in the conflict
At first, the only information as to the presence of Eritrean military forces in the Tigray region was the statements of the TPLF, a source that could be easily discounted as probably consisting of wartime propaganda to try to discredit the enemy (the Federal government) and confuse the Ethiopian people. The TPLF even launched some of its limited number of medium range missiles at Eritrean targets around the capital Asmara, and the Eritrean government was widely praised for its apparent refusal to be provoked into joining the conflict and worsening the already disastrous situation.
It now appears beyond doubt that the missile attacks carried out by the TPLF were not an unprovoked and irrational act, but were in fact a reaction to the direct and extensive involvement of Eritrean military forces in the multi-pronged invasion of Tigray Regional State by Ethiopian Federal armed forces supported by armed militias from the neighbouring Amhara Regional State (which has bitter relations with Tigray due in large part to a prolonged border dispute).
In the unlikely event that the question of Eritrean participation in the invasion of Tigray and the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict is ever subjected to a genuine official investigation (whether of international provenance or by the Ethiopians themselves), one of the preliminary sources of information that merits detailed analysis and investigation to either verify or refute the declarations made is an analysis of the early stages of the conflict which was completed in early December 2020 by a former senior Eritrean official, Mesfin Hagos.
Hagos was a founding member of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in the 1970s, and served as Eritrea’s Minister of Defence in the 1990s. In an analysis posted by African Arguments a month after the outbreak of hostilities (on the 4th of December), among numerous other details of events preceding the invasion and early developments during the Federal government’s ‘law enforcement operation’ Hagos noted (LINK):
In an address to his country’s parliament on November 30, 2020, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister confirmed Eritrean support to his ongoing war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional government of the northern regional state of Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy told parliamentarians that Ethiopian soldiers who survived TPLF attack on the night of November 3 were ordered to withdraw into Eritrea where they were provided shelter and the space and provisions to recuperate. He flew there with three of his generals to reorganize the troops for a counterattack on Tigray – from Eritrea.
What Prime Minister Abiy did not tell his audience was the fact that, according to sources in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in the run up to the current conflict, a large number of Ethiopian elite units had slowly trickled into Eritrea as part of a security pact between Abiy and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki.
Hidden from public view at an ad hoc base in Gherghera, in the outskirts of Asmara, these units were expected to be the hammer and the Northern Command the anvil to strike out of existence the TPLF. TPLF preempted this scheme in what it called ‘anticipatory defence’, which forced both Abiy and Isaias to improvise leading to the eruption of conflict.
Abiy did not disclose to the Ethiopian public and international community that even more federal troops were airlifted into Eritrea following the outbreak of conflict on November 4. In the 48 hours before TPLF’s bombing of Asmara on November 14, local sources counted close to 30 military airplanes flying in thousands of soldiers from Ethiopia. Subsequent flights transported more soldiers into the Eritrean seaports of Massawa and Asseb.
The Prime Minister also hid from the world the Eritrean military’s direct involvement in combat along the entire border that Eritrea shares with Tigray regional state as well as inside Tigray…
When the reorganized and reinforced Ethiopian troops launched a series of offensives into Tigray from Eritrea along four frontlines, Eritrean support units provided intelligence and logistics, their heavy weapons gave cover to advancing federal troops, and eventually took active part in combat. Reliable sources have confirmed the injury and death of a large number of Eritrean soldiers, including senior officers, fighting deep inside Ethiopia…
The report includes many more details on the course of the conflict over the first month, including the priority placed by the invading Eritrean forces on capturing and forcibly repatriating some of the hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees who had fled the brutal dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki and were living in temporary camps and shelters in Tigray and adjacent regions.
According to the report’s author, the information was compiled from three different sources: sources inside the Eritrean Ministry of Defence, Eritrean opposition intelligence sources in Sudan and Ethiopia, and anecdotal accounts communicated by the author’s friends and relatives.
Throughout December and continuing into January and February of this year, the overall thrust if not necessarily all of the precise details of the report concerning the extensive participation of Eritrean military forces in the conflict has received confirmation from a wide range of sources.
Allegations and reports of other external participants in the conflict
There is also anecdotal evidence as to the involvement of several other external actors in the conflict since hostilities broke out in early November last year. The Federal government has alleged on several occasions that Egypt has been actively encouraging and sponsoring armed insurrections and terrorist acts in Ethiopia as acts of spite or revenge in order to complicate and stall the completion of the ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’. Nothing even remotely resembling evidence has yet been proffered to support the allegations.
Although neighbouring Sudan was initially supportive of and cooperative with the Federal government and armed forces, apparently to try to contain the conflict and minimize the likelihood of armed clashes spreading to its territory, since December there have been numerous clashes between Sudanese and Ethiopian military forces in border areas subject to unresolved territorial disputes and the risk remains that the border area between the two countries could become another focal point for armed conflict.
There are also reports of substantial involvement in the conflict by Somalia’s armed forces:
The former deputy of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency Abdilasalan Guled revealed members of the Somalia National Army who were supposed to be in Eritrea for military training had participated in the conflict in Tigray, and that 370 had lost their lives. Somalia’s government denies these allegations. LINK
Another significant aspect of the conflict that remains to be verified or disproven is that, according to multiple unconfirmed reports, the coordinated multiple offensives by the Ethiopian military forces of the Federal government and Amhara regional militia, together with the armed forces of Eritrea, were further supplemented by aerial reconnaissance and air strikes carried out by armed drones based in neighbouring Eritrea (reportedly at Assab) under the control of the United Arab Emirates.
Members of Amhara region militias ride on their truck as they head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in Sanja, Amhara region near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
An analysis of Ethiopia’s relations with the Gulf States published by Al Jazeera in 2017 noted the rapid improvement of relations between Eritrea and both the Saudis and UAE in recent times, commenting that:
“Eritrea has established strong relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE after a brief collapse of relations between Djibouti and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that occurred on 29 April 2016, which led to the expulsion of Gulf troops from Djibouti…
President Afewerki met with King Salman and reached a security military partnership agreement with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen offering basing rights in Eritrea. The UAE and Eritrea reached a 30-year lease agreement at Port Assab with a 3500-metre runway capable of landing large transport aircraft including the huge C-17 Globemaster. The UAE also agreed to assist in modernising Asmara International airport and build a new infrastructure…” LINK
Although the reports are yet to be verified, the claims of involvement by UAE-directed drones are not entirely implausible; while the Saudis are stretched to the limit in their war against Yemen, with which they have a long common border, the UAE has scaled down its direct military involvement in the conflict in Yemen while remaining committed to its ambition to become a regional power. In this context the UAE could feasibly allocate substantial resources to the Horn of Africa, where their proxies have also taken over the nearby Yemeni island of Socotra and facilitated the establishment of UAE military bases on the strategic location.
There is also an open question as to the extent of active collaboration between the Federal government and its security forces and Israel military and/ or corporate experts during the invasion and occupation of Tigray by Federal forces. Abiy Ahmed – who rose rapidly through the ranks to become Deputy Director of Ehiopia’s military intelligence unit responsible for telecommunications (the Information Network Security Agency) prior to launching his political career – travelled to Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early September 2019.
According to media reports (LINK) at the time of his visit to Israel, the purpose of the trip was to bolster existing bilateral ties and expand them to new areas, and included a visit to Israel’s National Cyber Directorate. Discussions between the two prime ministers included increasing cooperation in the ‘counter-terrorism’ and related ‘cyber-security’ (communications interception and espionage) fields. The Times of Israel reported that during the visit:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu … called for strengthened security cooperation with Ethiopia, during a meeting in Jerusalem with his Ethiopian counterpart, Abiy Ahmed.
“We believe that we can offer some experience, some shared experience that we have garnered because of our unfortunate need to defend ourselves,” Netanyahu told Ahmed, according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office. LINK
The burgeoning security cooperation with Israel may have facilitated the (ongoing) complete lockdown of all communications in the region, as well as the tracking and targeting of the TPLF military forces and the localization of ‘high value targets’ such as individuals and groups sought by the Federal forces.
As the open-ended ‘law enforcement operation’ and related military operations continue in Tigray at enormous cost not just to the people of Tigray but to the entire country (as well as neighbouring Eritrea, which may yet find the conflict spreads to consume it in civil war as well), the Federal government is also implementing wide-ranging repressive measures elsewhere in Ethiopia against all critics of the government and actual or potential political opponents.
Meanwhile, possible measures that could be taken to initiate what will inevitably be a long process of national stabilization, recuperation and consolidation (such as the Reconciliation Commission, whose creation was announced over two years ago) remain in limbo. At the same time, many key opposition political leaders (and a large number of their supporters) remain imprisoned and the offices of their political parties besieged and rendered inoperable by Federal and regional security forces, and the Ethiopian PM appears to be increasingly out of touch with reality, if not completely delusional, as he continues to deny that Eritrean military forces are taking part in the conflict that is devastating the Tigray region despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
It may already be too late, the damage done may already be too extensive, for Ethiopìa to stabilize and recuperate as currently constituted. The prospects of a resolution to the multiple regional, ethnic and political conflicts, disputes and rivalries that are threatening to tear the federation apart are receding further away with each day that passes as the factions that have taken over the Federal government led by prime minister Abiy Ahmed continue to rely on brute force, lies and deception to try to impose their rule over the country.
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