Ethiopia’s intervention may destabilize region

January 8th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

Unless it is followed by diplomacy and aid, the battle against Somalia’s Islamists may radicalize moderate Muslims.

By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer

January 7, 2007

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA “” By launching a war against Somalia’s Islamists, Ethiopia says it was drawing a line in the sand against religious extremism in East Africa. But without quick diplomacy and international aid, analysts caution that the war could radicalize the region’s traditionally moderate Muslims.

“This could bode ill for both Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, but perhaps even northern Kenya,” said John Prendergast, Africa analyst at International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank based in Washington.

Signs of a budding insurgency already are emerging in Mogadishu. Gunshots and riots rocked Somalia’s capital on Saturday as Ethiopian troops clashed with Somalian protesters. A 13-year-old Somalian boy was killed. Anonymous pamphlets distributed in some neighborhoods warned locals to steer clear of Ethiopian and allied soldiers from Somalia’s transitional government. The pamphlets pledged guerrilla tactics and suicide attacks.

At least one Ethiopian soldier was killed by Somalian gunmen last week near the town of Kismayo. On Thursday, a group of Ethiopian soldiers in Mogadishu was attacked with a hand grenade tossed from a truck; no one was injured.

“They will never take our country!” anti-Ethiopian demonstrators chanted Saturday as they marched through Mogadishu. “We will fight for our religion.”

The protests came as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi E. Frazer prepared to make a brief visit to Mogadishu to support efforts to deploy Africa Union peacekeepers in Somalia. The visit would be the first in years to Somalia by a senior U.S. official.

American officials supported Ethiopia’s intervention, accusing Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union of having links to terrorism. The U.S. has earmarked $40 million for Somalia’s recovery.

Although Ethiopia is about half Muslim and half Christian, extremists in Somalia and elsewhere are characterizing Ethiopia’s presence here as a Christian occupation. On Friday, a deputy leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network posted a website message calling for attacks on Ethiopian troops in Somalia.

Many believe the U.S. encouraged Ethiopia to lead the assault last month to put an African face on the war, though Ethiopian officials say the U.S. opposed a direct military attack in Somalia. For better or worse, analysts say, America is now linked to Somalia’s recovery.

“The U.S. is tethered to this intervention,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert and political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. “Because of the impression that we subcontracted the war out to Ethiopia, we’re going to be held responsible.”

Winning support from the Hawiye subclans that previously opposed the transitional government is crucial, experts said. In the beginning, these clans praised the Islamic Courts Union for restoring security to the capital. But when the tough talk of courts leaders brought Ethiopian soldiers to Mogadishu’s doorstep, clan leaders withdrew their support.

“The courts overreached,” Prendergast said. “As soon as it appeared that the stability that the courts once offered would be replaced by open warfare with Ethiopia, the clan leaders took back their weapons.”

Sought-after foothold

In the past, efforts by radicals to establish a beachhead in the Horn of Africa met with limited success in Somalia. Intelligence officials said Al Qaeda’s efforts to penetrate Somalia after the 1991 collapse of the dictatorship encountered stiff resistance from clan leaders.

But the sight of Ethiopian jets bombing targets in Mogadishu and driving out Islamists may unite the region’s Muslims. Prendergast warned against declaring victory too soon.

“To believe that the Islamists are defeated now would be the same as believing that the Sunnis were defeated when the U.S. marched into Baghdad,” Prendergast said.

For now, the war appears to have cemented Ethiopia’s standing as a dominant force in the Horn.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi secured a friendly Somalian government that isn’t likely to push hot-button issues such as control of the contested Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia. He also strengthened ties with the United States by establishing Ethiopia as America’s leading regional partner in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

Ethiopians say the U.S. and rest of the world should thank them for holding the line against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

“We have to make sure that religious extremism doesn’t take hold in Africa,” said Bereket Simon, a minister of state in Ethiopia. He said his nation, home to sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest Muslim population after Nigeria, acted in self-defense.
But Menkhaus said that success could be measured only in the coming months. “A lot depends on what kind of insurgency emerges,” he said.

If Somalia’s problems bleed across its borders, the ripple effects could include a destabilization of Ethiopia’s Muslim community and reduced tourism for Kenya, Menkhaus said.

Ethiopia’s victory also draws Somalia a step closer to its African neighbors. Historically, Somalis have been divided over whether to consider themselves part of Africa or orient themselves toward the Arab world. Former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who was ousted in 1991, straddled the fence.

Islamic courts leaders were working to forge closer ties with Arab-led countries, such as Yemen and Sudan.

Mohammed Abduallahi Afra, director of parliament in the transitional government that collapsed in 2003, worries that the regional balance of power could be upset.

Recent events could stir up animosity between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which never settled a border dispute that led to war in 1998. Kenya and Djibouti have been improving ties in recent years, but they were divided over how to handle Somalia, Afra said.

A history of conflict

This isn’t the first time Somalia has found itself caught in an international tug of war. In the 1970s, Somalia and Ethiopia were Cold War pawns, heavily armed by the Soviet Union and United States, respectively. Then communists seized control of Ethiopia, and the superpowers simply swapped allies. A 1977 war between Ethiopia and Somalia was fueled largely by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Analysts say U.S. policymakers now have a short window of time to bring change. Ethiopian troops plan to leave Somalia in a matter of weeks and the transitional government needs substantial assistance to survive on its own.

Since withdrawing U.S. troops in 1994 after 18 American servicemen were killed in Mogadishu in October 1993, U.S. engagement in Somalia has been limited. About 1,500 U.S. troops are based in Djibouti to fight terrorism, train African security forces and improve infrastructure in the region. But the base has no representation or activity in Somalia, a representative said.

Last year, Mogadishu warlords, with support and funding from the CIA, formed an anti-terrorism alliance that began pursuing and kidnapping Islamists sought by the U.S., including three suspects in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

The move not only undermined Somalia’s transitional government but also built public support for the Islamic fighters.

Ted Dagne, Africa specialist for the Congressional Research Service, said U.S. policymakers must pressure the transitional government to reach out to moderate Islamic leaders and the Mogadishu clans who feel excluded.

Somalia’s underlying problems remain unresolved, he warned. They include a weak transitional government, clan rivalries and warlords seeking to reassert their power.

“Unless there is sustained and careful support for the process, Somalia will go back to where it was before,” Dagne said.

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