January 3, 2011

Somalia Can’t Afford Ethiopian Friction

Of the many oddities emerging from Somalia, Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a and Ethiopia aren’t wasting any time climbing to the top. Last Thursday three Ethiopian officials in the southern Gedo region ordered members of the Sufi militia, which is primarily funded by Addis Ababa, to disarm. Military sources within Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) confirmed the incident, as Ethiopia also ordered roughly 300 TFG soldiers to disarm, and added that Ahlu Sunna fighters opposed the order.

Naturally these events can’t escape Somalia’s disinformation vortex. Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, Ahlu Sunna’s spokesman, rejected the reports as “baseless,” and accused Ethiopia of spreading false information.

But the truth is lurking somewhere in the desert. Another cycle of reports surfaced yesterday detailing Ethiopia’s continual harassment of Ahlu Sunna fighters in Gedo. Sheikh Abdi Badel Sheikh Abdullahi, another Ahlu Sunna, didn’t mince words when he observed, “There are military camps in Doolow where a lot of fighters have been in and Ethiopians outraged by Ahlu Sunna’s military capability.”

Now the pieces start coming together. Although the anonymous TFG official said meetings with Ethiopia have failed to reveal the reasons behind the disarmament, he mentioned that Ahlu Sunna has received a large quantity of arms in recent years. It’s conceivable, then, that Ethiopia believes Ahlu Sunna has grown strong enough - or maybe too independent.

Fortunately for the TFG no other regions are witnessing similar activity, so Gedo could remain an isolated event. Perhaps Addis Ababa believes Ahlu Sunna has grown too far from its northern stronghold and wishes to trim it back. But whatever the case, this developing crisis must be extinguished before any butterfly effects take hold. Now is not the time to be side-tracked, not after TFG and African Union (AU) leaders declared 2010 a success over al-Shabab and promised to capture all of Mogadishu in 2011.

For starters this would dump them right in al-Shabab’s corner. TFG and AU officials have mocked the group’s internal power struggle; now they could find themselves in a worse position with Ethiopia. Any public conflict between Ethiopia, Ahlu Sunna, and the TFG risks devastating results.

Disharmony itself, as previously stated, can manifest itself in untold ways in war-rooms and on the battlefield. Somalia doesn’t need any more friction than it already has.

Amplifying this threat is Ethiopia’s own image, which isn’t favorable in Somalia after a long, tumultuous history culminating with its failed 2007 invasion. Many Somalis believe that Ethiopia’s assistance to the TFG stems from self-interest rather than Somalia’s well-being, making friction particularly harmful.

Worst of all, Ethiopia is serving as a short-term patch until more AU reinforcements arrive in Mogadishu. Fighting alongside TFG and Ahlu Sunna soldiers, Ethiopian troops and tanks have attacked numerous border towns over the last three months, including Doolow. No bit player in the TFG and AU’s grand strategy, Ethiopia is currently forcing al-Shabab to hold its southern territory rather than concentrate on Mogadishu and foray into the north.

Insurgents must necessarily hold territory, but too much territory is generally a burden. Especially when their popularity, as in al-Shabab’s case, isn’t widespread.

Not only could TFG troops never seize al-Shabab’s positions without Ethiopian armor, Ethiopia has pinned al-Shabab down behind its lines and allowed the AU to concentrate on Mogadishu instead. Those gains TFG and AU officials now celebrate - “over 50% of Mogadishu in control” - were made possible by Ethiopia, who has also managed to avoid Somalia's interior.

The unfolding strategy visualizes two prongs: as Ethiopian and Ahlu Sunna harass al-Shabab on its western border and in the north, TFG/AU consolidation of Mogadishu will eventually expand the capital’s security bubble down the eastern coast. The two sides hope to squeeze al-Shabab from Ethiopia and the ocean, while gradually pushing their front below Mogadishu.

Take away the western front and the strategy begins to fall apart. al-Shabab can shift back into Mogadishu to counter the AU’s looming assault, and also challenge Ahlu Sunna in Galguduud so that it must retreat north. If Ahlu Sunna begins to lose Ethiopia’s support or, if worst comes to worst, Ahlu Sunna clashes with Ethiopian troops, this will make al-Shabab’s task that much easier. Even a few months of distraction can harm the TFG and AU’s 2011 mission.

Given the high stakes involved, it's implausible that Ethiopia and Ahlu Sunna will jeopardize their own efforts against al-Shabab. But one can never be certain in Somalia.

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