After battlefield reversals, what next for Ethiopia’s Tigray war?
Questions loom over the next phase of a devastating conflict that has left civilians at risk of famine.
The capture of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, by Ethiopian forces in late November was depicted by the government in Addis Ababa as the finishing blow to forces loyal to the northern region’s former government.
But on June 29, seven months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory, his troops vacated Mekelle amid battleground defeats following the launch of a major counteroffensive by the Tigrayan forces.
Hours after the evacuation of the city, Ethiopia announced that it had enacted a unilateral ceasefire, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons.
“The main objective of the ceasefire is to facilitate aid deliveries and permit farmers to cultivate their crops in peace,” Abraham Belay, leader of Tigray’s now overthrown interim administration, explained in an address on state television shortly after the takeover.
The declaration came as Ethiopia faced increasing international pressure on the back of credible reports of extrajudicial killings, widespread rape and famine-like conditions in Tigray, where the United Nations estimates that more than 90 percent of its six million inhabitants are in need of emergency food aid.
It instilled some hope that after eight months of brutal warfare, the region might see a halt in the fighting. But on the day of the Ethiopian army’s pullout from Mekelle, phone lines across Tigray, as well as the limited internet access used by aid organisations for their operations, were severed.
Then, reports emerged that a bridge on the Tekeze River, a key crossing point for aid deliveries into Tigray, was destroyed. Both warring factions traded blame.
The developments continue to hamper aid deliveries to affected populations, including some of the two million people internally displaced by the war.
“We are extremely concerned about the access limitations in and out of Tigray with both Shire and Mekelle airports closed and some roads connecting Tigray blocked, particularly the road between Shire and Debark where we have an operational base in the Amhara region,” said Neven Crvenković, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency in Ethiopia.
“Destruction of the bridge across the Tekeze river has rendered this road impassable – this is gravely affecting our ability to move in staff, aid material as well as basic supplies such as food, fuel and cash.”
Aside from the acts of sabotage, rhetoric from the warring factions has hardly been reconciliatory since Mekelle’s capture by troops loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regional party, who have recently been rebranded as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF).
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda has since openly threatened to send Tigrayan forces into Eritrea, whose troops had entered Tigray in support of Abiy’s army. “Our primary focus is to degrade enemy fighting capabilities,” he told Reuters news agency.
Following the withdrawal from Mekelle, Eritrean soldiers similarly vacated a number of towns in Tigray, including Axum and Shiraro, which they had held for months.
The Ethiopian army’s Lieutenant-General Bacha Debele, however, warned at a news conference in Addis Ababa last week: “If provoked, [the army] could march on Mekelle even today. But if we return, the damage will be far worse than before.”
For months, Tigrayan officials had expressed an openness to negotiate an end to the war. After initially dismissing the federal government’s unilateral declaration as a “joke”, the TPLF on Sunday laid out a list of conditions for ceasefire talks.
But several of the demands, including a demand that Addis Ababa recognises the TPLF’s rule of the region, are almost certain to be rebuffed.
“Neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF have made meaningful commitments to make good on this opening,” Judd Devermont, director of the US-based Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“There are still considerable barriers to delivering humanitarian access and persistent concerns about human rights abuses committed by all sides.”
Despite the seemingly uncompromising stances, and the Ethiopian government’s previous refusals to negotiate with members of the TPLF, which was designated a “terrorist” group by the Ethiopian parliament in May, there is at least one possible avenue for potential third-party mediators to focus on: prisoners.
On July 2, thousands of apparently captive Ethiopian soldiers were paraded through Mekelle on their way to a holding facility in the city. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told The New York Times that low-ranking soldiers would be released, but officers and other commanders would remain in custody.
“The number of POWs [prisoners of war] we are currently hosting has surpassed 8,000, and they may yet increase,” Fesseha Tessema, a TPLF adviser and former Ethiopian diplomat, told Al Jazeera. “They’ve been visited by the International Red Cross and we are requesting aid organisations to assist us providing food for all of them.”
In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross refused to comment on the issue.
According to Fesseha, the Ethiopian government is yet to reach out to the TPLF over its reportedly captured troops. Abiy’s press secretary Billene Seyoum did not immediately respond to an emailed inquiry about the POWs. Ethiopian officials and state media have not made any statements on the issue.
For its part, the Ethiopian government is said to be holding hundreds – and possibly more – of ethnic Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian army, detained in the early days of the war on the suspicion that they would mount a mutiny. A negotiated release of prisoners on both sides could open the door to preliminary talks on establishing a concrete ceasefire.
Another factor that could possibly mellow hardened positions is war fatigue. US Senator Chris Coons said he was told by Prime Minister Abiy late last year that the war would wrap up within six weeks.
But the fighting became long and drawn out, and eventually resulted in the United States slapping Ethiopia and Eritrea with economic sanctions and visa restrictions.
Abiy last week said his government had spent more than 100 billion birrs ($2.3bn) on rehabilitation and food aid for the region, without including the cost of the military campaign – at a time, when nationwide instability and the coronavirus pandemic have dealt a serious blow to the country’s finances.
“It will take Ethiopia’s economy several years, perhaps over a decade, to recover and get back to its pre-war status,” predicted Ayele Gelan, a research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.
“Even what is officially reported is a huge underestimation of the actual monetary costs of the war. We should count money spent not only during the past eight months but also over decades to build the destroyed assets. Capital cost in Tigray is not just military assets but also includes destroyed roads, bridges, homes, farms.”
Analysts say the TDF would likely have to retreat from big cities back into the mountains if conventional warfare were to break out again. The eruption of fresh hostilities would above all prove disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people said to be on the verge of starvation and further decimate the region.
With the rainy season under way in Ethiopia, a lull in fighting would have been strategic for both warring factions – with or without a ceasefire. There is the possibility that armies could use this period to recuperate, rearm and redeploy as soon as conditions become dry again.
The 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war, which killed tens of thousands of people, also saw lulls in fighting during Ethiopia’s rainy season which starts in June and ends in late August or early September. Both sides used those periods to train fighters or dig trenches before resuming fighting.
The Ethiopian government has itself stated that its unilateral ceasefire would expire in September, heightening fears that the allied coalition is using the rainy season as a recovery period, before planned renewed offensives. On paper, it could mean the international community has only about two months to seal a definitive ceasefire.
“The imperative for all sides must now be to facilitate access for relief convoys, ramping up the delivery of food aid to millions of Tigrayans and ensuring that farmers can plough and plant as the rainy season sets in,” the International Crisis Group said in a statement on Friday.
“They should also pursue political reconciliation in due time.”