Sudan Will Decide the Outcome of the Ethiopian Civil War
As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed goes to war against Ethiopia’s former rulers—the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—Khartoum’s moves will determine whether the conflict remains a local affair or a regional conflagration.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—(foreignpolicy)—While the world girded for the U.S. election in early November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a war against the northern region of Tigray. The region is home to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—the party that dominated Ethiopian politics for decades and has since been displaced and sidelined as Abiy has sought to consolidate power and made peace with the TPLF’s archenemy, Eritrea.
But the TPLF has not gone quietly; in September, the regional government it leads held local elections that the central government refused to recognize in October. Then, on Nov. 3, following provocations by Abiy, it took control of personnel, military hardware, and equipment from the federal army’s Northern Command, prompting Addis Ababa to declare war against a region that remains home to a sizable portion of the Ethiopian federal army’s arsenal and forces, given its position along the long-contested and still undemarcated border with Eritrea.
Abiy has long accused the TPLF old guard of seeking to sabotage his government and his purported reforms. But now, facing all-out war against a formidable foe, the outcome will turn on the choices of Ethiopia’s neighbors—Sudan and Eritrea.
Although Tigray is small, it is well armed, and its forces are battle-hardened. Tigray’s regional special forces, which a senior Ethiopian diplomat estimates have grown to at least 20,000 commandos—led by senior Tigrayan officers forced into retirement by Abiy, plus a standing body of reserve special forces made up of military-trained militia and armed farmers—together have an estimated total of up to 250,000 armed fighters. Until recently, however, it lacked the heavy weaponry required to directly confront a fully-equipped division.
Since last week, the TPLF has taken control of half the soldiers from the five divisions of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) Northern Command that remain in Tigray—meaning it has gained 15,000 soldiers, according to three sources: a senior Ethiopian diplomat briefed on the latest developments, a senior retired intelligence officer in Tigray who continues to work for the TPLF, and a source in Tigray monitoring the situation. But the seizure of Ethiopian military hardware and equipment has heightened the importance of logistical supplies for the TPLF, which will inevitably depend on Sudan’s stance.
Sudan has a number of strategic reasons to back—or at least to be perceived as supporting—the TPLF in the civil war against Ethiopia’s government.
While Sudan has officially closed the borders between Tigray and Sudan’s frontier states of Kassala and Gadaref—which are landlocked Tigray’s only logistical links to the outside world in terms of fuel, ammunition, and food—it could use the threat of support to the TPLF to extract concessions from Addis Ababa on the contested Fashqa triangle.
Fashqa is an approximately 100-square-mile territory of prime agricultural land along its border with Ethiopia’s Amhara state, which Sudan claims by virtue of an agreement signed in 1902 between the United Kingdom and Ethiopia under Emperor Menelik II and subsequently reinforced by various Ethiopian leaders, including the TPLF.
The dispute over Fashqa remains a major grievance for Ethiopia’s ethnic Amhara farmers near the border, who seek to till the land, and is an obstacle in negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Like Egypt, Sudan has rejected Ethiopia’s proposal for guidelines that would enshrine Ethiopia’s future ability to manage annual flow of the Blue Nile on a discretionary basis and Khartoum is already using the issue as leverage to pressure Abiy on Fashqa, where Ethiopia and Sudan continue to maintain a military presence.
But if Sudan supports Tigray, which also borders Eritrea, the civil war will certainly become a protracted affair, and the strategic fallout in Khartoum’s relations with Addis Ababa and Asmara could be too high. Indeed, the region could quickly revert to the state of proxy conflict that preceded the rise of Abiy and the collapse of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s regime—or precipitate a wider regional conflagration.
Since last week, Sudan has already seen thousands of people flee from Ethiopia, including officers from the ENDF, according to a source who has spoken with Sudan’s civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, about the matter. While Bashir allied himself with Ethiopia’s former TPLF-led regime, the TPLF’s influence in Khartoum has become limited since Bashir fell from power, and because it no longer controls the Ethiopian state.
Sudan’s condition is already fragile, and it wants to ensure that it has at least minimal[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]Sudan’s condition is already fragile, and it wants to ensure that it has at least minimal relations with its neighbors.[/perfectpullquote]
relations with its neighbors. For now, instructions
from Khartoum have focused on not alienating either Addis Ababa or Asmara—a message that has trickled down in the Sudan Armed Forces, which has deployed to its borders with Ethiopia, said a senior Sudanese military officer.
Sudan is not the only neighboring country with a strong interest in the outcome of the civil war. Envoys of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki traveled to Khartoum on Nov. 11 to see the chairman of Sudan’s transitional Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—presumably to ask Sudan’s military, which holds the real power, to cut off any potential logistical support to the TPLF.
From the beginning, it was clear that Abiy was intent on provocation, but he did not anticipate the TPLF could supplant an entire military command. In late October, a week before the TPLF took control of the remaining Northern Command in Tigray, Abiy created a new regional command in Ethiopia’s Amhara state, with the two divisions of the Northern Command already stationed in Amhara slated to be transferred into its ranks.
The Northern Command comprises eight of the ENDF’s 32 divisions. Three of them have been stationed outside of Tigray for two years, since Abiy expanded the operational area of the Northern Command: a tank division in the north of Ethiopia’s Afar state and two divisions in Amhara. Military maneuvers against Tigray are now underway on three fronts: from Eritrea, Afar, and Amhara, with Eritrea and Amhara being used in an attempt to cut the TPLF off from Sudan.
On Nov. 1, a few days after Abiy created the new command, Burhan flew to see him in Addis Ababa with the director-general of Sudan’s intelligence service and the head of military intelligence. It was announced that they would strengthen control of the Ethiopia-Sudan border, suggesting that Abiy was trying to completely encircle Tigray before a premeditated confrontation with the TPLF.
Earlier this month Egypt and Sudan agreed on strengthening military cooperation. A series of joint air force maneuvers using live ammunition will be held between November 12 and 21. The first exercise took place yesterday in Sudanese airspace.