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Ethiopia-Eritrea Proxy War in Somalia Risks Broader Regional Conflict, Warns New Council Report

Related Bio: Terrence Lyons, Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
December 14, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations


Conflict in the Horn of Africa is escalating rapidly as power struggles within Somalia are exacerbated by military support that both Ethiopia and Eritrea give to the opposing parties there. Ethiopia backs the weak interim government; Eritrea sponsors the Islamic militants fighting to overthrow it. Because the United States has accused Somalia of harboring al-Qaeda suspects, “the Ethiopian-Eritrean proxy conflict increases the opportunities for terrorist infiltration of the Horn and East Africa and for ignition of a larger regional conflict,” warns a new Council Special Report.

Last week, the United Nations authorized an African force to protect Somalia’s virtually powerless interim government based in Baidoa. UN Security Council Resolution 1725, cosponsored by the United States and the Security Council’s African member countries, partially lifts an arms embargo on Somalia. Islamic militants, who control the capital of Mogadishu, warned that the resolution will provoke a full-scale war. The report, Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Ethiopia and Eritrea, suggests that the resolution is both “dangerously provocative and likely to be more symbolic than substantive” due to the challenges of mounting a regional peacekeeping force.

International involvement, particularly from the United States, is critical to prevent the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict from further undermining U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region, says author Terrence Lyons of George Mason University. “Washington has few good options to address the emergent threats in Somalia. There are, however, opportunities to push for full implementation of the peace agreement that ended the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict [(1998–2000)], which can help dampen the dynamic that contributes to escalation within Somalia.”

“Given the stakes and the role the region plays with regard to the Arabian Peninsula and counterterrorism, the importance of democratization promotion globally, and the growing attention to the region on Capitol Hill and within diaspora communities, disengagement is not an option.” Lyons calls for a new and more comprehensive U.S. policy. Recommendations include:

Committing to existing multilateral agreements.

“Washington should remain committed to the multilateral Witnesses to the Algiers Agreement and [the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC)] framework, pressing Ethiopia to demarcate the border and Eritrea to return to talks and lift restrictions on [the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE)].”

Coordinating increased financial support.

“The U.S. government should also be prepared to offer substantial financial backing and use its influence within the international financial institutions to support demobilization, cross-border trade and communications, and normalization of regional relations.”

Pressuring both countries to introduce political rights.

“Once the border issue is settled, the United States should pressure Asmara to permit basic political rights and Ethiopia to release political prisoners, enter into a dialogue with the full range of opposition leaders, and return to the freedoms seen in early 2005.”

Making foreign aid to both countries conditional.

“Development and military assistance programs should be tied to progress on governance issues and Washington should be prepared to reduce or slow non-humanitarian programs if political conditions deteriorate further.”

Establishing robust democratization programs.

“Well-funded programs on democratization and rule of law should be offered to support positive political openings. Washington should reach out to the wide spectrum of opposition groups both within Ethiopia and in the diaspora and encourage them to pursue strategies of peaceful electoral competition, rather than armed struggle.”

Supporting long-term regional peacebuilding initiatives.

“The United States, international donors, and international organizations should support long-term regional peacebuilding initiatives. Building new relationships between communities split by the militarized border, groups displaced by the conflict, and families divided by loyalties to rival states will provide a context for new thinking and increased confidence about the formal peace process and will help build healthier bilateral relations after the border dispute is settled.”

CONTACT: CFR Communications,, 212-434-9888

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