This week the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) announced that forces that have been clashing with the federal government in a see-sawing military campaign were withdrawing from positions outside the boundaries of the Tigray region. The TPLF framed the decision as a step intended to catalyze meaningful negotiations with Addis Ababa. But equally, Tigrayan leaders aim to remove any obstacle to decisive international action addressing the crisis. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, they called for a no-fly zone over Tigray, arms embargoes on Ethiopia and Eritrea, a humanitarian corridor to bring relief to Tigrayans, and accountability for crimes committed over the course of the war.
Unquestionably, it makes sense to expend diplomatic energy to capitalize on an opening for a comprehensive ceasefire and real political negotiations. The conflict cannot be resolved militarily, regardless of which antagonist has the upper hand at any given time. But any optimism should be cautious, because the obstacles to peace will make progress tremendously difficult. The warring parties trust neither each other nor any of the same external parties. Federally aligned Amhara forces remain in western Tigray and insist that the borders of the Tigrayan region be redrawn. Eritrea’s agenda points away from peace and accountability. The toxic and jingoistic information environment within Ethiopia encourages grandstanding and complicates the politics of peacemaking. Finally, the simmering tensions and outright conflicts in other parts of the Ethiopian state illustrate that lasting stability will require difficult negotiations and meaningful reforms reaching far beyond Tigray.
As for the TPLF’s appeals to international institutions and actors, the United Nations has not inspired confidence to date in addressing the obvious threat to international peace and security posed by the Ethiopian crisis. While human rights organizations decry “global paralysis” in responding to Ethiopia’s conflict and the atrocities committed by all parties, some movements within diaspora communities are claiming there has been far too much Western intervention—part of imagined attempts to align with the TPLF and subjugate Ethiopia. External forces have certainly played a significant role in the conflict, but not the ones targeted by “no more” activists: military assistance in the form of drones from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran have been a lifeline for once-beleaguered federal forces. These competing narratives confuse the policy landscape and distract from the human suffering and real geopolitical stakes of an Ethiopian implosion.
The UN Security Council’s impotence has created space that favors international opportunists that see Ethiopia’s unraveling as a chance to gain influence (and sell weapons). These actors seek to propagate a transactional, rule-free model of interstate relations in which human rights norms and international humanitarian law are utterly irrelevant. Resisting a future dominated by such forces is as worthy an exercise as trying to leverage the TPLF withdrawal into a peace process. But over one year into this conflict, it is not clear that the tools and the will to achieve those goals are sufficient to meet the challenge.