Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s war against the Tigray region is now approaching its second anniversary. Abiy’s animosity toward the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front does not justify collective punishment against an entire ethnic group: starving Tigray and detaining ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa.
Aggression and Allies in Ethiopia
Abiy’s efforts to crush Tigray militarily not only failed but also reversed Ethiopia’s economic fortunes. While the Biden administration was correct to encourage a negotiated settlement, it is clear that Abiy today approaches diplomacy less as a mechanism to find a solution and more as a delaying tactic to regroup while starving Tigray. Diplomacy only works when both parties are sincere, and Abiy has shown he is not.
Abiy’s chief ally today is Isaias Afwerki, the dictator of Eritrea. Last week, thousands of Eritrean forces poured into Ethiopia in order to attack Tigray, while Eritrea pounded Tigray with heavy guns. Abiy also reportedly imports drones from Iran and Turkey to use against Tigray’s population, hospitals, and aid convoys. That Abiy apparently sides with a foreign power against fellow Ethiopians forfeits whatever legitimacy he has left as a nationalist leader. That he opposes any independent UN or International Criminal Court investigation into the situation in Tigray suggests he has something to hide. Today, Abiy’s lethal combination of megalomania and incompetence endangers Ethiopia more than Tigray’s elected leadership ever did.
The United States has no business intervening in the conflict on the ground, but it does have a vested interest in the outcome. Remaining aloof while Africa’s second most populous state aligns itself with Africa’s most repressive state is a recipe for disaster. To watch Tigrayans starved and slaughtered is immoral. It is also shortsighted. Tigrayans fight for their survival and, like Ukrainians facing the Russian onslaught, have no other option. They will survive; they have far greater motivation than Isaias’ slave soldiers do. Washington will pay the price if Tigrayans sense that the United States, despite all her rhetoric of democracy and human rights, ignored them in their hour of need.
The United States Should Take Action
So what might the United States do?
First, it might airdrop humanitarian supplies to Tigray. This would mean overflying a hostile Eritrea, but there is precedent with Clinton-era support for Darfur and Obama-era support for the Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State. If the United States needed temporarily to operate a no-fly zone to protect its air drops, so be it.
Second, the United States might also consider supporting Tigray with both small arms and ammunition as well as counter-drone technology. Should Abiy complain, Biden might simply suggest sincere diplomacy on his part—prefaced with the complete lifting of the humanitarian siege of Tigray—would obviate the need for further unilateral measures.
Third, the United States needs fundamentally to reconsider its Horn of Africa strategy. Abiy’s subservience to Isaias suggests he is a grave and growing danger to the region. Ethiopia deserves democracy. Rather than concentrate diplomacy toward Addis Ababa only, the United States should establish direct diplomatic links with each of Ethiopia’s federal regions and political parties. This would not undermine Ethiopia’s sovereignty but rather celebrate its multicultural nature. Again, there is precedent: As Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan established dictatorial control and transformed the Turkish embassy into an extension of his own political party, Washington quietly allowed Turkey’s other major political parties to open representative offices in order to enable the State Department and Congress to engage directly without having to filter contacts through a foreign dictator.
The ball should be in Abiy’s court: Treat all Ethiopians with dignity regardless of their ethnicity or be the man responsible for the permanent fracturing of a once-great country.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).