Eritrean rebels find their struggle against Ethiopia at a crossroads: Their oil-rich Arab friends, who have financed the battle to free Eritrea from the control of the Moscow-backed Ethiopian government, are under mounting pressure to cut off assistance.
The campaign in the Middle East for stopping aid to Eritrean rebels has been launched by Sudan, which until recently was a bitter opponent of the Ethiopian strong man, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam.
Sudan apparently believes that the rebels will be intransigent and unwilling to negotiate a political solution to the Eritrean problem as long as they receive aid from abroad. Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry's anxiety to end the fighting in Eritrea stems from his burden of 360,000 Eritrean refugees and his desire to respond to recent Ethiopian initiatives for an improvement in mutual relations.
Deeply suspicious of Ethiopia's commitment to a negotiated settlement, the Eritreans have countered with a rival campaign to ensure the continuance of political, diplomatic, military, and financial aid. Two teams of Eritrean leaders have been abroad, leading the drive against any reduction of aid. One of them has been touring the Persian Gulf region, while the second has been visiting countries in Europe.
The Eritreans argue that any reduction in assistance not only will leave them in the lurch if the talks fail to yield an acceptable solution, but also weaken their bargaining power in negotiations with Addis Ababa.
The Eritrean's mission in the Gulf has been trying to focus attention on the recent shipment of helicopter gunships, giant transport helicopters, and sophisticated reconnaissance planes from Moscow to Addis Ababa. Underlying this line of propaganda is Eritrean realization that any suggestion of Soviet military aid or physical presence is a matter of extreme paranoia for most of the Islamic fundamentalist states of this region.
The team in Europe, on the other hand, has been highlighting the human tragedy in Eritrea as a way of mobilizing support.
Meanwhile, Sudan's own decision to close Eritrean rebel bases within that country and refuse permission for the rebels to cross the border freely into Ethiopia has made the situation critical for the Eritreans. This will not only deprive the Eritreans of a safe base outside Ethiopia, but also cut off vital supply lines.
These decisions are said to be part of a secret agreement reached during a visit by Colonel Mengistu to Khartoum recently.
During the visit, the Ethiopian leader openly criticized Sudan for its support to Eritrean rebels. Addressing a congress of the Khartoum branch of the Sudan Socialist Union, Colonel Mengistu said President Nimeiry's support to Eritreans and others opposed to his government will cause "harm to the unity, revolution, and progress of the two fraternal peoples, as well as to themselves."
At the same time, he said, Ethiopia was willing to forget what had happened in the past and turn over a new leaf in their relations.
Mr. Nimeiry admitted during his recent visit to the Gulf that his country was "trying to help Addis Ababa and Eritrea to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides." He also said efforts to improve relations with Ethiopia were "aimed at solving the Eritrean dispute and other problems in our region."
Colonel Mengistu's decision to mend fences with Khartoum and respond to President Nimeiry's peace initiative is said to be the result of Soviet and Cuban advice that a military solution in Eritrea would be neither possible nor advisable.
The Russians are understandably keen to scale down their military assistance to Ethiopia in view of more pressing commitments in Afghanistan and uncertainties in the oil-rich Persian Gulf area. But this will be possible only if a permanent solution can be found to the Eritrean issue as well as to the dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ogaden Desert region.
That the Mengistu regime has abandoned hopes of imposing a military solution on Eritrea and is willing to consider political options is evident in the mood in the "kebeles" (communes), in which most of country's citizens live.
The theme for political indoctrination in the kebeles has changed from "Ethiopia tikdem" (Ethiopia first) to "peace." The idea of Ethiopia tikdem underlined the desire to create a strong, unified Ethiopia in which any talk of secession would be considered blasphemous.
Although the Asmara international airport in Eritrea is bristling with military aircraft, and tanks still are visible on the outskirts of the city, the Ethiopian government's propaganda efforts are concentrating less on Eritrea now than at any time since its last offensive against the rebels. Now its energy is involved debate about formation of a single party with leftist leanings.
However, neither the change in Sudan's attitude nor the possibility of an end of Arab aid have led rebels to see a need for closing their ranks.Efforts to resolve differences between radicals and moderates in the movement have yielded few results. Except for the setting up of a four-man committee to study these differences, there has been little progress in this direction during the last year.
The radicals and the moderates even have their own separate strongholds, a situations that has enabled the Ethiopians to concentrate their attacks on the moderates at times. By doing this, the leftist regime here hopes to wean away the radicals from the path of war and bring them to the negotiating table.