Is Somalia in Ethiopian Army's crosshairs again?

Somalis near the border with Ethiopia say that country's troops have crossed over, raising speculation of another battle with the militant Islamists closing in on Somalia's government.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Two years ago, they came, they saw, they killed some Somali Islamists. Late last year, they left.

Now, the Ethiopians are back in Somalia, according to Somali witnesses, and their border incursion could have dramatic impacts on the stability not just of Somalia, but throughout the Horn of Africa.

For the record, the Ethiopian government denies that it has troops inside Somali territory, and claims it has largely stayed out of Somali territory since it pulled back its troops in mid-December 2008.

Yet reports from the area surrounding Beletweyne (near the border) have been persistent, both of Ethiopian checkpoints and entrenchments 20 kilometers inside the Somali border, near the town of Kalabeyr. Now, the question seems to be not whether Ethiopian troops are there, but why they are there and how long they plan to stay.

"Ethiopia does go in and out of Somali territory, but with reports of the impending collapse of the Somali government by Islamist militias, I gather that Ethiopia would keep a close eye on matters," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, an expert on Somali politics at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria. "An intervention now allows Ethiopia to follow their interests to insure that nobody comes to power who has an irredentist agenda, who would want to claim the Ogaden" region of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's Ogaden region is a desert area inhabited mostly by ethnic Somalis. The two countries have fought bitter wars over the region and many Somalis still dream of taking back the Ogaden from Ethiopia, thus reuniting "Greater Somalia." Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamists now threatening to take over the country from the moderate Islamist government, is well known to Ethiopia's government for his "Greater Somalia" agenda.

How Ethiopia's last intervention went

Ethiopia's previous intervention came at a time of strong parallel interests by Ethiopia and the United States. Both nations saw the need for a robust Ethiopian military operation in Somalia as part of a broader war on terrorism. Members of the Bush administration linked the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which implemented sharia law during it's short-lived stint in control of the country in 2006, with Al Qaeda. But Ethiopia's interests were much more immediate and local – the UIC government, and particularly its former leader, Mr. Aweys, threatened to take away the Ogaden.

On paper, the Ethiopian intervention of 2006 was a rout. UIC fighters melted away in front of Ethiopia's 3,000-strong invasion force, and the UIC government fled into exile. But just like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the UIC reorganized into smaller units and began a long guerrilla war of attrition. By the time Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia in December 2008, it claims to have killed 2,000 to 3,000 Islamists. Human rights advocates say that as many as 16,000 civilians were also killed.

Although the current reported operation may be a temporary incursion, Ethiopia's national interest in preventing the rise of an aggressive Islamist government remains the same.

Ethiopia's intervention would likely be aimed at bolstering Somalia's transitional president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, to prevent the extremist Al Shabab militia group from taking power, says Richard Cornwell, an independent political analyst in Tshwane. "That said, its intervention has to be different this time. It can't afford to be bogged down in an urban killing zone. It has to be more surgical and selective in its targets."

Ethiopia denies crossing the border

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahade Belay denied the reports of an incursion. "This is a totally fabricated story. We have no plans to go into any of Somalia's territory," he told Reuters news agency.

Yet Ethiopia has maintained a large military presence on its border with Somalia, ever since its pullout of 3,000 troops from the country began in December 2008. Experts say that Ethiopian troops have continued to move into Somali territory on punitive missions.

The Ethiopian incursion comes just days after Al Shabab took the town of Jowhar, cutting off the government's access to territory north of Mogadishu. Islamist forces loyal to Al Shabab and Sheikh Aweys have steadily taken territory from pro-government militias, hemming in the government of Mr. Sharif and forcing the tiny African Union peacekeeper force to relocate to positions in the south of the city.

International support: a blessing and a curse

Ironically, Sharif's best chance of survival is the very real threat of his own defeat. If Sharif appears close to being toppled, the international community may be forced to give him further backing. But such backing comes with its own pitfalls.

"The bigger the Al Shabab threat gets, the more the international community is likely to support Sharif," says Mr. Cornwell. "But the more international support Sharif gets, the more he is discredited in the eyes of the Somali people, and the more people will give their support to Shabab."

One way out of this cycle, Cornwell says, is for Ethiopia to "think more selectively" about its targets. "I would imagine they don't want to put large numbers of troops into Somalia. They just need to locate Shabab's headquarters and zap it. I'm sure the Americans will be happy to help them do that, and we know the Americans have the munitions to do that."

Any Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, whether large or small, is likely to have huge political risks for Ethiopia, both among its Somali neighbors and among the large number of ethnic Somalis who live in its own restive Ogaden region.

"An Ethiopian intervention would dent Ethiopia's already tarnished image among Somalis," says Jhazbhay. "But it would clearly give the Transitional Federal Government some leeway for a while, and perhaps give it a chance to stand on its own feet."

Ethiopia's best strategy, Jhazbhay adds, may be to do nothing at all. "Whenever the Ethiopians intervene, that strengthens Somali nationalism against Ethiopia," he says. "When the international community backed Somali transitional governments over the past 14 incarnations, there was always one group in charge and other groups who were left out.

"But if the Ethiopians just let it go for a while, and allow the Somalis to develop things in their own way, which is what they did in Somaliland and the Puntland region, the Somalis do manage to come up with an inclusive government that gains legitimacy. It may take some time, but they do seem to develop things in their own way."

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