Somalia's fragile government began to push back against its armed Islamist opponents Friday in Mogadishu in heavy street fighting. It's the first sign that the transitional government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's efforts to reach out to unaligned warlords and Islamist militias is beginning to pay off, and that his enemies, the radical Al Shabab, may have stretched themselves too thin with their ambitious assault.
In Mogadishu, government spokesman Farhan Mahdi Mohamed told Agence France-Presse news agency that the government had begun to take away key parts of Mogadishu from the militias of Al Shabab and Hizb Islamiya.
"This is a large military offensive against violent people," Mr. Mohamed said. "The government will sweep them out of the capital and the fighting will continue until that happens."
The intense fighting in Mogadishu comes at a time when Somalia's neighbors – and in particular Ethiopia – are increasingly being drawn into the Somali conflict, both diplomatically and militarily.
Calls for blockade, no-fly zone
An East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, has called for a United Nations blockade and no-fly zone to prevent Islamist militias from receiving arms from their backers, including Eritrea.
And Ethiopia itself, which only pulled its troops out of Somalia in December, has apparently sent troops back – both as a signal of support for the Sharif government and as a defensive measure to prevent a future military assault on Ethiopia by Islamist militias.
"I think it's very difficult to do a proper blockade; planes come into Somalia all the time, and as the piracy issues shows, it's difficult to stop boats coming in and out of Somali ports," says Roger Middleton, an expert on Somalia at Chatham House in London. "But the attempt here is more political, to highlight the fight by Al Shabab, and the danger to other nations that border Somalia if Shabab comes to power."
Civilians flee capital
With battle lines shifting on an almost daily basis, Somali civilians have been fleeing the city of Mogadishu by the tens of thousands.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that 49,000 civilians have been displaced since the fighting began on May 8.
Aid workers are struggling to find tents, food, sanitation, and protection for the new displaced people, at a time when UN resources are already stretched to meet the needs of 1.5 million people previously forced from their homes, and perhaps 4 million others at risk of going hungry during the current prolonged drought.
President Sharif's efforts to integrate a ragtag collection of Islamist fighters from the former Union of Islamic Courts, various warlords, along with police and army forces loyal to the transitional government all into one fighting force may have turned the tide on the ground. Separate fighters for the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a, too, appear to be lending support to the Sharif government.
The Ethiopian factor
But Ethiopia's incursion into the Beletweyne district – an effort to secure a key bridge in the town of Kalabeyrka – carries heavy risks. Ethiopia could turn the tide against Al Shabab, forcing the radical Islamist militia to abandon positions and relieve military pressure on the government. But it could also plant seeds of doubt in the future of the Sharif government. Ethiopia's previous two-year incursion into Somalia – ostensibly to prop up the transitional government of former President Abdullahi Yusuf – ended up discrediting Mr.Yusuf among Somalis as an Ethiopian puppet. Mr. Yusuf resigned from office in late December 2008, just as Ethiopian troops were withdrawing from Somalia.
Paula Roque, an expert on Somali politics with the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), South Africa, says that the conflict in Somalia has become a proxy war between Ethiopia and its breakaway neighbor, Eritrea.
"Eritrea is funding armed movements in Somalia, and Eritrea wants to provoke Ethiopia's reinvolvement in Somalia, to put it in an even more complicated situation than it was in its previous incursion," says Ms. Roque. By moving back into Somalia, Ethiopia may be taking Eritrea's bait, she says, but "Ethiopia has always reserved the right to take military action in Somalia to preserve its interests."