COLUMN-As death toll rises in Ethiopia, Middle East powers fuel drone race

COLUMN-As death toll rises in Ethiopia, Middle East powers fuel drone race

CREDIT: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH
In the week before Christmas, Ethiopia suffered its worst air strikes since October, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported. Dozens of people were killed and many more were wounded in a particularly bloody week of a largely hidden conflict that says much about the changing face of war.

By Peter Apps

LONDON, Jan 5 (Reuters) (nasdaq)—– In the week before Christmas, Ethiopia suffered its worst air strikes since October, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported. Dozens of people were killed and many more were wounded in a particularly bloody week of a largely hidden conflict that says much about the changing face of war.

With foreign reporters largely banned from the region and access for human rights groups extremely limited, perhaps no one truly knows how many people have been killed since fighting broke out between Ethiopia’s government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and rebel fighters from the northern region of Tigray in the final months of 2020. Some estimates put the toll as high as 100,000.

As late as November last year, it appeared the government might collapse in the face of advances by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and amid speculation that the TPLF might take the capital Addis Ababa. Since then, the situation has reversed, in a dramatic change partly attributed to a significant increase in foreign drone strikes.

The United States once saw Abiy as a Nobel prize-winning peacemaker. Now Washington and its European allies are keen to stop the bloodshed but Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Iran have been increasingly linked to the delivery of unmanned drones that have devastated Tigray targets, both military and civilian.

Capable of staying airborne for up to 27 hours and delivering a precision of surveillance and targeting far beyond that of less well equipped African or Middle Eastern air forces, the drones have helped government forces advance some 270 miles (435 km), reversing months of TPLF gains and pushing them back into the ethnic Tigray northern heartland.

The United Nations reports that government forces have now largely hemmed in TPLF fighters to northern Ethiopia, also blocking the delivery of humanitarian supplies. A pause in the government offensive shortly before New Year appears not to have been accompanied by any let-up in airstrikes, which continue to be reported, sometimes killing dozens. The United Nations says the result is a “dire” humanitarian situation with more than 5.2 million people or 90% of the local population in need of humanitarian assistance.

TURKISH DRONE REVOLUTION

Until recently, Ethiopia was something of a U.S. ally, with the two countries tacitly working closely together during Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia, a significant recipient of U.S. military and economic aid. On Saturday, however, Washington evicted Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade partnership alongside Mali and Guinea, citing worsening human rights abuses and democratic setbacks in all three nations. The AGOA trade programme provides sub-Saharan African nations with duty-free access to the United States on the condition they meet certain eligibility requirements.

In December, U.S. officials told Reuters they were particularly concerned about Turkish arms sales to Ethiopia, especially drones. Turkish Bayraktar drones are reputed to be among the most effective currently in service. Controlled from the ground via satellite, the drones have been a major export success for Ankara and have been widely credited by military experts with helping deliver Azerbaijan victory in the 2020 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and are now sought by buyers from Ukraine to Somalia.

In Libya, where Turkey sided with the provisional government in Tripoli, Bayraktar drones were regarded as lethally effective, destroying Russian-built surface-to-air missile defences being used by proxy forces also backed by the United Arab Emirates. In Ethiopia, in contrast, Turkey and the UAE appear to find themselves on the same side – a measure of Ethiopia’s success in playing multiple nations off against each other.

FLIGHTS FROM UAE, IRAN

Flight-tracking blogs and analysts using commercial satellite footage have tracked multiple commercial cargo flights they believe to be resupplying Ethiopia’s military, often including drones. That includes more than 100 flights from the UAE to an airbase near Addis Ababa, 10 from Iran and at least two from Chengdu in China.

Commercial satellite footage appears to show several Chinese-built Wing Loong drones on Ethiopian soil close to transport aircraft flying from the UAE. The UAE acquired Wing Loong drones – built in Chengdu – in 2018 after the United States declined to sell it armed Predator drones and has used them in combat in both Yemen and Libya. In early 2020, Amnesty international called on the United States to put pressure on the UAE to stop using armed drones, saying they hit civilian targets including hospitals and homes.

December images from the aftermath of several lethal strikes in Tigray also showed remnants of Chinese missiles usually carried by Wing Loong drones, alongside other weaponry dropped from manned Ethiopian government jets. Separate images from open source researchers Bellingcat appeared to show Iranian Mohajer-6 drones that may also be capable of carrying weapons.

Iran is another unlikely bedfellow for the UAE or Turkey – at loggerheads with the UAE in the Gulf as Abu Dhabi moves quietly closer to Israel. But like the others, Tehran appears to have been keen to grab this chance to showcase its own capabilities as a growing power and build influence in the Horn of Africa.

That’s another worry for the United States and European nations keen to preserve their clout. But it may already be too late – as in the Cold War, conflicts in Africa may already be turning into proxy wars though this time with increasingly sophisticated players.

*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.

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