U.S. Africa Envoy: Ethiopia Crisis Could Make Syria Look Like ‘Child’s Play’

U.S. Africa Envoy: Ethiopia Crisis Could Make Syria Look Like ‘Child’s Play’

Jeffrey Feltman, the new American envoy to the Horn of Africa, faces a cascade of overlapping challenges in the region.

By Robbie Gramer, APRIL 26, 2021

Jeffrey Feltman
Then-U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman attends a press conference in Bogotá, Colombia on Nov. 15, 2017. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

(Foreign Policy) — The Biden administration this month brought Jeffrey Feltman, a seasoned former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat, out of semi-retirement to assume the newly created role of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, where multiple crises threaten to unravel the entire region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday formally named Feltman to the post, where he will become Washington’s lead troubleshooter for a deadly conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and widespread allegations of war crimes.

Feltman, in his first interview since being tapped for the post, told Foreign Policy the conflict has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged regional crisis, citing a comparison to the war in Syria.

“Look at what the collapse of Syria and the chaos of civil war has meant,” said Feltman, citing the refugee crisis and its impact on Europe, as well as the rise of terrorist groups in the power vacuum from the collapse of a country that had a prewar population of around 22 million people.

“Ethiopia has 110 million people,” he said. “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

Feltman, a longtime diplomatic heavy-hitter in U.S. and U.N. policy circles, is no stranger to crisis diplomacy. He served in a variety of posts across the Middle East, including U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, which encompassed the 2006 Lebanon War. From 2009 to 2012, he served as the State Department’s top envoy for the Middle East, including during the Arab Spring. Later, as a top official at the U.N., he traveled to North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Un at the height of U.S.-North Korea tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

But his new task is daunting. There’s the conflict in Tigray and the question of Ethiopia’s broader stability. Neighboring Eritrea’s military intervention in the Tigray conflict, with its troops accused of widespread atrocities and human rights violations, is only complicating any solution. Sudan, meanwhile, is struggling with a fragile and uncertain transition to democracy after three decades under autocratic rule, and it is contending with a border dispute with Ethiopia that could spark a separate conflict between those two countries. There is still a political and security crisis in Somalia. And all the while, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are in the midst of a yearslong dispute over a massive Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration clumsily tried to mediate.

“I’m intimidated by the challenge of it. It’s a complex part of the world with a lot of overlapping crises happening at the same time. But it’s also extremely important strategically for the U.S., for our allies, for the region,” Feltman said.

“In terms of an immediate focus, without question, there has to be attention paid to Tigray,” he said. He added that other leading priorities were the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute and the tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Feltman said he would be traveling to the region “fairly soon” but declined to give specifics.

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