Opinion: As the tide of war in Ethiopia turns, a chance for peace talks opens
(WP)—As recently as six weeks ago, Ethiopia’s government seemed at the brink of defeat, the country itself at risk of fragmentation. Troops from Ethiopia’s rebel Tigray region, in the north of the country, were making what seemed to be an unstoppable southward march toward the capital, Addis Ababa. The tide of battle has dramatically turned, however, with the unexpected result being at least an opportunity for a peaceful settlement to a needless year-long civil war that has cost thousands of lives.
It appears the political leader who did so much to provoke the Tigrayan rebels, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has engineered a military comeback. Mr. Abiy rallied Ethiopia’s regular armed forces, enlisted thousands in hastily formed militias — and, most decisively, deployed a swarm of armed drones newly acquired from Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Tigrayan forces that had gotten to within 135 miles of Addis Ababa retreated under intense bombardment and have now withdrawn to their home region, according to a Dec. 19 announcement from Tigray’s de facto leader.
That statement included a call for negotiations, which — encouragingly — Mr. Abiy did not greet by pressing his advantage on the battlefield. Instead, he announced last week that his forces will halt their advance at Tigray’s borders. Mr. Abiy’s relative restraint may reflect his concern for outside pressure, including from the Biden administration, which has threatened to limit U.S. market access for roughly $150 million worth of Ethiopian exports under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. A final decision on that possible sanction is due Jan. 1. By facilitating humanitarian aid to Tigray and releasing ethnic Tigrayans and others his forces took as political prisoners in Addis Ababa, Mr. Abiy could start rebuilding trust with his own ethnically diverse people and with international mediators from the United States, Europe, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity.
The United States should make its decision on trade sanctions based on how seriously Mr. Abiy engages in a process of dialogue with his opponents. Talks are the only way to conclude a war neither side could win without more horrific suffering, possibly including a famine in Tigray. And as the government’s purchase of drones — from countries which are themselves often at odds with one another — shows, the Ethiopian conflict has already dangerously drawn in outside nations. It could yet spill over to Sudan and Egypt, each of which has long-standing issues with Addis Ababa. International meddling in Ethiopia’s civil war, and its use as a proving ground for new military technologies, has already caused some analysts to compare it to the civil war that engulfed Spain in 1936, and foreshadowed the Second World War.
Preventing a repetition of that awful history creates yet another incentive for the United States to remain engaged and to support all credible efforts at containing the conflict and, ultimately, bringing a durable peace to Ethiopia.