The rebel capture of Tigray’s capital Mekelle is a milestone in the eight-month conflict in northern Ethiopia, which has killed thousands and left millions in desperate need of food and other assistance. Will this be a turning point in the war?
The Ethiopian government withdrew its troops after months of fighting, sparking celebrations in the streets.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed first said the withdrawal was a strategic decision as the city was no longer “the center of conflict gravity”, but later confirmed that it was to avoid further casualties.
“We have seen a very important change in the war,” said Will Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.
“This indicates that either the federal government was unable to keep Mekelle, or it realized that it was in its best interest to withdraw from Tigray. This was in light of the significant gains on the battlefield” of the rebel forces loyal to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF).
After withdrawing, the Ethiopian government unilaterally declared a “humanitarian ceasefire” in Tigray, saying a pause in hostilities was necessary to allow agricultural activities to continue and aid to flow.
But since then, TPLF forces have continued the fighting, seizing more territory, including the town of Shire.
The Tigrayan rebels now appear to have the upper hand in this long-standing conflict. It remains to be seen how this will unfold.
Eyes on the conflict brewing in Amhara
Experts say the Ethiopian leader will now focus on what is happening in western Tigray and the conflict between Tigray rebels and forces in neighboring Amhara state.
Amhara is home to one of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups. The fertile land around the state’s border with Tigray has long been contested, and Amhara’s regional forces and militias are trying to reclaim part of the territory they claim is theirs by right.
“The Amhara wing of the Prosperity Party is one of the two most powerful regional branches of Abiy’s ruling party,” said Iain McDermott, analyst at security consultancy Protection Group International.
“This therefore means potentially tolerating and supporting Amhara’s efforts to annex areas of the Tigray region which many Amharas say were part of the Amhara region prior to 1991.”
Mr Davison says there is another reason for the federal government to focus on the Amhara region, which shares a border with Sudan with Tigray.
He says this would prevent the Tigrayans from using the area to create an international supply route, if other channels to Tigray are cut.
Power and morale in decline
What is not clear is to what extent the Ethiopian army has been weakened in the past eight months of fighting.
The rebel group claimed to have recently “neutralized” tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops in its June offensive. He did not say whether that means these soldiers were killed or captured as prisoners of war, but in any case, the losses suffered by the Ethiopian National Defense Force appear to be heavy.
Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation in Boston, said the ENDF “was an army of 20 divisions – seven were completely destroyed, three are in ruins.”
But other commentators say it is difficult to be definitive on the extent of the Ethiopian losses.
“This is one of the million dollar questions,” says Davison. “We don’t really know, but I think it’s a pretty worrying picture for the Federal forces. There has been significant burnout and significant morale loss.
“Compared to Ethiopia’s former status as a highly regarded regional peacekeeper, its army is now significantly weaker,” he added.
What is certain is that for Ethiopia the financial cost of the war has been enormous.
Mr Abiy said this week that in addition to the cost of the military effort in Tigray, his government spent more than 100 billion birr (about $ 2.3 billion; £ 1.7 billion) on the rehabilitation and food aid, a figure he said was equivalent to about 20% of the national budget this year.
Growing international pressure
Mr. Abiy’s next steps will be watched closely by the international community, which has been concerned for months about the fate of civilians in Tigray.
Since its withdrawal from Mekelle, the federal government has been accused of cutting off the electricity supply and telephone lines to Tigray, leaving hospitals there dependent on generators, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“This does not amount to a humanitarian ceasefire and on the contrary represents a major constraint on the humanitarian operation,” Davison said.
“What looks like an Ethiopian policy to make Tigray even more ungovernable now that the dissident leaders are back in charge, will have a further devastating impact on the civilian population.”
Learn more about the Tigray crisis:
Foreign governments, including the Biden administration in Washington, are pressuring Addis Ababa to improve the security situation in Tigray, allowing aid to be delivered to millions of people desperate for food and other supplies.
If this does not improve, “Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate further action,” said Robert Godec, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. “We will not stand idly by in the face of the horrors of Tigray.”
Eritrean troops in question
Eritrean forces have fought alongside Federal Ethiopian soldiers since the start of the war. But the conflict lasted much longer than expected by the two countries.
“A big question remains whether Eritrea will decide to withdraw its troops,” De Waal said.
The protracted conflict has had a detrimental effect on relations between the two countries, according to security analyst McDermott. “Relations between Addis and Asmara have become strained,” he said.
“Kind of like how [Mr] Abiy must be careful not to alienate his Amhara allies, he must also be careful not to alienate Eritrea. They were crucial for the whole operation. “
Instability in the Horn of Africa is not new, but there are concerns that a worsening situation in Ethiopia could have repercussions throughout the region.
So far, Prime Minister Abiy remains in charge. But if that changes, the consequences could be catastrophic, Davison says.
“Any further fragmentation, let alone state collapse, would obviously be disastrous for the region given Ethiopia’s status in the Horn.
“It doesn’t seem imminent, but the increasing level of risk needs to be taken seriously.”
Tigray – the basics
Ethiopia is divided into 10 ethnically defined regional states described as largely autonomous, but with central institutions
In 2018, following anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed took over and introduced reforms
Powerful politicians in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost state, accused Abiy of trying to increase federal power
Relations deteriorated, and after the government accused Tigrayan rebels of attacking military bases, the Ethiopian military intervened in November.
Mr Abiy said the conflict ended at the end of November, but the fighting continued and escalated ahead of the national elections on June 21
Rebel forces loyal to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) capture regional capital Mekelle
Ethiopia calls for ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ in region – where 350,000 people are on the brink of famine