Eritrea Recalibrates Somalia Policy

A new UN monitoring report gives fresh and detailed evidence of Eritrea’s support for Somali armed opposition groups. Eritrea says its intentions are misunderstood, but the country has found itself on a dead-end road and is now forced to recalibrate its policy, Georg-Sebastian Holzer writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Georg-Sebastian Holzer for ISN Security Watch

From Eritrea’s point of view, it might all look like a huge misunderstanding. Asmara considers its political, financial and military support for armed opposition groups in Somalia as a legitimate counterbalance to its archenemy, Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia in late 2006 with the consent and active help of the US, thereby shifting the balance of power in the region.

Subsequently, Ethiopia found itself entangled in a counterinsurgency it proved incapable of winning and has since backed the second Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu, which in the meantime also appears doomed to fail, having lost all its political capital and being unable to expand its control beyond the immediate surroundings of the presidential palace in the capital.

Eritrea might also consider its actions as justifiable at a time when an increasing number of regional and western experts are saying that the war on terror in Somalia was a self-fulfilling prophecy and the current exclusive assistance to and backing of the TFG might not be the winning formula to solve or even contain the civil war.

But that is not how the international public, at large, sees things in terms of Eritrea’s contribution to the ongoing insurgency. Eritrea has failed to grasp that a different consensus on the conflict in Somalia has emerged in the wider region, not least with respect to its role in the conflict. But as often the case, totalitarian political systems find it hard to adapt to new developments or to communicate their own views and interests.

In fact, Eritrea made headlines last year as the world’s second most militarized country after North Korea. Moreover, it was given last place in the World Press Freedom Index and was said to have created one of the highest numbers of refugees of any country in the world not at war with its population of 5 million. The thousands fleeing the country were simply “going for a picnic” as President Isaias Afewerki explained in a Reuters interview in October.

Caught off guard

Afewerki, Eritrea’s president since 1993 and leader of the independence movement, was subsequently caught off guard when the African Union (AU), in an unprecedented step, asked the UN Security Council to sanction the country, an AU member, late last year. This incident could not solely be attributed to Ethiopia’s growing influence in the Union.

In December, the UNSC imposed limited sanctions on arms sales to Eritrea and laid the groundwork for sanctions against some of its officials by expanding the mandate of the Somalia Monitoring Group to Eritrea in order to get a clearer picture of Asmara’s involvement in Somalia.

On 5 March, Africa Confidential cited diplomatic sources as saying that the Somalia Monitoring Group had already recommended in mid-2009 that Eritrea’s intelligence chief Colonel Te’ame Goitom, Public Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed and the head of political affairs for the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice Yemane Gebreab be designated for sanctions.

The Somalia Monitoring Group reports became the most authoritative documents on Somalia since the US successfully lobbied for Matt Bryden, the renowned regional expert and former director of the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project in Nairobi, to become the group’s new coordinator in 2008. Recent death threats against the five-member monitoring group investigating the links between Somali businessmen and armed opposition groups are an indicator of their in-depth work.

Substantiated allegations

According to the most recent report by the Somalia Monitoring Group discussed on 16 March at the UNSC, “the Government of Eritrea has continued to provide political, diplomatic, financial and – allegedly – military assistance to armed opposition groups in Somalia during the course of the mandate.”

The report describes in detail Asmara’s already well-known role in hosting the senior leadership of the Alliance for the Reliberation of Asmara (ARS)/ARS-Asmara, between November 2007 and April 2009. It details how Asmara facilitated the formation of a new opposition alliance, Hizbul Islam, headed by Hassan Dahir Aweys.

In addition, it describes how Eritrea’s government facilitated the return of Aweys to Mogadishu on 23 April 2009, including an obscure chartered airline story, to assume the leadership of Hizbul Islam and prepare for the movement’s joint al-Shabaab offensive of May 2009.

Asmara’s support included all major armed opposition groups from ARS Asmara, Hizbul Islam to al-Shabaab. The report points out that in addition to military and diplomatic support, Eritrea has consistently provided financial support to the armed groups, with monthly payments to each group in the order of $40,000-$50,000, plus additional funds for large-scale operations.

“Provision of cash permits armed opposition groups to purchase weapons from government forces, thereby arming themselves while disarming their adversaries,” the report stated.

The report points out four high-ranking opposition figures who received such cash contributions during the course of 2009 to show the widespread reach of Asmara’s support for armed opposition groups in Somalia. They include Yusuf Mohamed Siyaad ‘Indha’adde’ (ARS-Asmara, central regions, subsequently joined the TFG as defense minister); Issa ‘Kaambooni’ (Raas Kaambooni forces, Lower Juba region, arrested in Kenya late in 2009); Mukhtar Roobow (al-Shabaab, Bay and Bakool regions); and Mohamed Wali Sheikh Ahmed Nuur (Hizbul Islam, Gedo region).

“Eritrea continues to send arms to Somalia in small vessels via the northern Somali port of Laasqoray for onward shipment to Shabaab forces in southern Somalia,” according to their sources. “In May 2009, Eritrea allegedly sent Ukrainian-made small arms and anti-tank weapons to Hizbul Islam via the port of Kismaayo.”

In addition, Eritrea also maintains training camps for Somalia’s armed opposition groups near Assab in eastern Eritrea as well as near Teseney to the west, at times even deploying trainers and/or military advisers inside Somalia to assist armed opposition groups.

Successful international pressure?

Eritrea’s line of defense is to strictly reject all allegations and demand hard evidence. While some analysts fear that the current sanctions might further alienate Afewerki and exacerbate his sense of isolation, Asmara is already recalibrating its policy toward Somalia despite the rhetoric distractions.

According to the Monitoring Group, “By late 2009, possibly in response to international pressure, the scale and nature of Eritrean support had either diminished or become less visible, but had not altogether ceased.”

Another explanation might yet be as persuasive: Eritrea’s links to all major Somalia armed opposition groups have become an increasing liability to the country’s interest.

A good example is the senior al-Shabaab official Sheikh Mukhtar Robow publicly declaring to send fighters to Yemen to help al-Qaida there in its fight against foreign forces at the end of last year. Even though this was only a propaganda move, it endangered Eritrea’s relations with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which is why Afewerki was quick in criticizing and distancing himself from al-Shabaab’s move.

In addition, al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam are not only split by clan and sub-clan divisions, but persistently fight over strategic installations such as the port of Kismayo, from which revenues are an important income for Somalia’s war economy. In an environment in which ideology and alliances come second to money, Asmara realized it could quickly find itself caught between two forces in trying to support the major armed opposition groups in the country.

As Eritrea has no genuine political interests in Somalia but sees it as a mere battle ground to counterbalance Ethiopia and engage in a proxy war on Somali soil, it finds it easier than Ethiopia to recalibrate its policy. Hence, Asmara downscaled its support and shifted it to Hizbul Islam, in which it sees an ideologically less radical actor with whom it might be easier to deal.

In the end, Asmara would like to have its stake in a potential political settlement in Mogadishu, whatever that might look like. Taking into consideration Asmara’s past inability to communicate with regional and international actors in Somalia, this might well remain wishful thinking.

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Posted by on Mar 18 2010 Filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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