Foreign Intercession in Somalia’s War Could Presage Foreign Free-for-All in Iraq

Ethiopia’s intervention this week to save the weak Somali government from defeat at the hands of Islamist rebels is typical of the apparently incompatible foreign, sectarian, religious and tribal elements involved in its neighbor’s civil war.
Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi says his forces have killed up to 1,000 Islamist fighters. After Ethiopian jets bombed two Somali airports Monday, Dec. 25, including Mogadishu airport where the Islamic militia had set up base, Addis Ababa vowed that within five days its army would clear the Islamic fighters out of every town they have captured since June.
The Ethiopians, whose forces are vastly superior to the Islamic militia in conventional terms, say they are fighting in self-defense against the threat of a holy war.
debkafile‘s intelligence and military sources tracking endemic Horn of Africa conflicts report that this statement comes nowhere near representing the complexity of the crisis, for which the UN Security Council has been called into emergency session Tuesday, Dec. 26.
Many of the foreign elements fighting on the side of the Islamic Courts militia were sent to Somalia by Christian-ruled Eritrea to harass its rival Christian power, Ethiopia.
The Eritreans are joined by fighters from pro-Western Muslim nations of the Middle East to help a jihadist militia with strong links to al Qaeda to displace the pro-Western, internationally recognized Somali government.
Some military experts see this sectarian mishmash as a dress rehearsal for the big show should the very powers supporting the Islamist Courts in Somali decide to intervene in Iraq to restore Sunni Arabs to power and cleanse Baghdad of Shiite rule and Iranian influence.
In five days, Ethiopian-backed government forces secured Burhakaba, 160 km west of Mogadishu, the strategically important towns on the Ethiopian border of Beledweyne and Bandiradley, and Dinsoor in central Somalia. They are also in control of Baidoa, to which the government was driven by the Islamist advance on Mogadishu.
The full-scale Ethiopian push this week was preceded by a small vanguard of special forces which have been operating in Somalia for the past six months.
Present there now is an Ethiopian armored division of 15,000 men with 120 tanks, mobile cannons and air force jets. From Monday, air strikes were carried out against Islamic bases across Somalia. The United Islamic Courts Militia’s fighters are reported to be in disordered retreat to the capital.
According to our military sources, they consist of thousands of Christian and Muslim Eritreans, Syrians, Libyans and Yemenis. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are supplying the UIC’s leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and “defense minister” Sheik Sharif Ahmed with funding and logistical assistance. It is rumored in Mogadishu that Egyptian intelligence officers are advising them on how to contend with Ethiopian armed forces.
How the Somali venture will turn out in the long term is hard to predict.
Even if Ethiopia’s military preponderance wins the day, the Islamists may resort to Iraq-style guerrilla warfare and progressively gather popular Somali support among coreligionists and non-Muslims to oust the Christian interloper.
The origins of the conflict hark back to rivalries in the Horn of Africa, which are complicated by broader Muslim Arab resentment of Christian rule in the region.
The Horn’ two predominantly Christian nations, Ethiopia with a population of 73 million and tiny Eritrea with 4.5 million – who are half-and-half Christian and Muslim, are at daggers drawn. Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean president Isaias Afworky are third cousins and sworn enemies.
Their enmity has led them into four major confrontations in four years.
Afworky never accepted Eritrea’s defeat in 2004 at the end of its long war with Ethiopia. He ignited the Somali conflict as part of a grand plan to overcome his military inferiority by guile and subversion. The Eritrean ruler is well regarded by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic tribe, the Oromo, which form 40% of the population. To stir up the Oromo’s secessionist aspirations, the Eritreans established the Oromo Liberation Front-OLF, which Afworky eggs on to fight the Addis Ababa government from a base in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
Then, five months ago, Afworky persuaded a large group of high-ranking Ethiopian military commanders, members of the Oromo tribe, to defect to Eritrea. He took their advice on ways to topple his third cousin in Addis Ababa and launched three fronts:
1. He laid on a supply of Eritrean arms, funds, logistical assistance and intelligence to the Oromo Liberation Front.
2. He furnished the same assistance to the Ogaden National Liberation Front. This group represents the 1.5 million Muslim tribesmen who inhabit the 200,000-square-kilometer desert region. Ogaden wound up as “Italian Somaliland under Ethiopian Control” (a reminder of the Italian colonizers driven out in World War II), after wars between Somalia and Ethiopia which continued from the 1970s.
Ethiopia prizes Ogaden as the corridor to its only outlet to the sea at the big port of Djibouti, which sits astride the point where the Indian Ocean converges with the Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
The struggle for control of the strategic Ogaden is never-ending and beats strongly in Ethiopia’s backing for the Somali government against the Islamic Courts militias.
The IUC aspires to establish a Muslim Greater Somalia extending into Ethiopia and Kenya. Addis Ababa’s Christian rulers fear that if the IUC gains power in Somalia and wins control over the Muslim tribes of Ogaden through the militant National Liberation Front, the militia will have the power to sever Ethiopia from its desert corridor to the coast, and establish al Qaeda in bases on the border of Christian Ethiopia.
Afworky backs a third group, the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front – EPPF, which wages guerrilla warfare against what it calls the “dictatorial, repressive regime of Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa.” This small group operates in the north in the Emien Gondar and Amhara regions.
All three groups have been primed by the Eritrean president to rise up against his cousin’s regime in Addis Ababa when the Ethiopian army is fully engaged in Somalia. Their mission is to cut his supply lines and force his armed forces to withdraw from Somalia in order to put down their uprisings and save his regime.
Afworky is gambling heavily on this plan. Asked if he is not afraid of a Somali Islamist victory bringing al Qaeda to his own doorstep, he replies unhesitatingly that American and French military forces are deployed between Eritrea’s borders and Somalia for the very purpose of combating al Qaeda’s penetration of the Horn of Africa.
And what has led the canny Saudi king Abdullah, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi along with Syria and Yemen to dip their hands in the Somali cauldron and back the radical Islamic Courts revolutionaries? Their involvement in the Horn of Africa harks back to old enmities between the Muslim nations of the region and Christian Ethiopia, which also controls the sources of the Nile. However, their willingness – even after 9/11 and five years into the global war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe and Asia – to range behind the Somali Islamists and let them establish a new al Qaeda stronghold, is not good news for Washington. It could be an advance signal of their intentions to step into the Iraq conflict if the fate of the Sunni Arab minority is at stake.

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