This week the World Wide Web was awash with an Ethio-Eritrean matter. Conflict, that is. The only mutual agenda the two had for a decade and a half.
Last Sunday, the two countries clashed on the border. It was deemed one of the biggest since the end of the 1998-2000 war.
True to character, both left the world pretty much in the dark regarding the cause and result of the conflict. The motive behind the conflict? That is always for analysts to sort out.
After days of inquiry and reflection, we present here what we know and what we think we know.
1/The flash point
The major fighting started last Sunday at dawn around 5 am local time in Tsorena (Tserona) area, as HornAffairs reported that day. It went on most of the day – at least until 6:30 pm. There were also fighting around mid-night and on Monday morning.
We had accurately listed the areas as Akran, Kolo berendo, Kinin and Kinito. However, the general name Tsorena could be misleading since the Eritrean town by that name is several kilometers to the north of the clash point.
Tsorena is a reference to the general area that was also one of the flash points during the 1998-2000 war. It was in that sense both HornAffairs and the Eritrean foreign ministry used the name Tsorena. See the map below.
2/ What triggered the clash?
As stated above, the main clash was last Sunday from 5 am and nightfall. However, we learned later that heavy artillery shelling was heard as far as Zal Ambesa town on Saturday night. That makes it difficult to weigh the diverse hypothesis floated regarding what might have triggered the clash.
The first hypothesis – which we mentioned last Sunday – was an alleged attack on Ethiopian troops while the latter were holding a football match among Brigades. Even though we had noted the time of the match was not clear, the Eritrean Information Minister mocked us on twitter saying: << [they] claimed that its troops were attacked by Eritrea while “playing football” (at 5:a.m.?) >>
As we indicated on the subsequent news post, the brigade-level football match took place about ten days earlier. Yet, an informal game at 5 am would still be plausible.
The second hypothesis came from Gedab news (Awate). It claimed: “the shoot-out between Eritrean and Ethiopian border-patrol soldiers of last weekend was triggered when some of Eritrea’s conscripted soldiers crossed the border to Ethiopia, were shot at by Eritrean soldiers, and members of armed Eritrean opposition groups hosted by Ethiopia returned fire.”
While this hypothesis is plausible, it is curious why Wogaheta radio, a radio service in Mekelle, Tigray, dedicated to Eritrean opposition, did not seem aware of the clash until Monday.
It remains uncertain whether the clash had an immediate trigger and which side was responsible for it.
Yet, we can conclude: Either it was Ethiopia who started it (without an immediate provocation) or took it beyond the usual scale of response (even if triggered by an Eritrean action).
This conclusion is compatible with various accounts we have heard since Sunday, including the version of the Ethiopian government.
3/ Who lost this round?
On Thursday, the Eritrean foreign ministry issued a press release claiming: “TPLF troops were compelled to retreat to locations beyond from where they initially unleashed the attack. In this reckless attack whose ultimate aim is difficult to comprehend, more than 200 TPLF troops have been killed and more than 300 wounded. These are conservative estimates.”
[TPLF is a regional party running Tigray region and one of the four parties that make up the ruling party EPRDF]
We find the statement implausible.
First, as HornAffairs reported on Monday evening, Ethiopian troops advanced a few kilometers and captured a low-lying area located between their positions. In light of the importance of the place, we do not believe they would relinquish it anytime soon. Nor was there a significant counter attack since Monday that could force them to.
Second, for anyone who carefully read the tone and sequence of the five statements Asmara issued between Sunday and Friday, the distress is evident. Take the first statement; it was issued on Sunday about 15 minutes before midnight. This is highly unusual for a regime that chose to remain quite duringprevious incidents.
It appears the first statement was an SOS to the world. The subsequent two statements – issued after fighting stopped – were aimed at calming and reassuring its officers and supporters. The last two statements were probably meant to prevent whatever Addis Ababa may be cooking or to capitalize the usual victim-hood narrative.
Bottom line: Our initial report that the Eritrean troops lost the afore-mentioned location was correct. And they didn’t recover it.
As usual, neither side is providing reliable information or access to media. However, HornAffairs believes to have a reasonable estimate.
We have learned Ethiopia had four regiments near the clash point, while the Eritrean side engaged three regiments.
HornAffairs was able to confirm from multiple sources that about 60 Ethiopian soldiers received medical treatment for battle injuries. Using the standard assumption that there would be a 1:3 or 1:2 ratio between killed and wounded, we assume 20-30 Ethiopian soldiers were killed.
We were not able to get an exact figure on Eritrean causality. However, we learned from Ethiopian sources that two Eritrean regiments were “almost destroyed.”
Of course, we also heard higher claims but this one appears plausible. It is also compatible with our initial information that a mechanized company in charge of the captured location had surrendered and that ranking officers were captured. It was also deemed credible by people with military experience in the area whom HornAffairs consulted.
A typical Eritrean regiment is estimated to have about 450 personnel or three company. Therefore, two regiments were “almost destroyed” would mean that the personnel of the two regiments were killed, injured and captured, yet a sizable number might have retreated.
HornAffairs have also confirmed the chief of one regiment was captured. One source told us his military rank is Colonel but we were not able to verify. The captive told Ethiopian officers that he was a veteran of the armed struggle for the secession of Eritrea and later retired but recently summoned to lead the frontline regiment.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Asmara and Addis Ababa had sent a note to the two governments reminding their obligation to provide access to Prisoners of War if there are any, our sources disclosed. Neither government responded to ICRC so far.
Several theories have been floated on why either side would want this clash.
The first theory was that it was another skirmish accidentally escalated. However, the various factors we mentioned above do not give that impression. At any rate, it does not answer the legitimate question “why an accidental escalation this time”?
The second, perhaps popular, theory was diversion. For example, the Daily Mavrik suggested that the clash was a “weapon of mass distraction” that served both sides divert attention from a bad week. According to him, Ethiopia may want to divert attention from the clash with Al-Shabaab in the previous week. However, the hypothesis was based on Al Shabaab’s claim of kill which no one corroborated.
Several analysts floated the hypothesis that Eritrea might want the clash to divert from the report of the UN Inquiry Commission, which accused the regime of crimes against humanity. Indeed, the news of the clash helps Asmara shift the spotlight from its human rights record. Or, at least serves as a showcase of the “threat from Ethiopia”- which Asmara cites as a cause and justification for all sorts of things.
However, the Atlantic Council – sympathetic to the Asmaran regime, argues: “the Eritrean regime has little to gain from contributing to a media narrative that is already focused on its “bad behavior” at home and in the Horn…If anything, media headlines about the border are likely to draw more attention to the crimes against humanity charges, by keeping Eritrea’s affairs in the news.”
The third explanation is the one suggested by the Ethiopian government. The Communication Minister – after claiming it was triggered by Eritrean action – suggested it was “to give a lesson”, “was a proportionate response” and “was a deterrent” to Asmara. Nonetheless, Eritrea has been accused of more serious misdeeds than whatever happened in the weekend. For example, just in the past few months, it was accused of the abduction of Ethiopians from border areas andthe deployment of the Asmara-linked Ginbot 7 group in southern Ethiopia. Neither case prompted a military response. Thus, leaving the question why nowunanswered.
There is one more hypothesis that is worth considering.
Despite the scathing report from the Inquiry Commission, there is no guarantee the westerners will step up pressure on Asmara. If anything, it appears the westerners are warming up into the idea of extending a lifeline to President Isaias Afeworki. The Gulf nations’ embrace of Asmara, as member of their anti-Iran coalition – probably with a nod from Washington – is uncomfortable for Addis Ababa. The Europeans plan to increase aid to Eritrea so as to curb refugee flow is another development that undermines Ethiopia’s policy.
The threat this poses to Ethiopia’s ruling party cannot be overstated. It is a factor often overlooked by analysts.
“The Asmaran regime is dying” is virtually the only point concurrence that makes the status-quo acceptable for various groups. Any sign of revival will put the current strategy into question and brings serious questions to the fore. Not to forget, President Isaias will certainly step up his support to Ethiopian rebels.
Addis Ababa simply cannot afford this.
Yet, persuasion might not help change the direction of things. The Ethiopian government cannot cite its internal political dynamics to lobby for a sanction on Eritrea. Whereas, the anti-Iranian coalition, the refugee crisis, and the declining links between Asmara and Al-Shabaab are unhelpful to Ethiopia’s argument. The possibility of sending Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the westerners could have endorsed, is undermined by Ethiopia’s and AU’s campaign against the later.
Then, what is better way to drive the message home than a military action and visible troop mobilization?
A while ago, a western Ambassador sympathetic to Eritrea commented in private, “your government is very articulate and amenable to reason on most issues. But when it comes to Eritrea, they are obstinate and irrational. They block everything making it a national security matter.” Translation: we could not convince them into endorsing any engagement with Eritrea.
Perhaps, “we will rock the boat” was the message of last weekend to the West and the Saudis.
*HornAffairs is a multi-lingual online magazine and a collaborative blog focusing the Horn of Africa.