Storm​ ​Clouds​ ​Over​ ​Somalia​ ​As​ ​Rivals​ ​Prepare​ ​For Battle
Storm​ ​Clouds​ ​Over​ ​Somalia​ ​As​ ​Rivals​ ​Prepare​ ​For Battle
Somalia’s clan offensive is gaining ground against Al-Shabaab
Somalia’s clan offensive is gaining ground against Al-Shabaab
Op-Ed / Africa

Storm​ ​Clouds​ ​Over​ ​Somalia​ ​As​ ​Rivals​ ​Prepare​ ​For Battle

Full-scale war in Somalia is not yet inevitable: there is still time for both sides to step back from the brink, says Matt Bryden

Across the Horn of Africa people have been praying for a change in the weather. Unseasonably heavy rains have flooded low-lying areas, washing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Dozens have died, most drowned, some were eaten by crocodiles. Now, as the skies begin to clear and the flood waters recede, Somalia faces the prospect of an even greater calamity: war - on an unprecedented scale.

Outside the shabby town of Baidoa in south central Somalia, a few kilometres of muddy soil are all that separates the forces of Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and their Ethiopian allies from the fighters of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, which now controls most of south-central Somalia. After months of preparations and posturing, both sides are now poised for a decisive battle. The only thing keeping the peace has been the rain.

As Somalia's savannah returns to its usual parched and dusty state, the spark that sets the land aflame may have been struck yesterday in New York, where the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a draft resolution to authorise regional military intervention in Somalia. The purpose of the Security Council's decision is ostensibly to strengthen the TFG, deter the Courts from further expansion and avert a war. It is likely to achieve precisely the opposite results.

Afraid of Courts?

Both sides in the looming conflict paint their confrontation in ideological terms. The TFG and Ethiopia have cast Somalia as an emerging front in the Global War on Terror in order to attract support from Western capitals - notably Washington and London. Likewise, the Courts have attracted sympathy from across the Muslim world by portraying themselves as victims of Ethiopian aggression and Western Islamophobia.

These cliched representations of the situation are likely to prove self-fulfilling prophecies if non-Somali forces actually join the battle. But until that moment comes, the threat that the Courts actually represent to the region is more prosaic in nature.

First, the Courts have revived the pan-Somali nationalist sentiment that, between 1960 and 1978, caused three wars between Ethiopia and Somalia, a long-running insurgency in north eastern Kenya and a short-lived urban guerrilla campaign in Djibouti. On November 17, Courts chairman Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys forcefully reiterated that position in an interview, asserting: "We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia."

Second, the Courts have hosted and supported Ethiopian rebel groups - namely the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) since at least March 2005. Since October 2006, the ONLF and the Courts claim to have been co-ordinating military operations inside Ethiopia. The Courts leaders probably feel that such actions are justified by the presence of Ethiopian troops on Somali soil, but they have never indicated whether the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops would be matched by suspension of support for cross-border insurgents.

Third, and perhaps most serious, are the Courts' alleged links to terrorism. Addis Ababa holds Sheikh Aweys and other senior figures of the Courts Council to be responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in Ethiopia between 1995-6. Other members of the Courts have been linked to the murders of Western aid workers, journalists and Somali civil society leaders in Somaliland and Mogadishu.

And the US government, among others, believes that elements of the Courts are sheltering transnational terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda responsible for major terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. Courts leaders have been dismissive of these allegations.

Last weekend in Djibouti, the Courts signed a communiqu with the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) that spoke for the first time to these concerns. They promised to respect the territorial integrity of Somalia's neighbours, deny sanctuary to insurgent groups, and condemned all acts of terrorism. It remains to be seen whether they are willing and able to deliver on those commitments.

It is tempting to view the looming conflict as simply another chapter in Somalia's seemingly interminable civil wars, but the current dynamics are far more complex and the potential consequences more dire than in the past. This time, the stability and security of the entire Horn of Africa, not only of Somalia, are at stake.

At its most parochial level, the current confrontation is a grudge match between two old foes who have clashed before. TFG President Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed and Courts chairman Sheikh Aweys, both former Colonels, last fought each other in a vicious campaign in northeast Somalia in 1992. Yusuf's militias decimated Aweys's al-Itihaad forces and expelled them from the region.

Perhaps inevitably for Somalia, the situation also involves a clan dimension. For many Somalis, the conflict conjures up memories of the early days of the civil war, when Hawiye and Darod clan militias engaged in bloody clashes from Kismayo to Gaalka'yo. In much of Somalia, the Courts are perceived simply as a vehicle for Hawiye clan interests. Conversely, President Yusuf, a Darod, is widely believed among the Hawiye to seek revenge against their clan.

But clan dynamics, though relevant, fail to capture the Courts' national character and ambitions. The militant wing of the Courts, known as the Shabaab, includes Somalis from most major clans and is determined to wage "jihad" until very corner of Somalia falls under their control. This poses a direct challenge to the stability of Puntland (an autonomous region in northeast Somalia) and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which possesses a functioning constitutional democracy and seeks recognition as an independent state.

Not for the first time, the Ethio-Eritrean border dispute has spilled over into Somalia. In 1998-9, Ethiopia helped the Rahanweyne Resistance Army in its struggle against the Eritrean-backed forces of Hussein Aideed. Today, Eritrean support for the Courts, and indirectly for the ONLF and OLF, has prompted Ethiopia to augment its military presence on both sides of the Ethio-Somali administrative boundary. (Much of the frontier between Ethiopia and Somalia is disputed, making it a provisional boundary rather than an international border.)

Several thousand Ethiopian troops are already deployed in Somalia, most of them dug in around the TFG seat at Baidoa. Ethiopian troops have also deployed in strength to Gaalka'yo in support of the Puntland administration and heavy fighting broke out there on Tuesday morning.

Eritrea has reportedly sent several hundred troops and trainers, as well as considerable quantities of arms, to prepare the Courts for its confrontation with Ethiopia. If true, the Eritreans bring with them not only weapons, but also an invaluable first-hand experience of Ethiopian capabilities and tactics. Eritrea also hosts and trains forces from the OLF and ONLF, so its relationship with the Courts is doubly irksome for Addis Ababa.

Complicated position

Other Igad countries are lukewarm about the prospects for military intervention in Somalia. Kampala has offered troops for the proposed regional military force, IGASOM, but frequent reports that Ugandan troops are already on the ground in Somalia have been rejected by President Yoweri Museveni and triggered a heated debate in Parliament.

Kenya is in a more complicated position. Having hosted the peace talks that led to the formation of the TFG, Kenya feels a natural loyalty towards its political progeny. But this loyalty has so far been directed more towards president Yusuf and his government than towards the full set of institutions established through the peace talks.

As a result, the Kenyan government often seems to be more in tune with Addis Ababa's interests than its own. Although reluctant to send its own troops to Somalia as part of IGASOM, Kenya's role as standard bearer for regional intervention has gravely damaged its claim to neutrality between the TFG and the Courts.

In addition to the immediate neighbours, the confrontation between the TFG and Courts has begun to attract the attention of a wider range of actors from the Arab and Muslim worlds. An October 2006 report by a group of UN experts accuses Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Iran - among others - of providing military support to the Courts. Although some of the allegations lacked credibility and the countries involved have denied the allegations, the report gives a largely accurate account of the growing internationalisation of the Somali crisis.

Moreover, several hundred foreign jihadis from across the Islamic world have already volunteered their services in support of the Courts, and in July, Osama bin Laden raised the profile of the Courts' cause when he issued a statement warning the West not to send troops to Somalia.

When President Yusuf called for 20,000 foreign troops following his election in October 2004, his appeal met with surprise and bemusement. In early 2005, however, Igad's defence ministers approved a more modest plan for a regional intervention force to be known as IGASOM. Despite endorsement by the African Union, the proposal failed to win the backing of the UN Security Council, which feared that IGASOM might make the Somali situation worse, not better.

For over a year and a half, the deployment plan has been gathering dust. But in recent weeks, the notion of a protection force for the Transitional Federal Government was given a new lease on life by the US-sponsored resolution at the UN Security Council that now awaits implementation.

Within Somalia, the IGASOM proposal is widely perceived as a smokescreen for Ethiopian intervention and thus deeply unpopular. When first presented to Parliament in March 2005, the deployment plan proved so divisive that it triggered a brawl in the assembly and failed to pass. The Courts have threatened to wage jihad against any foreign troops on Somali soil, and it's likely that many ordinary Somalis will rally to their cause.

IGASOM has proved no less controversial outside Somalia. Igad itself is evenly divided over the proposal, with three members of the organisation - Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan - opposed and the other three - Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda - in favour. How, in such circumstances, the deployment plan can still be described as an Igad proposal is a measure of just how dysfunctional the organisation's Somalia policy has become.

The UN Security Council has also found the IGASOM proposal hard to swallow, coming as it does on the heels of a report by a group of UN arms embargo monitors that warned specifically of the dangers of deploying a regional force and called for tightening of the arms embargo. Having consistently opposed the plan for over a year and a half, Washington's sudden about-face failed, until this week, to persuade other Security Council members that they should do likewise.

The British refused to co-sponsor the draft, which sparked large anti-American demonstrations in Mogadishu over the past week, unless the frontline states - Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya - were specifically barred from sending troops, and the French proposed radical amendments to the American text. Although the resolution finally adopted by the Council has been significantly watered down in recent days, it has already elicited a negative reaction in Mogadishu, with the Courts warning that they will fight any peacekeepers sent to the country.

Full-scale war in Somalia is not yet inevitable: there is still time for both sides to step back from the brink, return to peace talks in Khartoum and conclude a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. Unfortunately, both sides seem committed to a test of military strength.

If war does erupt, it is likely to prove messy and inconclusive. With or without IGASOM's military support, the TFG will remain ineffectual and unpopular. Even if defeated on the field of battle, the Courts' political and economic strongholds in Mogadishu and Kismayo will remain intact, allowing them to regenerate and re-arm.

Planning for Peace

If peace is to prevail, this situation requires urgent international attention. As a party to the conflict, Igad may no longer be in a position to play peacemaker. Instead, the Arab League and the African Union must begin working now towards a joint mechanism for securing and policing a ceasefire agreement. The diplomatic architecture of the peace process must provide scope for regional security concerns about the Courts' intentions to be brought to the table. And the transitional process envisioned in the Transitional Federal Charter must be retooled to reflect new realities on the ground.

A lasting peace can only be achieved at the negotiating table, and there is no point in waiting until the guns fall silent to begin preparing. Planning for peace must begin now.

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