A massacre in Somalia by U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces has set off a political realignment against the Ethiopian invaders and the Somali government they installed last January.
Four days of attacks, beginning March 29, killed as many as 1,000 civilians in the capital of Mogadishu. The Ethiopians, backed by their allies in Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), used tanks, helicopter gunships and artillery to demolish nearly four square miles of the city — neighborhoods housing Somali subclans that support militias opposed to the invasion.
Ten thousand residents fled during the attacks — on top of the 100,000 who had left since February. Doctors Without Borders reported Mogadishu’s largest outbreak of cholera in 15 years, and UN officials warned of a humanitarian catastrophe for the country’s internally displaced people, who now number half a million.
The TFG, whose leadership is skewed to favor Somalia’s northern Darod clan, was already splintering before this act of ethnic cleansing. But the slaughter sparked a key defection from the government — Hussein Aideed, a deputy prime minister who belongs to one of the targeted subclans.
Aideed made a joint statement against the occupation April 18 alongside Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, leader of the moderate wing of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) — the group ousted in January by Ethiopia’s invasion. Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, the former speaker of the TFG parliament, joined in the statement, which called for a common Somali front to force out the Ethiopians. Unlike Aideed, Aden was always opposed to the invasion and favored talks with the UIC moderates. For these reasons, TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf demoted him in January.
Hussein Aideed, a member of the Hawiye clan that dominates Mogadishu, is the son of Muhammad Farah Aideed — the bogeyman who haunted the U.S.-led UN occupation of Somalia from 1992 to 1994.
Educated in the U.S., Hussein entered Somalia in the 1990s as a Marine. He stayed to become a warlord, like his father, and got rich turning Somali acacia forests into charcoal for export. He posed as a U.S.-friendly powerbroker in a country that has lacked a central government since the 1991 fall of its U.S-backed dictator, Siad Barre.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Aideed became a CIA informant in the “war on terror” — and may be the responsible for making some of the currently unsubstantiated claims that the UIC harbored al-Qaeda kingpins. The charges of al-Qaeda infiltration were the propaganda cover for Ethiopia and their U.S. backers to install the TFG.
Amnesty International reports that more than 80 Somali men, women and children are still locked up without charge as “terror suspects” in secret jails in Ethiopia. They were captured by U.S.-trained Kenyan border security forces in January and February.
The detainees were fleeing a region where Ethiopian tanks were advancing and the U.S. carried out air strikes to assassinate supposed al-Qaeda leaders — but instead killed 70 Somali herdsman, according to the aid agency Oxfam.
Despite his checkered past, Aideed, together with his two new anti-Ethiopian allies, has deeper roots in the southern capital area than the TFG. The three could represent the face of a future Somali government. If so, it would be a coup for Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, who brokered the discussions among the new allies and hosted the announcement of the alliance in Eritrea’s capital of Asmara. Just weeks ago, it seemed like Ethiopia and the U.S. were succeeding in installing a Somali government to their liking. Now Isaias could end up being the kingmaker.
Eritrea, a breakaway province of Ethiopia and now its regional rival, has a longstanding border dispute with Ethiopia that broke out into war in 1998. It is a one-party state with anti-imperial pretensions left over from its rebel days. Once supported by the U.S. when the USSR was aligned with Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eritrea has since become estranged from Washington, and the U.S. government supports Ethiopia’s border claims.
In the past two weeks, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer stepped up her invective against Isaias for “supporting terror.” Although Eritrea is a secular, mixed-religion state, it has had ties to Somalia’s Islamic courts movement — in part to keep Ethiopia tied down in the south, away from the border with Eritrea.
The appearance of Aden and Aideed in Asmara, however, changes Eritrea’s role, increases its regional stature, and raises the stakes for the U.S. if Frazer and Bush continue on their belligerent course.
In other circumstances, Bush might want to escalate the conflict into a regional war, but the U.S. is already overextended by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And because Mogadishu is still a battleground — with 130 more Somalis killed last week — the Ethiopian invasion force can’t count on African Union members sending troops to relieve them. Only close U.S. ally Uganda has sent troops so far.
The U.S. may hope to arrange a face-saving settlement to allow Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi to declare victory before retreating. It’s conceivable that the U.S. would put its blessing on a Somali government that includes moderate Islamists, and draws a line against UIC militants. Some in the administration seem to have favored this course all along.
But the separation of the UIC’s two wings may be impossible to achieve, since they are currently united in a common front against Ethiopia and the TFG.
For these reasons, the conflict may grind on. The Ethiopians can’t simply retreat, since the Yusuf government — the one they want — would collapse without its support.
But if the realignment of Somali forces takes hold, conditions are not stalemated. Things are moving against the U.S. and Ethiopia. Even if they have many more cards to play, the invaders seem to have a losing hand.