Outbursts of violence won’t let this decades-old conflict end
by PETER DOERRIE
Heavy fighting erupted between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces at their disputed border on June 12, with shelling continuing into Monday morning as both sides blamed each other for the return of hostilities.
Casualties are unknown, but given the use of heavy artillery fire from both sides, loss of life was likely unavoidable. Eritrea claims it killed more than 200 Ethiopian troops, but this number is impossible to verify.
The skirmish is only the latest incident between the two countries, which have been locked into a state of neither peace nor war since the end of the 1998-to-2000 border war.
The belligerent relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia date to the end of World War II, when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi successfully lobbied the Allies to place the former Italian colony of Eritrea under Ethiopian rule.
Eritrean resistance fighters waged an insurgency from 1962 onward, and later joined forces with Ethiopian rebels opposed to the Marxist Derg regime, which deposed and killed Selassi in 1974.
The insurgency ended in 1991, and after a referendum in 1993, Eritrea became fully independent. Shortly after that, the relationship between the regimes of both countries — which until recently had been brothers in arms — fell apart, with the undemarcated border between them serving as a flashpoint.
Sensing the opportunity to create a precedent, Eritrean forces invaded the disputed areas and adjacent Ethiopian territory in May 1998, triggering the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. A U.N. commission later found Eritrea responsible for the unprovoked outbreak of hostilities.
Ethiopian forces eventually beat back the offensive and by 2000 had nullified all Eritrean territorial gains — even penetrating deep into Eritrean lines. Eritrea’s failed gamble cost around 70,000 people their lives.
Both parties then agreed to a settlement through the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled that based on the available evidence, most of the disputed territory was part of Eritrea.
Despite having pledged to accept the ruling, the Ethiopian government refused to withdraw its forces, leading to a continued standoff and a series of incidents culminating in Sunday’s fighting.
Neither the Ethiopian nor the Eritrean side have shared any details regarding the clash, only providing vague statements and insisting on the responsibility of the other party for the violence.
The most compelling explanation, however, was provided by the online news site Gedab News and attributed to unnamed “credible” sources. According to that version, which reflects many of the interdependent and idiosyncratic aspects of the conflict, Eritrean soldiers triggered the skirmish by firing on deserters from their own ranks who tried fleeing to Ethiopian lines.
The deserters were most likely conscripts trying to escape Eritrea’s harsh military service. As War Is Boring has reported, military service in Eritrea is a form of slavery that exposes both male and female conscripts to incredible hardship and abuse.
Eritrean small arms fire directed at the deserters prompted return fire from members of armed Eritrean opposition groups, which control parts of the border region with support from Ethiopia. The Eritreans then escalated by firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at the rebels and advanced on their positions.
After a few hours, Ethiopian army troops joined the fighting, which escalated further to include heavy artillery bombardment. Ethiopia has weapons of both Western and Russian origin due to the country’s history of aligning with both the Soviet Union and the United States.
Due to the severity of the fighting, Ethiopia evacuated civilians from the area.
Shelling subsided by early Monday morning, with the front line having seemingly returned to the status quo. There are some fears that this incident might spark a return to war, but large-scale hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea are at this point unlikely.
Eritrea is simply not interested in renewed war, because it would almost certainly lose — and lose badly.
Ethiopia’s forces are better equipped, more motivated and more professional than their Eritrean counterparts. While large-scale fighting would claim thousands of lives on both sides, the Eritrean front would likely crumble within a matter of days.
The Ethiopian government, on the other hand, would find little goodwill internationally if it escalated the conflict. Its main ally, the United States, is primarily interested in stability in the region and counts on Ethiopia’s continued military engagement in Somalia, which might suffer during a war with Eritrea.
And the European Union, a key donor to Ethiopia, wouldn’t look kindly on the many thousands of additional refugees that a collapse of the Eritrean army and government would produce.
We’ve been here before.
There have been close to a dozen major clashes between the two countries since the war’s end in 2000. In the last major confrontation, Ethiopian forces attacked Eritrean army camps in 2012 after insurgents that the Ethiopian government claimed were sponsored by Eritrea crossed the border and killed five European tourists.
While these conditions make a further escalation of the conflict unlikely, they also undermine any long-term resolution.
With Eritrea unable to challenge Ethiopia militarily, and Ethiopia in a strong position internationally due to its alliance with Washington, there is little hope that the two countries will agree to the existing arbitration or allow new negotiations to take place.
Which means the standoff at the border will continue … as sporadic outbursts of violence.