U.S. officials have done almost everything in their power to try and stop the fighting. Now they’re urging Americans to leave the country as rebels draw closer to the capital.
November 6, 2021
Visa bans. Trade restrictions. Threats of economic sanctions. And visit after visit from top emissaries, including a U.S. senator bearing a message from President Joe Biden.
For a year, U.S. officials have used these and other instruments in their diplomacy toolbox to persuade, push and pressure Ethiopiaís government and rebel forces to end a vicious civil war believed to have killed thousands of people, left hundreds of thousands starving and displaced millions.
But nothing is working. And things are getting worse.
In recent days, several rebel groups are reported to have formed an alliance while heading toward Addis Ababa, the bustling capital of Ethiopia and the headquarters of the African Union. They threaten to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose troops now stand suspected of war crimes. State Department officials, fresh off dealing with the chaos in Afghanistan, are now urging Americans in Ethiopia to leave while also scaling back embassy staffing there.
The fighting in the once relatively stable country of 115 million people, one of Africaís most populous, is testing Bidenís ďdiplomacy firstĒ approach to foreign affairs. The results so far underscore just how limited Americaís non-military tools can be when it comes to ending overseas conflicts, especially when a U.S. military role is not a realistic option and wouldnít necessarily help anyway.
The Biden administrationís policy, in the words of a senior State Department official, is running smack into the reality that the parties to the conflict, including Abiy, appear ďrigidĒ and ďunmovable.Ē And, in all fairness, the ultimate responsibility for ending the civil war and the humanitarian disaster it has spawned falls on the Ethiopians fighting it, not on the United States.
Still, Biden aides keep calling for ceasefires and peace talks, despite ample evidence that the battling parties are not buying the U.S. refrain that there is ďno military solutionĒ to the conflict.
ďWith the safety and security of millions in the balance, and more than 900,000 facing conflict-induced famine-like conditions, we prevail upon all forces to lay down their arms and open dialogue to maintain the unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state,Ē Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Thursday.
U.S. lawmakers, too, are stepping up their role. A bipartisan set of prominent U.S. senators this week unveiled legislation that, among other things, mandates sanctions on individuals involved in the conflict.
Among the billís authors is Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and Biden confidant with history of interest in African issues. Earlier this year, Coons went to Ethiopia to meet with Abiy, delivering a letter from Biden. But his peacemaking efforts have been stifled.
ďOne year into this brutal and tragic conflict, Ethiopia is facing a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe and spreading civil war,Ē Coons said in a statement Thursday. He said the new legislation will ďpunish actors that continue to fuel violence, violate human rights, and undermine a democratic, peaceful, and unified Ethiopia.Ē
Exception to the African Rule
Africa hands often complain about how little attention the continentís 50-plus countries receive in Washington. Even when African states do get the notice of U.S. officials and media, itís often through the lens of power plays in another part of the world, such as the Middle East or China.
But the conflict in Ethiopia has been an exception: It has received significant, high-level attention from U.S. officials for many months. In May, for instance, Biden took the unusual step of issuing†a standalone statement about Ethiopia, saying he was ďdeeply concerned.Ē
ďThe United States urges Ethiopiaís leaders and institutions to promote reconciliation, human rights, and respect for pluralism,Ē Biden said. ďDoing so will preserve the unity and territorial integrity of the state, and ensure the protection of the Ethiopian people and the delivery of urgently needed assistance.Ē
The current fighting is rooted in a political dispute between Abiy and the Tigray Peopleís Liberation Front, the political faction that dominates the Tigray region in Ethiopiaís north, along the Eritrean border. That party was a huge force in Ethiopian politics for decades until it was sidelined a few years ago in events that brought to power Abiy and his supporters.
Abiy took office in 2018, later winning the Nobel for ending a lengthy territorial dispute with neighboring Eritrea. His various political reforms and other moves didnít, however, lead to harmony with the TPLF. Fighting between TPLF forces and Ethiopian federal troops erupted in November 2020 after a dispute over the Tigray regionís decision to hold an election. Eritrean troops joined the fight on Abiyís side.
Efforts to reach Ethiopian embassy officials in Washington, D.C., were not immediately successful.
United Nations officials, citing a recent investigation, said all sides involved in the conflict had committed abuses, with some potentially rising to the level of war crimes or crimes against humanity. State Department officials are examining whether atrocities have been committed. Blinken, who spoke out on the crisis during the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, has used the term ďethnic cleansing,Ē drawing a denial from the Ethiopian government.
The United States has, as is standard, issued statements of concern calling for an end to the fighting. The Biden team also named Jeff Feltman, a veteran diplomat, as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa. He has repeatedly visited the region, where coup-hit Sudan also is a flashpoint; he is in Ethiopia this past week, where he met with Abiy.
The Biden administration also has, in a step-by-step fashion, upped the pressure on the various parties to the conflict.
In May, it announced visa bans on certain individuals linked to the crisis; it also imposed what Blinken described as ďwide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistanceĒ while keeping humanitarian aid going. In June, Biden successfully pushed for the inclusion of a reference to Ethiopia in the G-7 summitís official communique.
The administration weeks later imposed economic sanctions on an Eritrean military leader for his role in the Tigray conflict. In September, Biden issued an executive order that authorized an array of economic sanctions that could be applied to actors in the conflict.
So far, the U.S. hasnít imposed sanctions under that framework, hoping that the mere threat could cause some to think twice about their moves. If Abiy, rebel leaders and others stoking the conflict keep on the current path, the administration likely will impose sanctions in the coming weeks. But that decision has potential repercussions: It could, for instance, make Ethiopian leaders less likely to cooperate with U.S. and international efforts to funnel in humanitarian aid for civilians caught in the crossfire. Already, itís extremely difficult to reach the conflict zones.
Earlier this month, Biden took steps toward stopping Ethiopia from benefiting from a major trade program known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act due to ďgross violations of internationally recognized human rights.Ē AGOA offers ďeligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the U.S. marketĒ for hundreds of products, according to the U.S. Trade Representativeís office.
Biden also has discussed Ethiopia with counterparts from other African countries,†some of whom have urged an end†to the conflict.
Abiyís willingness to meet with Feltman on Friday was a good sign ó after all, the Ethiopian prime minister snubbed USAID chief Samantha Power when she visited in August ó but thereís no serious indication that heís willing to call off his fight against the rebels.
Just days ago, Abiy called on Ethiopian citizens to take up arms and help ďburyĒ the approaching rebel forces, raising the specter of bloody urban warfare.
Pressed as to why nothing seems to be forcing the rebels or Abiy to defuse the crisis, a senior State Department official seemed to allude to the laws of physics.
ďThe problem is that you have multiple objects that heretofore have proven largely unmovable,Ē the official said. ďIt remains to be seen whether the shifting dynamic will cause at least one of those objects to show a little more flexibility.Ē
Getting Americans Out
One top priority for the State Department has been ensuring the safety of its staff, as well as other Americans who might get caught in the conflict.
The department has issued multiple notices urging Americans in Ethiopia to leave the country, especially while commercial flights are still available. The department has even engaged the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, including asking media outlets that cater to that community to amplify its warnings about the situation.
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has started reducing its staffing, though at this stage thereís no decision to shut the mission down, the senior State Department official said.
ďWe are carefully, carefully, carefully monitoring the security situation,Ē the official said, acknowledging that closing the embassy is not out of the question if conditions deteriorate.
But, the official added in a nod to the diplomacy-first philosophy, ďwe also know that if weíre going to make progress, weíll have a better shot diplomatically if we have diplomats on the ground.Ē