Wednesday, August 02, 2006

''Conflict in Somalia Moves Toward Confrontation''

During the weeks of July 17 and July 24, the revolutionary process in the stateless country of Somalia entered a new phase as the conflict between the rising Islamic Courts Council (I.C.C.), which is bent on creating a state based on Shari'a law, and the embattled and internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) moved toward armed confrontation with the entry of Ethiopian troops into the country in support of the defenseless T.F.G.

The I.C.C. had dramatically altered Somalia's political landscape on June 5, when its militias defeated a coalition of Washington-backed warlords in a battle for control of Somalia's official capital Mogadishu. Originally a loose coalition of clan-based religious courts that were financed by local business interests intent on establishing a semblance of order in the city, the I.C.C. quickly moved to establish its rule and then swept through Somalia's southern regions, making deals with clan leaders, establishing new courts and organizing itself as a governing apparatus in direct conflict with the T.F.G., which was isolated in its temporary capital, the town of Baidoa.

By mid-July, the I.C.C. had effectively consolidated its power in Mogadishu and most of the southern regions by subduing the remnants of the warlords' militias and taking control of Mogadishu's airport and seaport. The I.C.C.'s successes threw the T.F.G. into a crisis, opening a split within it between factions favoring a power-sharing deal with the I.C.C. and forces led by T.F.G. President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed that sought and received military support from Addis Ababa in order to fend off the I.C.C.

Driven by conflicts of interest, regional and international organizations, and Western powers led by the United States, which had lost influence and credibility in Somalia as a result of its support of the warlords, looked on helplessly as the I.C.C. advanced, expressing support for the T.F.G., but also urging it to dialogue with the I.C.C. The Arab League (A.L.) stepped up to fill the void and brokered a cease-fire agreement on June 22 in Sudan's capital Khartoum, in which the I.C.C. and T.F.G. granted recognition to each other and promised to negotiate a power-sharing deal. The other external actors quickly embraced the Khartoum process, which soon collapsed as the I.C.C. made further advances, placing the T.F.G. at a severe disadvantage in projected negotiations.

By the beginning of the week of July 17, as PINR reported, Somalia's fluid and complex political situation had simplified and polarized into an emerging confrontation between the I.C.C. and Addis Ababa, whose aid was the only factor keeping the T.F.G. from collapse and checking the momentum of the I.C.C.'s revolutionary drive. Since then, the polarization has sharpened as both sides have tested each other, entrenched their positions and moved closer to an armed conflict that would carry the potential of a regional war in the Horn of Africa. At present, the adversaries are in a precarious stand-off that is likely to last until one of them senses an opportunity to shift the balance of power in its favor. [See: "Somalia Enters a Revolutionary Situation"]

Profile of an Emerging Confrontation

During the last two weeks of July, the I.C.C. kept up its revolutionary momentum, consolidating and extending its control over areas within its scope of power. In a significant advance, on July 18 the Courts movement made deals with the Digil and Mirefle clans in the Bay and Bakool regions, setting up a new court and instituting I.C.C. administrative control. In ceremonies inaugurating the court, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, chair of the I.C.C.'s Executive Committee, announced that the aim of the Courts movement was to spread the practice of Shari'a law to "every inch of the world, particularly Somalia." He also revealed that the mastermind of the I.C.C.'s military successes was its deputy defense minister, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, who would henceforth play a key public role in the movement.

On the same day, the I.C.C. set up a court in the Sinai neighborhood of Mogadishu, which had been a center of resistance to the Courts, and, the next day, I.C.C. militia raided five venues in Sinai that showed videos, arresting 60 people who would be "rehabilitated and released" after they were warned of the "disadvantages" of viewing films and "told what Islam says" about them.

Continuing its development of a national security structure, the I.C.C. on July 25 created its first armed unit merging members of different clans, organizing them in a brigade with a traditional command structure.

On July 27, the I.C.C. eliminated the last vestige of warlord presence in Mogadishu when it took control over the former presidential palace, Villa Somalia, from the Saad clan, which is loyal to I.C.C. opponent T.F.G. deputy prime minister and interior minister Hussein Aideed. The peaceful transfer of Villa Somalia, which is located on high ground with command over the airport and seaport, gave the I.C.C. strategic dominance over the city. I.C.C. chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys announced that a court would be set up in Villa Somalia and that it would be "the place from which Somalia will be ruled."

Demonstrating its effectiveness at restoring normal civilian life in Mogadishu, the I.C.C. opened the city's airport for its first commercial flight since 1991. Jubba Airways, the local company that made the flight to Dubai, announced that the airport would become its base of operations.

The I.C.C.'s inroads into the Bay region, where Baidoa is located, increased the T.F.G.'s vulnerability. The stage was set for the next phase of the revolutionary process and the emergence of stark confrontation.

Building rapidly on its advances in the Bay region, I.C.C. militia on July 19 made their first direct military move against the T.F.G., seizing the town of Bur Haqaba, which is 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Baidoa. Robow declared that "nothing will stop us from going into Baidoa."

The I.C.C.'s incursion drew a predictable response from the T.F.G., whose prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said that the action placed the Khartoum process in jeopardy. Ethiopia accused its rival Eritrea, with which it has a simmering border dispute, of arming the I.C.C. and warned through Minister of Information Berhan Hailu that Ethiopia had "the responsibility to defend the border and the Somali government [T.F.G.]. We will crush [the I.C.C.]."

Answering a call for help from Yusuf, Addis Ababa, which had been sending its forces across the Somali border for several weeks, was reported to have established a presence in Baidoa, stationing an armored column near Yusuf's residence and patrolling the town's streets. Robow insisted: "We will not endure Ethiopia to come to Somalia."

Faced with a possible armed conflict with Ethiopian troops, the I.C.C. announced its withdrawal from Bur Haqaba on July 20, taking 150 T.F.G. militiamen who had defected from the transitional authority back to Mogadishu. I.C.C. security chief Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad claimed that the I.C.C. never had "plans to attack Baidoa," adding that the T.F.G.'s warnings that an attack was imminent were a "ploy to attract Ethiopian intervention." Robow said that the I.C.C. could have taken Baidoa, but did not want to sabotage the Khartoum process.

Although their presence was confirmed by many independent observers, Addis Ababa and the T.F.G. denied that Ethiopian forces were in Baidoa and other Somali towns, and have continued to do so, despite confirmation by United Nations Special Representative for Somalia Francois Lonseny Fall.

Addis Ababa's move set up the stand-off that is now in place. Some local analysts speculate that the I.C.C.'s incursion was a test of Baidoa's defenses; others believe that it was meant to provoke just the response that it did from Addis Ababa, in order to precipitate a nationalist backlash against the T.F.G.

Whatever the I.C.C.'s intentions, its leaders played the nationalist card. The I.C.C. organized a series of anti-Ethiopian and anti-U.S. demonstrations. On July 22, Aweys called for jihad against Ethiopia and the I.C.C. declared that it would not participate in the Khartoum process until Ethiopian forces left Somalia.

The T.F.G. responded by canceling its participation in the Khartoum process unless the A.L. or Sudan's government guaranteed that "the Islamic courts will not violate the results of the talks."

Ethiopian forces were reported to have entered the town of Wajid, which is the base for U.N. humanitarian operations in southern Somalia, and to have taken over its airport.

On July 23, the first armed clash between I.C.C. and T.F.G. militias was reported to have taken place in the remote area of Qoryooley. I.C.C. battle wagons were reportedly advancing toward Baidoa, supported by Eritreans and members of the ethnic Somali Ogaden National Liberation Front (O.N.L.F.), which is engaged in an insurgency in Ethiopia's Ogaden region. O.N.L.F. sources reported that their forces had shot down an Ethiopian helicopter in the Ogaden desert, killing 26 officers. The alliance of warlords whom the I.C.C. had defeated in Mogadishu was reported to be reforming on the Ethiopian border and drawing up plans to reclaim their power under the T.F.G.'s banner.

With tensions escalating and confrontation building, U.N. special representative Fall traveled to Baidoa and Mogadishu on July 25 in an effort to restart the Khartoum process. Yielding to a U.N. Security Council appeal to participate in negotiations, the T.F.G. announced that it would send a 15 member delegation to Khartoum "without any preconditions."

Although he praised the I.C.C. for its accomplishments in bringing peace to Mogadishu and said that he wanted "all of Somalia to be like that," Fall could not convince the I.C.C. to "dialogue" with the T.F.G. The Courts' leadership adhered to its line that there could be no negotiations until Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia.

The I.C.C.'s nationalist strategy bore fruit on July 27, when both the moderate Muslim movement al-Islah and a coalition of Somali civil society and human rights organizations came out against the Ethiopian incursions.

The conflict became more complicated when a large cargo plane landed at Mogadishu's airport. The T.F.G. said that the aircraft was carrying Eritrean military supplies for the I.C.C., including landmines, bombs, grenades, bazookas and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The I.C.C. denied the charges, saying alternatively that the cargo was made up of "small sewing machines" or medicines and medical supplies. Local analysts credited the T.F.G.'s version. On July 25, Asmara had warned that it was ready to send troops into Somalia to protect the country from Ethiopian interference, claiming that Addis Ababa's incursions had bypassed and undermined the peace process.

On August 1, the I.C.C. made another surge, extending its rule to the central Galguduud region bordering the breakaway mini-state of Puntland, where Yusuf had his original power base. Local militias surrendered their arms to the I.C.C. and Aweys announced that a court would be formed for central Somalia and that the I.C.C. would move into the Galkayo district in Puntland if residents requested its presence. An extension of I.C.C. control into Puntland would be a major victory for the Courts and would bring into play the more organized mini-state of Somaliland in the north of Somalia, with a high likelihood of broader conflict.

The I.C.C. also sent 275 militiamen to the central coastal region of Muqud with the aim of suppressing rampant piracy. Aweys announced that the I.C.C. would "eradicate Somali pirates by reaching where they are based." Local clan leaders were reported to be cooperating with the I.C.C. action. Were the I.C.C. to move successfully against piracy, it would gain significant legitimacy as a guarantor of order and would win support in the international community.

The significance of the I.C.C.'s move north should not be underestimated because until now its base has been in the south. The gathering momentum of the I.C.C. indicates that it is becoming a national movement transcending regions.

The I.C.C. also pressed west on August 1, challenging Addis Ababa by sending battle wagons beyond the town of Beledweyne toward the Ethiopian border. Addis Ababa reportedly responded by sending troops across the border to check the I.C.C.'s advance.

The simplification of the conflict in Somalia into a stand-off between the I.C.C. and Addis Ababa pushed the T.F.G. into a crisis, widening a pre-existing gulf between its pro-Ethiopian executive and its mostly anti-Ethiopian parliament. Through the early part of the week of June 24, there were reports that legislators favoring an agreement with the I.C.C. were preparing a no-confidence motion against Gedi. The disagreement boiled over on July 27, when 18 members of Gedi's cabinet resigned, charging that the prime minister had "failed to implement national reconciliation" and had allowed Ethiopian forces into Baidoa without parliamentary approval.

As Gedi's government collapsed, the T.F.G. executive denied that there was a crisis and announced that the prime minister would quickly fill the vacated posts. Members of the T.F.G.'s parliament began to flood into Baidoa in preparation for the no-confidence vote, as the contending factions vied for support.

Tensions spiked on July 28, when a lone gunman assassinated T.F.G. Minister for Constitutional and Federal Affairs Abdallah Isaaq Deerow, a Yusuf ally and supporter of the Ethiopian presence, after Friday prayers in Baidoa. The assassination sparked pro-T.F.G. riots in Baidoa and led to a postponement of the no-confidence motion. Gedi blamed the assassination on "international terrorists" who had taken over the I.C.C. and were being supplied by Libya, Iran and Egypt via Eritrea. Addis Ababa echoed Gedi's accusations; Asmara warned of a "regional conflict" if Ethiopian troops were not withdrawn from Somalia; and Cairo expressed "dismay" at the charge it was supporting the I.C.C. The I.C.C. blamed Addis Ababa for the assassination, claiming that it was carried out by Ethiopian agents to discredit the Courts.

The no-confidence vote was held on July 30 and resulted in a 126-88 favorable margin, short of the 139 votes that the motion needed to carry. Gedi was reported to have survived the vote by offering legislators the posts that had been vacated in the wave of the July 27 cabinet resignations.

On August 1, Gedi's government took yet another hit, when four more cabinet ministers resigned, explaining that the unpopularity of the administration had rendered it inviable. Gedi announced that he was delaying a possible resumption of the Khartoum process until August 17 in order to "stabilize" his government.

As the week of July 24 drew to a close, Ethiopian forces were reported to have withdrawn from Baidoa's streets into camps near Yusuf's compound, the T.F.G. was in a state of disarray -- its government lacking majority support in parliament and reeling from defections -- and the I.C.C. was consolidating its gains and riding a wave of nationalism. The stand-off was locked into place, with neither the I.C.C. nor Addis Ababa ready as yet to make a provocative move. Torn apart by pro-Ethiopian and pro-I.C.C. factions, the T.F.G. could no longer be considered an independent entity. Asmara was waiting in the wings and testing the waters. There was the sense of a calm before the storm -- one that might be prolonged or might end abruptly.

Western Powers and Multinational Organizations Remain Bystanders

Except for Fall's unsuccessful effort to persuade the I.C.C. and T.F.G. to restart the Khartoum process, the Western powers and regional and international organizations stood aside and seemed powerless to influence developments on the ground that all pointed toward confrontation.

All the external actors, with the exception of Addis Ababa and Asmara, continued to pin their hopes on the Khartoum process, calling for "dialogue" between the I.C.C. and T.F.G., as they have done since the rise of the I.C.C. Their appeals sounded increasingly hollow as the conflict polarized and drew in the two most directly interested external players -- Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The ineffectual response of the external actors is illustrated by Washington's stance, which placed it between the adversaries and was not backed with any substance.

As the I.C.C. advanced on Baidoa and Addis Ababa came in to check it, Washington called on Addis Ababa to exercise "restraint" and, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer put it, "not to worsen an already miserable situation." At the same time, Frazer said that she did not know whether Ethiopian troops were in Somalia.

By July 25, Frazer's stance had changed into a plea that the I.C.C. and T.F.G. not use the presence of external actors as an "excuse" for avoiding negotiations. The U.S. State Department continued to call for Ethiopian restraint, but now made the same appeal to Eritrea.

On July 30, Frazer commented that both the I.C.C. and T.F.G. were backed by foreign forces and called on "all countries" to focus on supporting the T.F.G. On July 31, Frazer expressed Washington's desperation in a Reuters interview, warning that if "extremists" who renounce negotiations and are "intent on a fight" come to control Somalia's political dynamic, "they are going to find one;" and cautioning that "the Horn of Africa is disintegrating into chaos."


Bearing out PINR's forecast of July 18, the conflict in Somalia has crystallized into a looming confrontation between the I.C.C. and Addis Ababa. The present stand-off is precarious and has the potential of exploding into an armed struggle that could draw in Asmara and precipitate a regional war. [See: "Somalia Enters a Revolutionary Situation"]

The causes of the plunge into confrontation are the I.C.C.'s revolutionary momentum, the vital interest of Addis Ababa in preventing the emergence of an Islamic state on its border that might pursue irredentist aims and ally itself with Asmara, the collapse of the T.F.G. into pro-Ethiopian and pro-I.C.C. factions, and the failure of other interested external players to function either as honest brokers or as effective and concerted supporters of one of the sides.

The future course of Somalia's political dynamic will depend on the intentions of the primary actors, which are at present unclear. Is the I.C.C., which continues to consolidate, interested in getting a favorable bargain in a power-sharing agreement, confident of an eventual military victory over the T.F.G., or internally divided about its strategic aims? Is Addis Ababa pursuing a limited strategy of buying time for the T.F.G. or is it intent on defeating the I.C.C.? Is Washington serious about its support for the Khartoum process, covertly supporting Addis Ababa, or pursuing a dual-track policy? Is Asmara willing to risk a renewal of its border war with Ethiopia by fighting a proxy war in Somalia, or is it buying time for the I.C.C.?

The fact that those questions cannot be answered readily reflects both the genuine uncertainties of the actors, each of which is internally divided and unsure of the intentions of the others, and their need to keep their intentions hidden from the others.

An excess of uncertainty is a prescription for volatility and instability, which are currently masked by the stand-off. It is clear that by hanging on to the T.F.G., Western powers and regional and international organizations have effectively denied themselves influence over the conflict's outcome. Their abstention is intelligible because they are preoccupied with other crises and are divided within themselves, but it raises the likelihood of the "disintegration" of which Frazer warned.

When actors are uncertain, it is difficult to make sound projections of future developments, yet it is reasonable to say that the I.C.C. remains the protagonist, Addis Ababa's intervention is not sustainable in the long run, the T.F.G. has been hobbled, Asmara is gaining leverage, and the other external players are unlikely to bolster their rhetoric with credible incentives and/or sanctions.

Overall, the I.C.C.'s position has improved and its chances for success have increased either through a power-sharing deal or a military victory. Somalia is just not high enough on the great powers' agenda to call forth decisive action and Addis Ababa is not a reliable proxy. The I.C.C. needs only to play its hand judiciously.

Report Drafted By:

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of All comments should be directed to

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