- Title: [SW Country] (STRATFOR) War In Eritrea: What the
Ethiopian Offensive Is Really About
- Date :[18 May 2000]
War In Eritrea: What the Ethiopian Offensive Is Really About
Facing the possibility of worsening famine and drought, Ethiopia
has launched a new offensive to end its two-year old war with
Eritrea. The war is frequently portrayed as a senseless nationalist
conflict over a rocky, barren border. But it appears that this
offensive has a more shrewd and logical aim. Advancing Ethiopian
units are apparently trying to divert their opponents, forcing them
to defend their capital - and allowing the landlocked Ethiopians
the opportunity to seize a vital port on the Red Sea.
Addis Ababa's five-day offensive intensified on May 17, as
Ethiopian units reportedly moved closer toward the strategic
western town of Barentu, one of the Eritrean army's central supply
centers and an important field headquarters. On Friday May 12, a
renewed Ethiopian offensive broke through Eritrean lines at the
disputed Mereb River border along the war's central front. Ethiopia
is now moving to take towns along three of the country's main roads
in an apparent attempt to gain control of Eritrea's strategic
supply routes. At first glance, this offensive could threaten the
Eritrean capital, Asmara,
However, it appears unlikely that advancing units are willing to
capture Asmara. Instead, it seems that landlocked Ethiopia is
attempting to divert the defenders in the hope of creating a breach
in the southeastern front, at the town of Bure. By doing so, the
Ethiopians would force defenders to focus on saving their capital.
If the advancing forces succeed in this gambit, they could pour
through the opening and seize the port at Assab - regaining access
to the Red Sea and its trading routes. Facing both drought and
famine, Ethiopia has strong incentive to capture the port in
advance of any peace agreement.
When Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, it took
the entire coastline, including both Red Sea ports - leaving
Ethiopia landlocked. Although Ethiopia's government supported
independence, conflicts soon arose between the two. They initially
clashed over Ethiopia's access to Eritrea's two ports and
inequitable trade. Though smaller, Eritrea held the upper hand over
its larger neighbor. The government in Asmara kept the country's
market effectively closed to Ethiopian goods, while Eritrean goods
could freely enter neighboring Ethiopia.
Border disputes erupted into war. Small unit skirmishes led to
artillery duels, trench warfare and air strikes. By 1999, Ethiopia
had succeeded in destroying both Eritrean Red Sea ports, at Assab
and Massawa, disrupting re-supply. The conflict is now commonly
viewed as a senseless nationalist struggle, when in fact the
fighting is less about the rocky, barren border region and more
about maritime access and trade. The reason that international
efforts to mediate the dispute have failed is because they
consistently focus on the less important issue of border disputes.
Amazingly, the balance of forces between these antagonists is
closely matched. Ethiopia's population of 58 million dwarfs
Eritrea's 4 million people. But the Ethiopian Army reportedly
numbers about 350,000 - compared to Eritrea's 200,000 to 250,000
troops, according to Jane's Intelligence Review.
Forces engaged at the front are even more closely matched. Ethiopia
fields 75,000 troops at the Mereb River, the central front, and
Eritrea has deployed about 60,000 men and women, officials of the
U.S. Central Command recently told Jane's Intelligence Review.
Ethiopia does enjoy the advantage in the air - with 6 MiG-21s, 9
MiG-24s and 10 MiG-23s - while the Eritreans have just three combat
effective MiG-29s. Three other Eritrean MiGs are apparently not
operational. But in spite of their advantages, the Ethiopians have
been unable to score a decisive win in the two-year-old war.
Difficult terrain, trench warfare and Eritrea's stubbornly
defensive strategy have all conspired against the Ethiopians.
The recent visit by a U.N. delegation led by U.S. Ambassador
Richard Holbrooke failed to reach a resolution, when the government
in Eritrea refused to accept the terms of a proposed peace deal.
Despite the two countries economic, cultural, linguistic and
familial ties, neither side has been willing to compromise.
A redrawing of the lines on the ground, however, may force Eritrea
to reconsider. Already Eritrea has had to pull forces from other
areas in order to combat the Ethiopian military's advance,
according to reports from U.N. officials. In advance of the
country's worsening humanitarian crisis, Ethiopia has a short
window of opportunity to try to seize the port at Assab and its
trade - either by force or at the negotiating table.