The evolution of the conflict in Ethiopia represents at this stage a highly critical variable for Eritrea’s interests and security.

After having fully supported the policy of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of intervention in the Tigray region, supporting the military effort and paying the price in terms of reputation in the aftermath of the dissemination of news about the violence committed during the early stages of the occupation, Eritrea has found itself disoriented by the evolution of the conflict and especially by the inability of the federal army in Addis Ababa and its allied militias to support the military effort and contain the overwhelming counter-offensive of the TDF.

Asmara has tried to deny its direct participation in the conflict for over five months, but its role has been publicly confirmed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself, increasing the blame of the international community and determining the imposition of sanctions by the United States and the European Union.

Following the counter-offensive of the Tigrayan army, the reconquest of Mekelle and about half of Tigray, as well as the occupation of a portion of the territory of the Amhara state, Eritrea has assumed a more contained direct military posture, limiting to exercising territorial control over a relatively large area close to the border with Tigray.

The forces of the Eritrean army continue to occupy a wide strip of Tigray territory about 200 km long and 30 km deep, which runs from the outskirts north of Adwa to the northeast of Adigrat, thus exercising control over two of the three arterial roads linking Ethiopia to Eritrea.

Less clear is the situation in the eastern border area, near the once disputed town of Badme, which the government of Abiy Ahmed has returned to Eritrean sovereignty about two years ago, along with some sections of the border whose demarcation had been contested by Asmara.

It is not clear, at present, how the control of the borderline between Tigray and Eritrea in the north-western area is divided, while the entire portion of Tigray west of Tekeze river and up to the border with Sudan is occupied and claimed by Amhara forces.

For Eritrea the phase of the Tigray counter-offensive and the direct threat on Addis Ababa involves the assumption of a serious risk.

It is well understood in Asmara that the failure to defeat the TPLF and eradicate it from political and military control of Tigray has generated very strong resentment towards Eritrea and the political leadership led by President Isaias Afwerki. This resentment has been strongly increased by the widespread violence committed by the Eritrean army during the occupation of the Tigray region, by the looting of cities and industrial areas and especially by the brutality of the numerous rapes committed by the Eritrean military, as admitted by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself.

The prospect of a gradual ability to recompose a relationship that has been so badly frayed thus appears highly unlikely, fueling the concrete and well-founded fear in Asmara of the imminence of a direct conflict with the Tigrinya, once the military situation in Ethiopia will be defined in the clash between the TPLF and the federal forces.

If and when the TPLF succeeds in bringing about the fall of the government of Abiy Ahmed, and once the political and military balance of the country has been redefined – which, in all likelihood, will pass through Tigray’s attempt to proceed in the direction of independence from the federation – it therefore appears highly likely that the top of the Tigray’s political power intends to resolve once and for all its contrasts with the Eritrean regime, launching a military operation against the country with a view to removing its political leadership and favoring the rise of an allied political élite.

The independence project of Tigray, in fact, cannot disregard the need to open an outlet in the direction of the Red Sea, which can, however, occur only through the removal of the regime in government of Eritrea.

A variable of particular importance in this dynamic is represented by the thousands of Eritrean refugees still present on the territory of Tigray, partly forcibly repatriated by the government of Asmara but to a large extent still scattered throughout the territory of Tigray, subject to hostile treatment by both Eritrean and Tigrayan forces, which have repeatedly considered them an expression of the political posture of Asmara and made them the object of violence.

The TPLF government seems in this delicate phase of the conflict evolution incapable of transforming the thousands of Eritrean refugees into a sort of resistance against the regime in Asmara, while Eritrea does not seem to have sufficient military capacity to organize a forced repatriation of those who once occupied as many as four refugee camps managed by UNHCR.

The commander of the 35th Eritrean Infantry Division, Colonel Berhane Tesfamariam, also known as Wedi Kecha, according to numerous reports drawn up by humanitarian organizations that try to organize the management of aid in the region, would have conducted a systematic operation of identification in the refugee camps of individuals connected in various ways with anti-government organizations, however, succeeding in identifying and transferring to Eritrea only a few hundred individuals.

Therefore, several thousand Eritrean citizens remain in Tigray, although in extremely precarious conditions, and the TPLF might want to organize them as anti-government militias, determining a real risk for the security of neighboring Eritrea.

This hypothesis is however frustrated at the moment by the uncontrolled action of the various Tigrayan territorial militias, which, to date, has often vented its resentment towards Eritrea through the systematic harassment of refugees, thus thwarting the possibility of their organization as anti-government militias to be deployed against the regime in Asmara.

The Eritrean government, however, appears disoriented in the management of the evolution of the crisis. Entrenched behind a now completely useless nationalist rhetoric, fed and spread by a dense and scarcely credible network of compliant profiles on the main social media, the political system of Asmara is moving inexorably towards a new phase of international political isolation, unsustainable politically, economically and socially.

In order to prevent what now appears to be the next – and inevitable – showdown between Tigrayans and Eritreans, there would be the need of an international actor capable of urgently constructing and managing a mediation oriented to offer incentives to both actors in the crisis, separating the dynamics of the conflict in Ethiopia from the atavistic conflicts that risk triggering a new and bloodier front of conflict between Tigray and Eritrea. An actor that, at least in appearance, is not present neither on the regional nor on the global level.

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