Following the December 20 announcement by the TPLF of the withdrawal of its military units north of the Tigray border, numerous movements were reported in all areas of the Amhara regional state previously under the control of TDF units.
On the same day, during the retreat to the north, the TDF forces exploded TNT charges on the bridge connecting Haro and Dire Roka, destroying it with the intention of making the advance of the ENDF forces towards the Tigray border difficult.
However, the federal forces of the ENDF did not stop on the border line with Tigray and the following day continued to advance along the A2 highway, conquering the towns of Rare, Waja and then deploying to besiege the important center of Alamata, which seems to have fallen under the control of federal forces.
On December 22 the Fano militia announced the recapture of Sekota, an important crossroads for the connection to the central and southern region of Tigray, thus allowing ENDF forces to go up north almost undisturbed, and reaching the borders of central Tigray near the district of Abergele, near the Tekeze river.
After securing control of a large swath of land along the southern and central border area, ENDF forces halted their advance on December 23, when the Ethiopian government announced that it would consolidate the positions of its units in the localities conquered during the previous two days.
Sources in Tigray reported that between December 20 and 23, the Federal Air Force conducted numerous drone sorties against the capital city of Mekelle and other Tigrinya towns, hitting a large number of civilian and military targets. Although this has not been confirmed, some sources on social media have reported aerial actions against some airport infrastructures in Tigray, with the probable intent of hitting Tigrinya aerial defense infrastructures.
On the same day, Tigray forces reportedly launched a counter-offensive along the road connecting Kobo to Alamata to relieve pressure on the latter, although it is unclear what outcome was achieved.
On December 24 and 25 sporadic military activities were reported along the border with the regional state of Amhara and Afar, believed to be possible Tigrinya actions aimed at consolidating some localities where to build the last line of defense against the federal forces.
The absence of significant fighting convinced many of the possibility of a settlement of the front and of the willingness of the parties to start negotiations, although in Mekelle there seems to be a real fear of a powerful reinforcement of the Eritrean garrisons north of Adigrat and Axum, with the fear of a new offensive.
Scenarios for a truce
On December 24, the Federal Government of Ethiopia issued a statement confirming that it had regained full control of the federal states of Amhara and Afar, and that it had ordered its troops to halt in the positions they had conquered, while remaining vigilant and awaiting for developments.
In the same statement, the government spokesman added that the troops were ordered “not to advance further into Tigray territory,” while the TPLF’s version of a voluntary withdrawal within its borders, which the government instead defined as a military defeat, was rejected and disputed.
The willingness to establish a temporary truce in the conflict therefore now appears to be confirmed, although there are numerous scenarios of possible evolution.
Tigray has visibly exhausted its military propulsion force, having to succumb to the last offensive launched by the federal forces together with those of the regional states Amhara and Afar. A large part of its territory, west of the Tekeze river, remains under the control of the Amhara forces, while a wide strip close to the border with Eritrea, north of Axum and Adigrat, is firmly in the hands of the armed forces of Asmara. A third of Tigray, in essence, is militarily occupied by hostile forces.
The Oromia rebel forces allied to Tigray, those of the OLA, appear to have given up militarily on each of the fronts, thus easing the pressure towards the capital and dispersing haphazardly across the territory.
The federal government managed to launch a counter-offensive capable of changing the front line, exploiting the increased firepower offered by Turkish drones and by the armaments received from Ankara and Abu Dhabi. The counter-offensive, however, took place in the flat valleys of the Wollo region, where the military and air capacity of the federal forces are more effective, while in Addis Ababa the military leadership seems very reluctant to venture again in the hilly and mountainous areas of Tigray, where the war could soon take a different course.
The failure to defeat the TPLF undoubtedly represents a problem of great proportions for the credibility of Abiy Ahmed, who has staked all his cards on the conflict from the beginning, and now finds himself managing a position of only partial advantage. A solution that does not involve the exit of the TPLF could have negative consequences for the political future of the prime minister, but the continuation of the war in Tigray does not seem an easy option.
The variable of Eritrea cannot be ignored, where President Isaias Afwerki has committed himself alongside Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the clear and only purpose of physically eliminating any trace of the TPLF, paying the consequences also in terms of international isolation and sanctions. The hypothesis of a survival of the TPLF and, probably, that of its choice of independence, would be totally unacceptable for Asmara, which could then decide for an autonomous action against Tigray to guarantee its own interests.
The United States and Europe, moreover, are exercising all their political ability on the United Nations to accelerate the start of an independent commission on war crimes, which Addis Ababa has already refused but that could further expand the international blame against Ethiopia, increasing its isolation and economic difficulties.
Political relations within the Ethiopian federation are not optimal, especially as a result of the high cost of the conflict and opaque prospects for reconstruction. On December 25, the government of the regional state of Amhara leaked the news of an imminent request to the federal government to cover the costs of reconstruction of the areas of its territory affected by the conflict. A previous request for the restoration of only the health infrastructure has been judged outdated by events, imposing a much more incisive and extensive government intervention.
The economic crisis generated by the conflict has drained an enormous amount of money and the state coffers, also as a consequence of the global crisis generated by the pandemic, are in disastrous conditions.
There is no doubt that a cease-fire at this particular stage in the evolution of the crisis represents an advantageous condition for each of the parties involved, offering the opportunity to reorganize their military forces, replenish their coffers and offer relief to the civilian population.
At the same time, however, a truce risks crystallizing highly risky interests especially for the federal government in Addis Ababa and the Eritrean government in Asmara, which, in the absence of a victorious solution against the TPLF, risk being held accountable for failure in front of their political and military hierarchies.