Upper and Lower Hands in a Boundless Civil War

By Fathi Osman

In a set of counteroffensives, the Ethiopian federal army is gaining the upper hand in the war against the Tigrayan forces. Despite their compulsory retreat, the Tigray Defense Forces recaptured the historical town of Lalibela, two weeks after they were ejected from it in a joint operation launched by the federal army and the allied Amhara and Afar militias.

Some experts on Ethiopia have connected this shift in tide to Abiy Ahmed’s ‘descending to the battlefield’ and assuming the leadership of the troops personally. They have compared his action to the anciently venerated imperial tradition practiced by the Ethiopian emperors when they took the lead of their armies in battlefields. Supporting their argument, they have attributed the fall of Lalibela to the sudden return of Abiy Ahmed to Arat Kilo, the office of the prime minister, the Ethiopian parallel of 10 Downing Street.

Leading the troops in the battlefield might have been crucial to his soldiers’ morale, but it can hardly be the rationale behind the victories which tipped the balance against the Tigrayan forces.

The Predominance of the Eyes in the Sky

From the start of the war in Nov. 2020, the introduction of drones against the mobile and stationary units of the Tigrayan forces proved to be fateful. Currently, the surprise retreat of these forces was caused by heavy use of sophisticated technology and drones.

The Turkish Byraktar B2 drones played the role of the game shifter. First, by collecting blanket reconnaissance data, and later as being the ruthless predators.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the best marketing publicity for these drones. Fabricated by Baykar Makina, which is owned by Erdogan’s son in law, these drones secured a crushing victory for the Azerbaijani army in its war against Armenia.

The whole world watched, just as in a PlayStation war- game, how these drones annihilated tanks and posts of the Armenian troops. Immediately, the demand for these devices skyrocketed. The impressed Ethiopian Air Force generals badly needed them, since the tiny Ethiopian Air Force has merely 200 combat-capable jetfighters, and the drones, spewing hellfire will be a great asset in the guerrilla warfare fought by the Tigray Defense Forces.

The Bayrktar B2s are MALE: (Medium, Altitude, Long Endurance,) drones. They have superior reconnaissance abilities without being detected by radars. They can also identify equipment and personnel through FLIR sensors (Forward-looking Infrared). The Bayrktar B2s can continue flying non-stop for more than 25 hours; this gives them the ability to detect troops’ movement during nighttime. These drones are equipped with air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. They can only be downed by anti-air missile or jet fighters. Lacking such hi-tec weapons, the Tigray Defense Forces will, no doubt, suffer increasing casualties from these predators.

Turkey has more than one reason to provide Abiy Ahmed with these sophisticated drones. The two countries are tied with a military pact signed in Aug. 2021. More importantly, Turkey is the second largest investor in Ethiopia with 2.5 billion USD investments according the Turkish daily Hurriyet. Some of these investments have already been touched by the war.

For instance, the Awash-Kombolcha-Gebaya railway project, with total cost of 1.7 billion USD, carried out by the giant Turkish Yap Merkezi was stopped because of the war. Other textile factories, in Kombolcha, the industrial hub of Amhara region, were destroyed by the Tigrayan forces in retaliation for the Turkish backing of the government forces.

In a recent tweet from Istanbul, where he participated in Turkey/Africa Summit, Abiy Ahmed said that his country will continue its cooperation with Turkey on “constructive engagement.” Radio Oromia estimated the Ethiopian weapon procurement from Turkey at 94.6 million USD in 2021, citing the figure from the Turkish Exports Board. Ethiopia weapon purchases are covered by Emirati soft loans and grants especially after the normalization of relations between Abu Dhabi and Ankara.

The Defunct Tigrayan-Chinese Alliance

The damage inflicted on Tigray forces by the Chinese drones Wing Loong II were far greater than their Turkish counterparts’. The Wing Loong(s) cover wider ranges than the B2s, and they carry more weapons as well. They have high precision in destroying mobile targets and camouflaged posts. Wing Loong II drones are the unconcealed evidence of powerful Chinese military presence in Africa.

China has more reasons for vigorous involvement in Ethiopia’s war. It is the primary investor with more than 2.7 billion USD development projects. This figure puts both Turkey and UAE at the second and third ranking consecutively.

Additionally, Ethiopia’s debt to China is estimated at 16 billion USD, nearly half of the country’s debt.

“China opposes international pressure on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed without putting an equivalent on the rebel groups.” Said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to Ethiopia earlier this month. He flatly confirmed his country’s staunch support for the Ethiopian government.

With this drastic shift, China ditched her long-time ally Tigray People’s Liberation Front. In the past 30 years TPLF, which had firm control over Ethiopia, enjoyed preferential political and economic relations with China. The significant investment projects of China were chiefly situated in Tigray region. Chinese companies have constructed Mekelle Industrial Park, the pride of Tigray development projects. The Gezhouba Group Ltd. managed the region’s main water project.

To bolster the growing economic relations with China, TPLF appointed the one-time foreign minister (1991-2021) and one of its founder Seyoum Mesfin as an ambassador to Beijing. During his six years in the post (2011-2017), he developed special working relations with the powerful ambassador Zhong Jianhua, who served as the Special Representative of China for Africa. As an energy expert, Jianhua has been highly active in oil-rich African countries. He is currently the head of the National Energy Administration, china’s arm in securing oil for the nation’s mammoth industry.

In grand strategy, China realizes that she is embroiled in a fierce conflict against the West in Africa. In a swift reaction, she remapped her alliances in Ethiopia, the hottest point of conflict so far.

As the war in Ethiopia reels into its second year with the intervention of Eritrea, Somalia, China, Sudan, and Turkey, in addition to the undetected involvement of Egypt, Russia, UAE and the U.S., the conflict is mutating into a protracted proxy war than a localized civil strife.

Belligerent forces behind the scenes, in addition to sophisticated war technology will fuel the war into longer periods and broader magnitudes. This conflict has certainly gone beyond the wildest expectations even of those who fired the first shot.