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U.S. Africa Envoy: Ethiopia Crisis Could Make Syria Look Like ‘Child’s Play’

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Jeffre neenvoy to the Horn of Africa, faces a cascade of overlapping challenges in the region.

By Robbie Gramer
FOREIGN POLICY
APRIL 26, 2021
Then-U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman Nov. 15, 2017.

The Biden administration this month brought Jeffrey Feltman, a seasoned former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat, out of semi-retirement to assume the newly created role of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, where multiple crises threaten to unravel the entire region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday formally named Feltman to the post, where he will become Washington’s lead troubleshooter for a deadly conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and widespread allegations of war crimes.

Feltman, in his first interview since being tapped for the post, told Foreign Policy the conflict has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged regional crisis, citing a comparison to the war in Syria.

“Look at what the collapse of Syria and the chaos of civil war has meant,” said Feltman, citing the refugee crisis and its impact on Europe, as well as the rise of terrorist groups in the power vacuum from the collapse of a country that had a prewar population of around 22 million people.

“Ethiopia has 110 million people,” he said. “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

Feltman, a longtime diplomatic heavy-hitter in U.S. and U.N. policy circles, is no stranger to crisis diplomacy. He served in a variety of posts across the Middle East, including U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, which encompassed the 2006 Lebanon War. From 2009 to 2012, he served as the State Department’s top envoy for the Middle East, including during the Arab Spring. Later, as a top official at the U.N., he traveled to North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Un at the height of U.S.-North Korea tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

But his new task is daunting. There’s the conflict in Tigray and the question of Ethiopia’s broader stability. Neighboring Eritrea’s military intervention in the Tigray conflict, with its troops accused of widespread atrocities and human rights violations, is only complicating any solution. Sudan, meanwhile, is struggling with a fragile and uncertain transition to democracy after three decades under autocratic rule, and it is contending with a border dispute with Ethiopia that could spark a separate conflict between those two countries. There is still a political and security crisis in Somalia. And all the while, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are in the midst of a yearslong dispute over a massive Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration clumsily tried to mediate.

“I’m intimidated by the challenge of it. It’s a complex part of the world with a lot of overlapping crises happening at the same time. But it’s also extremely important strategically for the U.S., for our allies, for the region,” Feltman said.

“In terms of an immediate focus, without question, there has to be attention paid to Tigray,” he said. He added that other leading priorities were the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute and the tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Feltman said he would be traveling to the region “fairly soon” but declined to give specifics.

Counterparts in Europe are cheering the Biden administration’s decision. “We’ve had this post for years, and have been waiting for the day the United States appoints someone to be a counterpart and to really help in a joint effort,” Alexander Rondos, the European Union special representative for the Horn of Africa, told Foreign Policy.

Rondos said Feltman’s experience and contacts in the Middle East will be essential for the job, given Persian Gulf states’ increasing role in the Horn of Africa. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all expanded their political and commercial footprints in the region in recent years, with the UAE building a temporary military base in Eritrea and at one point floating plans to build one in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Somaliland. “The Gulf has begun to understand that the Horn is in a sense its western flank,” he said. “Anyone in the West who thinks we are the only players there had better wake up and understand there are all sorts of other players in the Horn, who are there to stay.”

Rondos described the Tigray conflict in grim terms and said finding a way to stop the fighting should be a top priority. “For God’s sake, how do we put the killing in Tigray to an end? Tigray has just become a whopping, great big concentration camp, basically,” he said. “This is open, everyone understands that now, the point is we have to get the parties to come to some arrangements. At the end of the day, people are dying, and under circumstances that are horrific.”

The conflict in Tigray erupted in November 2020 after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the region’s governing faction, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was previously the ruling party of Ethiopia.The offensive has morphed into a protracted conflict, with forces from neighboring Eritrea and other militias partnering with Ethiopian troops in the conflict.

Since then, credible reports have emerged of possible war crimes by factions involved in the fighting, including massacring civilians and widespread, systemic sexual violence. Blinken has referred to the abuses as “ethnic cleansing” and urged Abiy’s government to halt all hostilities. A U.S. aid official told ABC News this month that humanitarian groups still don’t have unhindered access to the Tigray region to deliver critical food and medical care to civilian populations.

“The basic issues are revolving around the international humanitarian law and the need for access, the need for life-saving assistance to reach the people who need it,” Feltman said.

As much as three-quarters of Tigray’s population, 4.5 million out of some 6 million, are in need of food aid, according to U.N. estimates. The conflict has also spurred a massive refugee crisis, internally displacing over 1 million people and pushing over 60,000 to flee across the border to neighboring Sudan.

Efforts by the Biden administration to end the conflict haven’t taken root despite ramping up political and public pressure on Abiy. Biden dispatched one of his top Senate allies, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, to Ethiopia last month to address the crisis and urge Abiy to unblock humanitarian access to Tigray and remove Eritrean troops from the region. A month later, Coons said he was “disappointed” Abiy hasn’t yet fulfilled those obligations. Biden’s envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said there were “credible reports” that rather than withdrawing from Tigray, Eritrean forces were simply shedding their own uniforms and donning Ethiopian ones “in order to remain in Tigray indefinitely.”

Feltman said he planned to open difficult conversations with Abiy, and with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, on the conflict. “It’s disappointing to see public statements about withdrawal of Eritrean troops resulting in nothing on the ground, or perhaps even reinforcements of Eritrean troops on the ground,” he said.

“I go into this with the assumption that Prime Minister Abiy wants to see a strong, unified Ethiopia,” Feltman added. “He does not want to preside over the deterioration of the integrity of the state.”

Conversations with the Eritrean leader, who has ruled Eritrea with an authoritarian grip since 1993, could prove more difficult. “I met with President Isaias Afwerki in my U.N. capacity, and so I don’t underestimate how hard it is to influence his own calculations,” the new envoy said. “But we do need to talk to anyone in order to try to stabilize the situation. We do need to lay out for the Eritreans what we see as the implications for them and for Ethiopia of what’s happening in Tigray. I don’t expect they’ll be very easy conversations.”

On the controversial Ethiopian dam, which has been souring regional relations for years, Feltman said he saw some openings for potential progress on talks among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to avert a major diplomatic crisis. Sudan and Egypt have long voiced concern that Ethiopia’s massive dam project upriver on the Blue Nile threatens their own water security downstream; Ethiopia counters that it needs the power generation from the project and that existing water-sharing treaties give it short shrift.

Feltman said the differences were “not inherently irreconcilable,” though he added: “I can’t pretend that you’re going to be able to bridge these gaps of distrust quickly, or overnight.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

9 Comments

  1. ለ45 አመታት ከስብራትዋ ካላገገመችው አድሀሪት ወይንም በአዲሱ ስያሜዋ ነፍጠኚት says:

    በኢትዮጵያ እየመጣ ያለው ከሶሪያው “የህፃናት ጨዋታ እልቂት” የባሰ የኢትዮጵያው “የአዋቂ ጨዋታ እልቂት” የተባለለት ለ45 አመታት የተሰራበት ስለሆነ ፤ ከለ45 አመታት በላይ ከስብራትዋ ካላገገመችው አድሀሪ የተባለች አጭር መልዕክት፡ – እልቂቱ ትግራይን ድንገት እንዳዳረሰው ሌላ የኢትዮጵያ ክፍሎችም ላይ የሚመጣው እልቂት ድንገት ሳይደርስባችሁ መሸሻችሁን እና ማምለጫችሁን ከአሁኑ አሰናዱ፡ አትዘናጉ አይሆንንም ትተን ይሆናልን ማሰብ እንዳለብን ከታሪክ መማር ግድ ይላል!! መልካም እድል!!

    In a sense the surviving people of Tigray and the surviving “JUNTA/THE TPLF LEADERS” are more lucky than the residents of other parts of Ethiopia because the Tigray people’s sufferings with the Oromo ethnic politicians violent policies towards the people of Tigray seems to be near to an end with all the attention Tigray is receiving nationally and internationally ALL THOSE “JUNTAS” REMAINING AT LARGE MIGHT NOT EVER BE CAUGHT AND BROUGHT TO “JUSTICE” AFTER ALL, while the starvation and other sufferings of residents of other areas outside Tigray within Ethiopia caused by the violent policies of the ethnic politicians is nowhere near to an end with not enough attention being given to the sufferings of residents of the other areas outside Tigray within Ethiopia yet , AS THE TIGRAY REGION IS RECEIVING CONSIDERABLE ATTENTIONS INCLUDING THE HUMANITARIAN ATTENTIONS FROM MANY SOURCES, in some parts such as the Capital City of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa the habitants will suffer in a horrific manner because the residents of Addis Ababa for example got no way of migrating by ground to neighboring countries safely as the residents of Tigray or many of the other regions found near the border of Ethiopia.

    As recently predicted by the federal government of Ethiopia when not if the violence and the water shortage reaches Addis Ababa, the same type of crimes caused by the ethnic politicians horrific violent policies we currently see in Tigray reaches the Capital City of Ethiopia Addis Ababa, then with the violence perpetrated on residents of Addis Ababa by the Ethiopian ethnic Oromo controlled military accompanied by the Eritrean mercenaries creating havocs in many parts of Ethiopia same as they are doing in Tigray, since the city of Addis Ababa is located in the middle of Ethiopia the violence will for sure render residents of Addis Ababa unable to escape the violence unless they get flown out of the city by planes which is very unlikely for almost all residents of Addis Ababa to be able to fly out whenever they choose to. Even right now people of Addis Ababa are having difficulty to travel on the ground to neighboring countries such as Kenya , South Sudan , Sudan , Eritrea , Djibouti or Somalia because the ground roads within Ethiopia are deadly not safe for civilians to travel on. Currently the people of Addis Ababa are not even able to travel safely few miles to the outskirts of Addis Ababa due to the criminal terrorist group known as Querro which are made up of the ethnic Oromo youth group which got trained and armed informally by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself so the Querro terrorizes Ethiopians in every which way possible going to the extent of practicing cannibalism. The President Of the Oromia State region, Shimelis Abdissa’s ethnic based violent genocidal actions are also helping the Querro genocidals who are literally cannibals escape without a trace after going on their gruesome inhumane genocidal and cannibalism feasting rampages so they go on continuing their most gruesome genocidal massacres and cannibalism feasting actions on defenseless Amaras and other ethnicities who they run into. The residents of the Amara regional State suffered a Coup De Tat on the Amara region’s, killing the President of the Amara state region Dr. Ambachew and the security chief of the Amara State region General Asaminew among other top official leaders of the Amara regional State few years ago breaking the Amara people’s hands rendering the residents of the Amara region defenseless for quiet some time while the Oromia regional state spent it’s all resources on training the vet growing numbers of way too many military personnel each year strengthening the Oromia State Police/Oromia State militia known as the Liyu Hayil.

    The border demarcation issue by Badme between Tigray and Eritrea and also the border demarcation issue between the Amara region and the Tigray region might delay the violence the people of Tigray are suffering with the safety issue within the of town of Wolqait within Tigray and the issue of town of Raya , Tigray , Badme and also Humera might delay the complete end of the violence within Tigray besides that the worst is near over for Tiffany, Ethiopia while it is nowhere near over in many parts , in many parts the worst did not even start but it seems to be inevitable unless the hidden agenda of the Colonel turned Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed terrorist regime is removed form power with sanctions from the West , so the Querro Youth led by the PM Abiy Ahmed stops the genocidal criminal cannibalism. Better Sanction now before it gets too late to get the desired result by sanctioning later on, time is the essence now.

    እየመጣ ባለው “የአዋቂ ጨዋታ” እልቂት ያልተገረመችው ፤ ለ45 አመታት ከስብራትዋ ካላገገመችው ፡ አድሀሪት ወይንም በአዲሱ ስያሜዋ ነፍጠኚት

  2. Feltman’s comments, “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison” is meant to create a BIGGER problem so he/the US will appear to play a bigger role in solving it! 1/ Syria-Ethiopia comparison is simply dumb on the grounds of geography, history, and power players (Israel, the US, Iraq, Iran, EU, Russia, etc). 2/ When was the last time the US solved conflicts ANYWHERE? Afghanistan? Iraq? Iran? Libya? Yemen? Egypt? Somalia? In fact, everywhere the US went conflicts got worse!! Feltman is a new broom doing the old job of Susan Rice, Obama, Binken, and so on!

    • አሜሪካውያን ያልገቡበት የማያውቁት ጦርነት የለም፥፥በነሱ ልክ እሳት አቃጥሎ ገድሎ የዞ ንባ የሚያረግፍ የለም፥፥ሰው መቀያየር የማስመሰል ድርጊት ነው፥የክህደታቸው ዋቢ ው፥፥አቢይ ሰላያቸው ኢሳያስ ኤርትራውያንን እየገረፉ ከሀገር ያስወጡበት የጉማሬ አለንጋቸው ነው፥፥ከየትኛውም ሰብዊ ቀውስ በስተጀርባ ስለመኖራቸው የሚጠራጠር ፍጡር ቢኖር ለአቅመ አዳም ወሔዋን ያልደረሰ ዜና ሰምቶ የማያውቅ ነው፥፥ዜናው በራሱ አንዱ ካንዱ ይጋጫል፥፥አሁን ደግሞ ምስኪን ሕዝብን ከሶርያ የበለጠ እንጎዳሃለን እናፈራርስሀል እያሉ በአሽሙር ይዝቱበታል፥ Donot be sarcastic- We want peace and order , but not a massive chaos!

      ፥፥እኛ የነርሱን ኪስ የሚያደልብ በየመኪውና በየመንገዱ የሚያድረው የእግዜር ውሃ የተወደደበት ሕዝባቸውን የሚያስተነፍስ የሚያረካ ሀብት የለንም፥፥ለኢጎአቹ ለከት ይኑረው ትንሽም እንኳ ባታምኑበትም የምትሰብኩትን መፅሐፍ ቅዱስ ጣጥሙት ርህራሄ ቢያድላቹ ፥ሕዝባችንን ጦር ታውጁበት ረበን ጠማን ጨፈጨፍን እርዱን ነው ያላቹህ

  3. Tell Feltman / Biden / the US that history has taught us what they mean by comparing the Ethiopian situation with Syria. They are telling the world that they will help turn Ethiopia into Syria if we don’t obey their orders. Look who jumped to cheer them for their madness, Europe.

    Is it the beginning of the end of the US as a super power? Where ever it finds itself around the world it behaves and talks as battered giant that has lost its mind and self esteem.

  4. Subject: “Jeffre neenvoy to the Horn of Africa, faces a cascade of overlapping challenges in the region.” By Robbie Gramer, FOREIGN POLICY, APRIL 26, 2021

    Humble Commentary,
    Let us be brutally frank, honest, truthful, religious, and any adjective that comes to mind.
    AFRICANS were exploited, deceived and mentally hpnotized to hate themselves (without being conscious) and be blind mimickers from the very beginning. The consequence of all that crime is what we see today within ourselves. And we must admit we are hypnotized in sector of life. What is remaining for the physical continent of the naturally gifted Black Africa is to be exploited by marauder colonial powers from every side of the Globe . And the AFRICAN PEOPLE remained exploited not only by colonial forces but by their own indigenous Africans who ruled the people, the shock of all shocks, as slaves!!!!!!! A perfect mimicker of the “WHITE MAN” who forged Africa to be exactly what we see today. THE END

  5. I don’t see any problem with Secretary Blinken’s comments. Is the situation in that region concerning? Yes it is. The goons of the TPLF have been building a glittering facade out of that region for more than 45 years. They were busy amassing untold wealth for their families and the connected few around them but had left the region built on sand. And as an insult to injury it is reported that they were on rampage destroying major infrastructures such roads and bridges while they cut and ran from Mekele like rabbits or as that patriot Bacha put it like rats. In the meantime, the UN Security Council has applauded the federal government’s effort to improve the dire situation there and Good Ole USA is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Still the US is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the old country. In war situations there should be concerns. The old country’s own domestic human rights group had expressed its serious concerns. I have concerns that someone, some trigger happy cowboy wannabe can help himself with the misery of others there. I understand that the human rights body there is investigating and let’s wait for its final report.

  6. It is good for new official on board, however for all such mess in Tigray region & the horn of Africa, especially in Ethiopia , Egypt & Sudan, # request has to be forwarded to America fictitious foreign policy. Why instability & crises continue in Tigray?? US officials have to answer this question. It is because of TPLF smugglers who snatched poor Ethiopian money, sheltered in America and now igniting conflict by spending money in order to revive tyrant TPLF so called officials. So who is behind the scene??? What did so called ur ex-official Susan Rise, it was Child play to make Ethiopia like Sorya or return TPLF officials. These is a great mess committed by such greedy groups. Hence, what America govt can bring to Ethiopian people??? Instead of chaos & fake diplomacy, first Biden administration shall ban all illgeal money snatchers that found in your country investigate what they are doing??? Even if all such messes done, Ethiopian people are honest, fear of God,, believe on religion, accept the power of almighty God. So no way to go into Sorya as land of promise by God. So do your things right instead of fake foreign policy.
    We believe on Almighty God & generous of Alha as Ethiopia stated on Bible & Kuran many times and not gave up.

    Long live to Ethiopia!!!

  7. Correction,

    Please read …. Ethiopia stated on Bible & Quran many times and they not give up such a promise land.

  8. Those disporas who live especially in America shall watch carefully & oppose for their fake foreign policy. Do u look what they anticipate for Ethiopia, like Syria??? For all world conflict & mess in one way or the other US govt is liable.
    So Ethiopian diplomats shall oppose for what they are doing.

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