After months of unsuccessful attempts to stop the war in Tigray, Washington has announced a new package of sanctions that will step in if the warring parties are unable to reach a ceasefire or block humanitarian aid.
The executive order, signed by US President Joe Biden and issued on Friday, was a clear warning that sanctions would cover all parties involved in the conflict and that punitive actions would involve the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara. The regional government “targets those responsible or complicit in prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia, denying access to humanitarian aid or blocking a ceasefire”. The announcement reveals that Washington is at a stalemate in the 10-month conflict that has reportedly killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds.
Ethiopian forces entered Tigray in November after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said government forces had been attacked by elements of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional party that dominated national politics for nearly three decades until 2018.
Recently in August, Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader Abiy urged Ethiopians to join the armed forces to support them in the battle of Tigray. This came after a dramatic turnaround in June when Tigrayan forces recaptured the regional capital, Mekelle, and the Ethiopian army was largely withdrawn despite Abiy’s promise to end the conflict and achieve a “quick victory.” Abiy uncompromisingly did not respond to various calls from the international community and African leaders to sit down to meet with Tigray and continued to launch military action against the region.
Local officials said the war had spread from Tigray to two other Ethiopian regions, Amhara and Afar, since July, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. The new crackdown prompted Abiy to respond in an online letter to the Biden administration, accusing the US of not supporting Ethiopia in its fight against the TPLF, which it describes as a terrorist group.
Abiy Ahmed also turned down a request to meet face-to-face with Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in Tigray, dealing a blow to US efforts to end a conflict that is destabilizing a country. It was once an ally against terrorism in the Horn region.
In May, the United States imposed visa restrictions and economic sanctions on some officials from Eritrea and Ethiopia as part of Washington’s effort to stop the conflict by imposing penalties on the Ethiopian government and other entities and individuals in the war.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai informed the government’s senior trade adviser, Mamo Mihretu, that if Ethiopia does not address the ongoing human rights abuses in the Tigray conflict, this could affect Ethiopia’s compliance with the future African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA offers the Ethiopian economy an important trade program that allows the sub-Saharan country to import US goods duty-free. However, the US administration has confirmed that Washington will suspend sanctions if Ethiopia and Tigray enter into peace talks and implement a ceasefire.
“The United States is determined to push for a peaceful resolution of this conflict,” Biden said in a statement.
According to Jason Mosley, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Center for African Studies, Ethiopia is in a humanitarian catastrophe, fueled by the determination of Tigrayan, Amhara, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to continue to find a military solution. Mosley believes the US sanctions framework is “unlikely to cause a change” in positions in Ethiopia in the short term, and hopes the move is “more likely to bring the elites who support Abiy Ahmed and his government closer together.”
Mosley thinks the US has better tools to put pressure on Ethiopia. “US influence in Ethiopia is extremely limited. However, if the United States wants to have a more positive impact, it can take control of Ethiopian diaspora activists’ activities in the US or using US-based social media. “Many of these activists are US citizens,” he said.
*A version of this article was published in the September 23, 2021 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly.