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Somalia: A Recipe for Regional War?

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the U.S. military invasion of Iraq as an "illegal" act, neoconservatives in the United...

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When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the U.S. military invasion of Iraq as an “illegal” act, neoconservatives in the United States blasted him.

Annan was implicitly accusing the administration of President George W. Bush of violating the UN charter because it did not receive Security Council authorization to launch a military strike on Iraq nearly four years ago.

The international community is now faced with a parallel situation following the Ethiopian military invasion of neighboring Somalia in December and the subsequent U.S. air strikes allegedly against al-Qaida targets this month.

But at a press conference last Thursday, the new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, fast gaining notoriety for ducking politically sensitive issues, refused to sit in judgment of the Ethiopian and U.S. actions in the Horn of Africa. When he avoided answering two questions regarding his views on “the unilateral intervention by the Americans” in Somalia, a third reporter was more blunt. “One last try on Somalia,” he told the secretary-general. “Do you think-yes or no-that what the United States has done in bombing Somalia and having Special Forces on the ground is in any way in contravention of international law?”

Ban Ki-moon’s reply: “As a matter of principle, I will not answer anything in such a ‘yes or no’ manner. I think I have answered that question already.”

The only answer he gave was that he is closely following the situation in Somalia.

“I was simply concerned about the possibility of an impact on civilians and the reported loss of civilians,” Ban told reporters earlier. “I was hoping that-while I fully understand the necessity behind this attack-we should be cautious enough not to see this kind of situation lead to unwanted directions.”

He also said: “This situation only is a very stark reminder that we need to redouble our diplomatic efforts to have some political process for the realization of a peaceful resolution of this issue.”

The 15-member UN Security Council has been equally reticent in not conducting an open, full-scale debate on the situation in Somalia. “The Security Council, however, is not only silent, it is complicit in the new aggression in Somalia,” said Salim Lone, the former spokesman for the UN Mission in Iraq and a Nairobi-based columnist for the Daily Nation.

Last month, he said, the Council passed a resolution that was basically a recipe for war. “The resolution authorized a peacekeeping force to restore peace and stability in Somalia and to protect the Transitional Federal Government (in Baidoa) from the Islamic Courts Union (in Mogadishu), who control most of southern Somalia,” he added.

Before this resolution was passed, Lone said, the United States had been violating the earlier UN arms embargo by arming the warlords who were opposed to the Islamists, and Ethiopia had actually sent in thousands of troops, with U.S. backing, into the country in violation of that resolution.

The conflict in Somalia was triggered by a long-simmering dispute between Somalia’s transitional government in Baidoa and the Islamic force in Mogadishu. The United States has been providing support to the transitional government on the grounds that the Islamic force has ties to al-Qaida.

Bill Fletcher Jr., a visiting professor at Brooklyn College-City University of New York and past president of TransAfrica Forum, said that the Ethiopians need to withdraw and that there needs to be an African Union (AU) force there to help with reconstruction and reconciliation.

“The only way that the Transitional Government will succeed is if they broaden their base rather than relying on Ethiopian firepower,” he added. The United States, he said, should clearly stay out of Somalia. Fletcher also pointed out that Somalia has now become a site for a proxy fight between the two sides, with the Ethiopians supporting the Somali transitional government and the Eritreans allegedly supporting the Union of Islamic Courts. There is profound danger in this game of regional politics.

“The Ethiopians risk continental ostracism for getting involved in the internal affairs of Somalia. They are not there on behalf of the African Union or as a result of an agreed upon peacekeeping settlement,” he said.

He also said the Eritreans, by the same token, are playing with dynamite-much like the United States did when it supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s-in that they may strengthen a very reactionary force that could influence the politics of the Horn of Africa, including within Eritrea itself.

Lone said that for 16 years, Somalia had been utterly lawless and violent under the rule of competing warlords but the United Nations stood by helplessly, having been driven out by these warlords after they killed U.S. and Pakistani peacekeepers.

“But six months after the Islamic Courts Union finally had brought peace to the country and developed great popularity, as reported even by an astonished Western news media, the United States asked the United Nations to, in effect, send in a force to topple the Islamists,” he said.

“The goal was to bring the transitional government, which was created outside Somalia by close U.S. allies Ethiopia and Kenya, to power even though it had so little support that it had been unable to move out of the small town of Baidoa for the two years of its existence,” he added.

Just after the invasion of Somalia, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi assured outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the military attack was a “limited operation.” Zenawi said that between 3,000 and 4,000 Ethiopian troops had “broken the backs” of Islamic forces. But he gave no indication when his troops will withdraw.

Standing behind this entire mess appears to be the United States, said Fletcher: “The Bush administration is concerned about the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts and, having branded them as al-Qaida-lite, wishes to see this movement blocked, if not destroyed.”

It appears that the Ethiopian government, led by a regime that at one point claimed to be anti-imperialist, has chosen to serve the interests of the United States in this case, he added.

“Thus, not only does Ethiopia face the prospect of a deadly, long-term conflict to its south, but the USA faces the prospect of potential involvement, should the conflict evolve either into another Ethiopian/Eritrean War, or should the Union of Islamic Courts gain public sympathy because they are seen as victims of the one global superpower,” Fletcher declared.

Early this month, a divided UN Security Council discussed a draft resolution calling for “all foreign forces [to] immediately withdraw from the territories of Somalia and cease their military operations inside Somalia.”

But that paragraph was in dispute because of opposition, primarily from the United States and most members of the Council.

The draft, with strong support from the League of Arab states, was the brainchild of Qatar, a non-permanent member and current president of the Security Council.

Thalif Deen is a writer for the Inter Press Service.



Thalif Deen, "Somalia: A Recipe for Regional War?" Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, January 18, 2007).

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