14 November 2015

Eritrea: What Has Eritrea Got to Do With the Crisis in Yemen?

Photo: Temesgen Woldezion /Wikipedia
Eritrean soldiers on parade.

Recent reports show that Eritrea is officially involved in the Yemeni crisis allowing the Saudi-led Arab coalition to use its Assab port, airspace and territorial waters in fighting the Houthi rebels.

A high official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, who wants to remain anonymous, told The Reporter that the move could easily be manipulated to jeopardize the security situation in the Horn of Africa.

"The Ethiopian government has been closely following the developments in Yemen and Eritrea's recent involvement," he stressed.

The news comes after the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported that Saudi Arabia and the UAE made the deal with Eritrea after neighboring Djibouti rejected the proposal. The arrangement would allow the coalition to use Eritrea's land to establish a military base instead of fighting on Yemeni soil. Eritrea's support also includes sending over 400 soldiers to join the Emirati contingent forces in fighting against the strong Houthi forces.

It was also reported that Eritrea will receive fuel and financial compensation in return. The UN fears the agreement may violate the Security Council resolutions, which were imposed against Eritrea in case it diverted the compensation and destabilized the horn region.

The coalition is working hard to bring back President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi who was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia after Houthi rebels assaulted the capital, Sana'a, last year.

From Somalia to Yemen

Over a decade after the fierce border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which left thousands dead on both sides, the two countries met on Somali soil, one supporting one group against the other. That instance had paused the no-peace-no-war situation. Ethiopia entered Somalia following official invitations by the weak but internationally recognized transitional government while Eritrea was allegedly backing the Islamic Union Courts (IUC). Many observers had explained the situation as purely a proxy war fought on Somali soil.

The UNSC had imposed successive sanctions on the country in 2009 following the confirmation that the Eritrean government was providing military and financial support to Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group. The accusations had included Eritrea sending 2,000 troops to Somalia to fight along with militants.

As a result, Eritrea has been isolated from the region and from world politics. According to UN reports, the internal socio-political situation in the country is worsening and is resulting in its citizens scattering all over the world. Some believe that the country was even on the verge of state failure.

However, the current move by the Asmara is considered as a way out from the difficult situation. Apart from the financial calculation, allying with the Saudi coalition, a move which is also supported by the west and the US, may completely change the geopolitical settings and form of alliances in the Horn region.

"Eritrea will likely seek to expand its relationships beyond the region in an attempt to break its isolation in the region. Djibouti and Ethiopia have been trying to turn it into a regional rogue state through the African Union. So, from Eritrea's perspective, accepting Saudi and Emirati cash and resources is a logical move," explained a South Front analyst in a brief documentary titled "Arab Coalition Expands into the Horn of Africa".

An Ethiopian military observer to Yemen, who also wants to remain anonymous, reiterates that Eritrea, a state he accused of being behind all instabilities in the horn region, was behind the Houthi movement, a Shia-led movement that is allegedly supported by Iran. Last year, the Houthi militants crumbled the former government from San'a and making the president flee to Saudi Arabia.

The conflict has also taken a regional orientation, such that both Iran and Saudi, archenemies in the Middle East bordering Yemen, are involved in the crisis. Saudi is a Sunni-led country.

"We know Eritrea still supports the north-based Houthi movement. And now, its ironic to see the same government officially support the Saudi-led Arab coalition. As far as it gets cash, the Eritrean government will support any sides," he accused.

There have been no immediate comments coming from Asmara following the UN report.

Both the military observer and the analyst agree that this move will completely complicate the situation in Yemen and the bigger region as well.

"Indeed, Eritrea is ready to accept cash and resources from anyone who is ready to provide it to them," concludes the South Front analyst.

This analyst also believes that there was a time when Eritrea supported Yemen's Houthi fighters and functioned as a transshipment location for Iranian supplies heading to them. For the South Front analyst, involving Eritrea in this Arab coalition is a politically calculated decision for two reasons: one, to stop contact between Eritrea, Iran and the Houti militants, and to reduce Iran's engagement in Yemen; and, second, to use the port of Assab as a local logistics hub. Given the great distances that must be traveled by sea to get to Aden from Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the port of Assab is located at a much more advantageous location.

Does it matter to Ethiopia?

In 2011, when the North Africa uprising expanding, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was asked if it would have any impact on Ethiopia.

"It is highly unlikely," he responded. "The one country that is likely to affects us directly is Yemen. If the demonstrations in Yemen lead to some sort of disorder, this might give Al-Qaeda, which is based there, good opportunity to expand," he explained.

"If the current demonstrations are not managed well, they could lead to an unwelcome political vacuum and possible state failure in Yemen," he added. "That will be a major security risk for all of us and the Horn of Africa".

It appeared to be true that, in any case, a power vacuum in Somalia or Yemen could be the perfect situation for the Asmara regime to use as a springboard to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn Africa.

Last year, Elisabeth Kendall (PhD) of Oxford University, who commented on Yemen's crisis before participants of the Global Security Seminar that was held in London, observed a close link between Somalia and Yemen. She noted that the Yemeni insurgents have close ties with Somalia, explaining that Al-Shabaab had been closely followed up by the Al-Qaeda wing in the peninsula.

The South Front report also looks into another reason for the arrangement between Eritrea, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It says Saudi Arabia will be able to turn Eritrea into a tool to destabilize the situation in Ethiopia.

"It is possible through the mono-ethnic communities of Ogaden and Oromo," the report stipulates, adding that the Ethiopian government is pushing out anti-Saudi sentiments and is annihilating pro-Saudi Islamist entities.

In fact, these views challenge the official media reports that Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia have agreed on a comprehensive cooperation just last month when Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn visited the country.

However, the high official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Ethiopian government recognizes the president in exile as the legitimate Yemeni leader and that he observed no problems with Saudi Arabia and the broader coalition it leads.

"The Ethiopian government is well aware that some countries want to take advantage of the crisis in Yemen. Eritrea was there since day one. Its current involvement will have impact on the broader geopolitical situation," he explained.

"Ethiopia's concern is about Eritrea's involvement. It has always been a factor of destabilization in the Horn region. We will be closely following the situation in case its current activity immediately affects Ethiopia's peace and security," he stressed.

Sudan, which borders Eritrea and Ethiopia, is also part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and provides aircraft and deploys at least 300 infantry troops. So does Egypt.

For South Front, the Saudi and Emirati presence in Eritrea will not be limited by the duration of the Yemeni conflict. The UAE took Assab on lease for 30 years. Separately, South Front reported the UAE is seeking to take a former naval base in Berbera, Somaliland on lease.

"The Emirati activity in Eritrea is a first step in a big plan to establish a naval base network on the Horn of Africa's coast," the analyst concluded.

Apart from this, it is clear that the US and French governments have naval and military bases in Djibouti. In this case, the current Arab alliance in Yemen and their expansion to the Horn of Africa might remake the geopolitical settings of the East African region.

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