Can Turkey Tilt the Balance of Ethiopian Conflicts?

Suhaib Abdul Rahman | 05 Sep 2021

Ethiopia is experiencing rapid and inflamed domestic and external circumstances. Ethnic conflict between its various regions has deepened, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has moved the battle beyond its territory with its fighters penetrating deep into the Afar and Amhara regions. In early August, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed urged all Ethiopians, including civilians, to join the federal forces in pushing the rebels back. Ahmed has also been trying to mobilize regional support for his bid to resolve the armed conflict raging in the country for about 11 months.

His recent visit to Turkey should be seen in this context. This paper analyzes Abiy Ahmed’s visit to Ankara, the two countries’ military cooperation, and its implications on the Ethiopian conflict.

A Timely Visit

On August 18, 2021, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the Turkish capital, Ankara. He signed cooperation agreements with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan covering development, military, defense, water, and science. The two countries have enjoyed good relations since the 1990s, mainly due to economic and trade cooperation. According to Ethiopian government statistics, Turkey is the second-largest investor in the country after China, [1] with Turkish investments amounting to about US$ 2.5 billion. There are also about 200 Turkish companies operating in Ethiopia, mainly in the textile sector. They employ about 30,000 Ethiopian citizens, while the trade volume between the two countries reached US$ 650 million by 2020.[2]

Besides economic and trade cooperation, Ahmed’s Ankara visit was significant in terms of timing. Given the civil and cross-border crises that Ethiopia has experienced recently, the armed conflict in the Tigray region, the border crisis with Sudan, or the ongoing dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the Renaissance Dam, there may be a Turkish role in some of these crises. Two scenarios appear to be developing as outcomes of this visit:

1. A potential Turkish mediation between Ethiopia and Sudan. Addis Ababa and Khartoum’s border disputes are intertwined with the Renaissance Dam and the Ethiopian internal crisis, with Ethiopia repeatedly accusing Sudan of supporting the TPLF. President Erdogan said that his country is ready to help resolve the conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia over the Al-Fushqa region.[3] Noticeably, days before Abiy Ahmed’s Turkey visit, Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, visited Ankara.[4] The sequence of events suggests an opportunity for Turkey to bring the views closer and defuse the tension. However, it remains unlikely that the Ethiopian government will accept any Turkish mediation with the TPLF because it believes it can defeat the front militarily.

2. The signing of a military cooperation agreement. Western governments, especially the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, have pressured Abiy Ahmed’s government, demanding Addis Ababa several times to engage in dialogue with the TPLF. However, the Ethiopian government decided to sign a military defense agreement with Turkey. For Ethiopia, the move makes Turkey an alternative regional partner that challenges traditional forces, Abiy Ahmed said at a joint press conference with President Erdogan.[5] For Ankara, the escalation and expansion of Ethiopia’s domestic crises pose a direct threat to Turkish assets and investments, especially as it considers Ethiopia its largest trading partner in Africa. The recent Ethiopian-Turkish cooperation agreement transforms the two countries’ relations from an economic-based alliance to a strategic alliance, which will enhance the Turkish presence in the Horn of Africa.

In the few weeks leading up to Abiy Ahmed’s visit, reports[6] revealed that Turkey had provided Ethiopia with drones for use in the conflict. Although the Ethiopian embassy in Ankara dismissed such reports, but with Ahmed’s recent visit and the signing of the military cooperation agreement, other media sources suggested that the latest agreement was for the delivery of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S drones to the Ethiopian army.[7] Maj. Gen. Temesgen Tiruneh, the Director-General of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) of Ethiopia, had earlier revealed that the Ethiopian army is building a military base for drones about  10 kilometers from the center of Addis Ababa. He added that the base would be devoted to surveillance and tactical use at the agency’s training and intelligence center.[8] Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been one of its founders in 2006.

Circumstances confirm reports about Ethiopia’s efforts to develop its drone capabilities. Satellite images taken in August revealed the Iranian-made Mohajer-6 combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at Semara military airport located in the Afar region during a visit by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The shape and measurements of these drones and the missile debris found in Tigray region[9] match the Iranian-made Mohajer-6 combat UAV’s specifications.[10] The fact-checking website Bellingcat suggested that Ethiopia received these UAVs as part of an undeclared deal for use in its war against the Tigrayan forces in the country’s north.[11] The Mohajer-6 combat UAV can be armed with various missiles and bombs, such as an air-to-ground missile. If these reports are true, Ethiopia will be the first sovereign country to receive Iranian-made drones.

Possible Impact of Drone Introduction

Since the outbreak of the conflict, the TPLF has accused the Ethiopian army of using drones in the region. The Ethiopian government rejects the charge, but as the conflict raged, Ethiopian military officials acknowledged using drones in this conflict. “Our air force is equipped with modern drones. We have our own technicians and controllers, and we do not need others to help us in our fight against extremists,” Chief Commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Maj. Gen. Yilma Merdas said in an interview with the local media in November last year.[12]

Even though the Ethiopian military official did not specify the identity of the drone manufacturer, his statements confirm what the Ethiopian NISS Director, Maj. Gen. Temesgen Tiruneh revealed the construction of a NISS-affiliated drone command and control base.

Suppose reports of Turkey delivering Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S drones to the Ethiopian government are true. If this were to happen, this would tip the balance of power between the Ethiopian Federal Army and the TPLF. Perhaps we may see a repeat of what happened in the South Caucasus when Azerbaijani forces overran Armenian cities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region after acquiring Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. These drones were previously used in Turkey’s Spring Shield operation in Syria in February 2020 and before that in Libya.[13]

Conclusions

Abiy Ahmed’s Ankara visit comes amid the West escalating its criticism of the Ethiopian army, accusing it of committing humanitarian abuses in the Tigray region. Besides charging the Ethiopian regions and the entire Ethiopian people against the TPLF, it appears that Abiy Ahmed’s government is trying to secure regional support to defeat the front militarily.

Although Turkey has stated that it supports a peaceful resolution of the Tigray conflict, the new agreement with Abiy Ahmed’s government seems to be to sell Turkish military technology to new markets. On the other hand, the acquisition of these drones by Addis Ababa will change the rules of its conflict with the TPLF completely and put down all rebellious domestic fronts.

However, reliance on resolving domestic conflicts by military means remains fraught with risks. The escalation of the conflict may plunge the country into a civil war, a possibility that has become more likely in recent weeks after the conflict spread to the regions of Amhara, Benishangul, and Afar. If this continues, this may portend the collapse of the Ethiopian state, a catastrophic scenario that carries grave consequences for East African countries and the entire Middle East region.

Endnotes

[1] Ethiopia, Turkey Sign Water, Military Financial Cooperation Agreement, Fana Broadcasting Corporate, 18/8/2021. https://bit.ly/38j6NhY

[2] Turkey views ties with Ethiopia as key to influence in Africa, Al-Monitor, 18/8/2021. https://bit.ly/3BlHLLr

[3] Turkey offers to mediate between Ethiopia, Sudan, DAILY SABAH, 19/8/2021. https://bit.ly/3mPoXQC

[4] Sudan says Burhan’s visit to Turkey to expand cooperation, Anadolu Agency, 14/08/2021. https://bit.ly/3yBxglH

[5] Joint press conference of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, August 21, 2021.https://bit.ly/3jpRPwK

[6] BREAKING: Turkish drones reportedly being constructed in Addis, Eritrea Hub, 14/7/ 2021. https://bit.ly/3joeQ39

[7] Michael Rubin Turkish drones expose State Department impotence, Washington Examiner, 23/8/2021. https://washex.am/3BiTiv2

[8] Is Ethiopia Flying Iranian-Made Armed Drones?, Bellingcat,  17/8/2021. https://bit.ly/3jphaqM

[9] Images Suggest Ethiopia Using Iranian Drones in Civil War, The Defense Post, 25/82021. https://bit.ly/3krXaD2

[10] Are Ethiopian troops using Iranian drones in the Tigray war, Garowe Online, 18/8/2021. https://bit.ly/3jn8Yaq

[11] Is Ethiopia Flying Iranian-Made Armed Drones?, Op. cit.

[12] Ethiopia | Air Force, Maj. Gen. Yilma Merdas confirms Ethiopia is using its own drones, 21/11/2020. https://bit.ly/3gCSSI7

[13] COLUMN-New era of robot war may be underway unnoticed: Peter Apps, Reuters, 10/6/2021. https://reut.rs/38moiOn

 

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