by Andrew Korybko
A recent UN report says that GCC leaders Saudi Arabia and the UAE have contracted Eritrean support for the War on Yemen.
News about the War on Yemen has pretty much been scrubbed from the mainstream media, as Saudi Arabia’s information partners in the West remain reluctant to acknowledge that their ally’s “brief” campaign is now dragging into its eighth month with no foreseeable end in sight. This makes it all the more notable that the latest globally reported-on development to emerge about the conflict is actually somewhat critical of the Saudi-led coalition and was made by the UN, no less.
A report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea on 21 October documented that Eritrea “forged a new strategic military relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that involved allowing the Arab coalition to use Eritrean land, airspace and territorial waters” in exchange for “monetary compensation and fuel supplies”, which if “diverted directly or indirectly towards activities that threaten peace and security in the region or for the benefit of the Eritrean military”, “would constitute a violation of resolution 1907 (2009)”. Furthermore, it says that if it’s proven that “Eritrean soldiers are embedded with the United Arab Emirates contingent of the forces fighting on Yemeni soil”, then that would also “constitute a clear violation of that resolution.”
As many people don’t know what’s been going on in Yemen lately, let alone a single thing at all about Eritrea, it’s useful to shed light on the current military context of the campaign and explain the significance of the GCC’s de-facto coalition incorporation of Eritrea, since this also has just as much to do about Ethiopia as it does about Yemen.
Losing The War On Yemen
Purposefully omitted from conventional coverage of the War on Yemen, it’s a documented fact that the Saudi-led coalition hasn’t been anywhere near as successful as they initially proclaimed they’d be, and that unlike the rapid blitzkrieg victory they had anticipated, they’re steadily being drawn into a deadly quagmire.
Almost 8 months into the campaign, the GCC has yet to enforce its full control over Yemen. The Ansarullah Movement (“Houthis”), the Yemeni Army, and the myriad popular committees that sprung up after former Prime Minister Hadi’s ousting have defiantly withstood the external onslaught against them and thus prevented the country’s full occupation. The Gulf coalition has already lost dozens of soldiers and a handful of helicopters and tank so far, and the capital of Sanaa is still in the hands of the revolutionaries.
The GCC understands the sorry state of affairs that they’ve gotten themselves into, and they also realize that a surprise counter-offensive could catch them unaware and open up serious gaps in their front-line defense of Aden, the strategic port of entry for most of the coalition forces. As a contingency measure, they thus see it necessary to have a reserve base in Asmara ready and available to support them at a moment’s notice in order to deflect what could be a crushing blow to their campaign. Another purpose of this facility is also to provide assistance to any forthcoming gambit in trying to take Sanaa.
Secondary Target: Ethiopia
All coastal states have a dual strategic identity in that they can simultaneously project both maritime and continental influence, and Eritrea is no exception to this geopolitical rule. The benefit that the GCC sees in the country is that it’s the arch-enemy of Ethiopia, the emerging African powerhouse of seemingly limitless economic and political potential. Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and its capital of Addis Ababa is host to the African Union headquarters. Chinese investment has been instrumental in helping the state rise out of the ashes of poverty and civil war, and a new Beijing-financed railroad connecting Addis Ababa with Djibouti is expected to greatly contribute to the country’s sustainable economic growth for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s ‘miracle’ hasn’t been without severe challenges, as the country still hasn’t entirely recovered from the ravages of the Cold War-era civil war. Ethnic separatism is still a problem, and Addis Ababa routinely accuses Asmara of supporting a plethora of rebel groups, mostly along the border in the Tigray Region. There’s also the issue of separatist sentiment in the country’s eastern Somali Region, over which Ethiopia and Somalia even fought a bitter war over in the 1970s. Terrorism is another threat facing Ethiopia, and it actually invaded Somalia in 2006 to defeat the radical Islamic Courts Union that was on the verge of taking over the country. Nowadays the danger is manifested by Al Shabaab, and there’s a real fear in Addis Ababa that Islamic-affiliated terrorism might mesh with Somali nationalism in provoking a hybrid jihadist-separatist war sometime in the future (recall how Al Qaeda exploited the Tuaregs in Mali a few years back under operational similar circumstances).
Ethiopia is thus just as equally primed for success as it is for failure, given its contrasting strengths and vulnerabilities, and either scenario could realistically be taken to an extreme in no time. This makes it one of the most important countries in the world to monitor because of the continental impact that Ethiopia will have one way or another. Considering this, the forces capable of influencing whether or not Ethiopia can surmount its pressing challenges take on a significant role in African affairs and indirectly become some of its most indispensable actors.
Tilting The Balance
It’s in this sense that the GCC has the potential to tilt the balance against Ethiopia if it so chooses, be it to pressure the country to accede to unfavorable agricultural or investment deals or perhaps for more abstract geopolitical purposes, such as destabilizing the country on behalf of the US in order to obstruct China’s rising influence there (and over the rest of the African Union, by extension).
There might even be ideological reasons as well, since unbeknownst to many, Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar is actually on the ground too, and has deployed “military observers” to Eritrea since 2010 as part of its mediation efforts in resolving its host’s border dispute with Djibouti. It’s a conventional rule of thumb that wherever Qatar goes, the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist tactics are sure to follow, and this makes the hybrid jihadist-separatist war scenario in Ethiopia’s Somali Region seem like all the more frightening of a possibility one day, especially if Eritrea turned a blind eye to such a Qatari-organized measure (perhaps even originating on its own territory) in order to spite its supreme rival and strengthen its own relative position as a result.
While it’s impossible to fully predict the future, it’s much more practical to explain the present, and as it currently stands, the Saudi-Emirati-Qatari presence in Eritrea dramatically changes the balance of power between it and Ethiopia. Neither side seems ready for a continuation of their mutually disastrous 1998-2000 war, mostly because the strategic stalemate of relative parity (for a variety of reasons and due to a multitude of factors) largely remains in place and has mostly kept the peace between them since then. All of that changes with the GCC throwing its weight behind Eritrea, as even if they aren’t providing any illegal military support to Asmara, the very fact that they have such an important base in the country makes it an undeclared military ally of the Gulf.
They probably wouldn’t support any formal aggression on Eritrea’s behalf, but their on-the-ground presence could imbue Eritrea with a dangerous feeling of relative impunity and embolden it to intensify its proxy destabilization of Ethiopia via its support for anti-government rebel groups there. In the event that Ethiopia ever responds to this by attacking Eritrea, Addis Ababa would know that it could never venture too close to Asmara since its government is now protected by the GCC, being too important to them per the War on Yemen to allow for it to be toppled. Through this clever geopolitical manipulation, the Gulf States have thus not only gained a flanking base in Eritrea for use against Yemen, but also a strategic forward-operating one in influencing the future stability of Ethiopia, one of the most economically and politically promising states in Africa.