In the horn of Africa, rival Somali sides have failed to narrow their bitter differences. All diplomatic efforts seem to be exhausted. Foreign interference, direct and indirect, exacerbates the volatile situation. The result: an imminent, full-scale war in the already war-ravaged country could start within days.
A massive military build-up is taking place in and around the base of the transitional Somali government in Baidoa, 245 kilometres northwest of the capital Mogadishu. The two sides - the Islamic Courts (supported by Eritrea) and the Somali government forces (supported by Ethiopian forces) - clash head on in a new war that might engulf the region.
There has been an influx of Ethiopian troops into Baidoa in support of the government. The latter's invitation to the Ethiopians was a response to military gains by the Islamic Courts from their initial base in the south of Somalia, which gradually came to threaten the government's whole existence. The courts have raised the stakes further by cutting off fuel supplies to the town.
The Somalia government forces and Ethiopian troops are now stationed at a former military base at Baidoa airport; the frontline of the Islamic Courts is perhaps only ten kilometres away. The situation is perilous.
Anatomy of a standoff
The courts have mobilised up to 3,000 militants. Thousands more have enlisted to fight on their side in the past few weeks. Eritrea seems to have provided the courts with extensive military assistance, including weapons and combat equipment.
There has been no sight of an actual Eritrean military presence on the Islamic Courts side, but some analysts believe that dozens of engineers and military advisors may be embedded with the movement. The courts feel confident about the truth of any Eritrean presence to have invited foreign fact-finding missions to observe the position on both sides.
For its part, Ethiopia has admitted having only a few hundred military trainers in Somalia. But trusted Somali journalists have reported the presence of large numbers of Ethiopians in their thousands in Baidoa and two other towns, Luq and Wajid; the total troop strength may exceed 4,000. The Ethiopians are supporting up to 1,500 militants from the Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf's home region, Puntland).The objectives of the two regional powers are very different. Ethiopia's military objectives are much deeper than Eritrea's. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's leader, wants to ensure that a less hostile government is in place in Somalia; the prime intention of Isaias Afewerki, the Eritrean president's intention is to make life difficult for an old comrade, and to distract Ethiopia from the escalating border dispute between the two countries.
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer
Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:
"Not housewives any more: Somali women of the diaspora"
"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?"
"The Axis of Anarchy'"
"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
"Somalia: exit into history?"
"America's two faces in Somalia"
"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
"Somalia twists in the wind"
"Somalia's new Islamic leadership"
"Somalia's thorny road"
"Somalia's stony path"
(5 October 2006)
Who wins, who loses
If the tense situation does explode into war, the government and Ethiopian troops will have to inflict an early defeat on the Islamic Courts to have any chance of reaching their aims. If the fighting lasts for more than a week, the courts will have the momentum and popular anti-Ethiopian feeling among the Somalis could become the decisive factor. This will even be more likely if the Ethiopians use air power in the conflict.
If the conflict drags on, Ethiopia will have a mountain to climb to convince international opinion and its own people that this is a just war. Moreover, Ethiopian troops will be fighting 300-400 kilometres inside Somalia. That will be very costly in terms of troop strength, logistics and morale. But Ethiopia cannot afford either to drain its frontline positions to the north with Eritrea (where the contested territory around the town of Badme remains a live issue, despite an international ruling in April 2002 awarding it to Eritrea in April 2002).
It will not be surprising if in time Ethiopia asks the African Union and the United Nations to provide a diplomatic cover for her military presence by seeking its approval as a peacekeeping mission. At that point countries such as Uganda and Kenya might show a willingness to join such a force. But there is no guarantee that an African-led mission in Somalia will succeed, and one with an Ethiopian presence will find it hard to be accepted on the territory of its historic rival.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the third round of peace talks in Khartoum on 1 November means that both sides feel no pressure from the international community or any of its constituent parts. Sudan and the Arab League had hosted two earlier meetings, and many observers suggest that the latest meeting was for them a mere face-saving exercise. The lesson of the process is that any involvement in peacemaking without high-profile countries and bodies such as the United States and the European Union is always going to be half-empty.
If Ethiopia and the transitional government defeat the Islamic Courts, the United States could become the biggest benefactor. An indication that the US was taking sides was the statement by envoy Jendayi Frazer condemning Eritrea for supporting the courts, without a bad word about Ethiopia's involvement. Indeed, it is arguable that Ethiopia might not have deployed its troops in Somalia had the US signalled otherwise.
But other bodies have to take their fair share of the blame as well. The African Union and Arab League have to question their approach. The dispute between the two organisations was partially responsible for the collapse of this week's talks. The AU and AL tried to minimise their differences by agreeing to share the chairing of the talks but it was too late. The talks were supposed to start on 30 October but didn't. The courts insisted that unless Kenya is excluded from chairing the talks and Ethiopian troops leave Somalia, they would not sit with the other side. The government insisted on exactly the opposite. The two sides have only sharpened the hostility in Somalia.
The only international agency that has displayed some credibility in these disastrous circumstances is the United Nations. The UN has refused to give in to pressure from the African Union and some European countries (including Britain) to lift the arms embargo on Somalia. A decision to end the arms ban would pave the way for troops from the AU and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development for Somalia (Igad) to enter the country. But the UN has indicated that at least three countries - Ethiopia, Yemen and Eritrea - had already violated the embargo. The UN was not going to rubber-stamp these countries' individual interests in Somalia.
On 31 October, the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan went even further in warning Ethiopia and Eritrea to stop meddling in Somalia. In a sadly typical failure of diplomacy, the international community seems reluctant to talk to the countries which are fuelling the conflict.
The irony is that this is the very time when the rival Somali sides need the international community most. The Islamic Courts have been trying to minimise the fear (even hysteria) in some countries about what would happen if they seize power in Somalia. On its side, the transitional government - which has failed to unite and reconcile Somalis since its formation in 2004 - could not have survived for so long without international backing. If the world cannot influence these two sides in the direction of peace at their - and Somalia's - hour of need in, it is a lost opportunity that may never come again.Whether Somalia's latest travails are understood as a proxy war, Islamism versus secularism, or merely a battle of competing power-interests within Somalia, they share a single, tragic fact: that the battleground is Somalia, and the Somalis themselves are paying the biggest price.