The conflict in Somalia is approaching a decisive turning-point. The contest that has dominated the second half of 2006, between the Somali transitional government (based in the town of Baidoa) and the Islamic Courts Union (which controls the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the south of the country), has gradually become "internationalised" as various regional states have taken sides in this local war.
Most recently, the United States has taken the initiative in proposing a draft resolution at the United Nations sanctioning an African peacekeeping force to be sent to Somalia to protect the transitional government, and lifting the arms embargo imposed on the country in 1992 in order for that force to be able to function effectively. On 6 December 2006, the resolution was passed unanimously by the UN Security Council. The question for many Somalis and observers is: will this salve or intensify the core problem - the dispute between Somalis themselves?
The US's initiative is the latest in a series of diplomatic efforts that have involved the African Union, the Arab League and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad - an association of east African states). Washington's official line is that sending African troops will protect the Somali government, and bolster its legitimacy, against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU's) challenge.
The problem is that the resolution now given the UN's authority may, if followed through, further complicate an already difficult situation in Somalia - and end up being the wrong "solution" entirely. For if African troops do enter Somalia, and are seen to enter, in order to help one side in a civil war, they will soon be in a direct collision-course with the other side: the ICU militias. This could have disastrous consequences for Somalis.
Indeed, the US-backed proposal fails to take account of the nuances of the situation in Somalia, which are often missed by United Nations and other international observers. For example, the resolution agrees the "partial" lifting of the arms embargo on Somalia in order to allow African Union or Igad troops to enter the country with their weapons.
But this could be regarded as partisanship disguised as principle, in two ways. First, the deployments will cover only the very small areas in southern Somalia under the control of the government, and thus inevitably be seen by the ICU as another example of "taking sides" - this time with the backing of the United Nations. Second, large quantities of arms are (as the UN, the US, the African Union and everyone else know well) already being smuggled into Somalia. The endorsement of a "partial" lifting of the embargo in such circumstances entails one-sided intervention.
The practicality, the benefit and the long-term plan of any troop deployment is, at best, unproven in present circumstances. The effectiveness of any foreign troops in Somalia depends on their being accepted as impartial and widely-supported by Somalis; otherwise - as in comparable cases around the world - they will only reinforce the cycle of violence and insecurity.
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)
"Somalia slides into war"
(3 November 2006)
A proxy conflict
The text of the resolution also suggests that the countries bordering Somalia - Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti - should not contribute to any intervention force. Kenya and Djibouti do not want to send troops anyway. But Ethiopia does, and indeed has already sent many (perhaps thousands) of its soldiers into Somalia - and not for the interest of the African Union, Igad, the United Nations or the United States but for its national interest alone (and one which, very relevantly, has a long history of conflict with Somalia).
The speaker of Somalia's 275-member parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, says he has been told by international bodies that Ethiopian troops on Somali soil number up to 15,000. Aden and his Baidoa-based parliament have voted for the deployment of foreign troops, but sought to exclude those from neighbouring countries - precisely because such troops are considered unlikely to be neutral to all Somalis.
Meanwhile, the unexpected meeting in Djibouti on 3 December between Ethiopia's deputy foreign minister Tekeda Alemu and ICU officials, brokered by Kenya, has not reduced the tension between the two sides. Alemu says he told the courts that Ethiopia will exercise diplomatic measures but reserve the right to defend itself; the courts's own foreign secretary, Ibrahim Hassan Adow, responded that the Ethiopian troops must withdraw or face being dislodged by force.
The very fact of the meeting suggests shrewd calculations on either side. Ethiopia may have wanted to display some flexibility in face of accusations from some regional powers and from international opinion that it wished merely to invade Somalia for its own benefit; the Islamic Courts may have wanted to borrow as much time as they can while they are completing their military preparations to confront the Ethiopians.
If Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden's sources are correct, the Ethiopians far outnumber the courts's militias. The latter are drawn mainly from the large Hawiye tribe that inhabits the Mogadishu and central regions of Somalia. They have won sympathy and support from other parts of Somalia, and their military successes in recent months have encouraged militias from a variety of other clans to join them.
Thus, despite the direct meeting between the Ethiopians and the Islamic Courts Union, the dynamics of the situation on the ground still tend to the confrontational. Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi says he has already concluded all preparations for a war against the ICU. Ethiopia seems unlikely to withdraw without reaching what it sees as its principal strategic military and political objectives.
Ethiopian troops are being assigned to Galkaio, a major town in central Somalia, to attempt to create a territorial divide between the Islamic Courts and semi-autonomous Puntland. The ICU is equally determined to outmanoeuvre the Ethiopians, and the court's militias have from three different directions been getting closer to the government's base of Baidoa.
In these circumstances, a meeting in Khartoum between the courts and Somalia's transitional government that had been scheduled for 15 December - and which the government announced on 5 December it would no longer attend - could in principle be pivotal. It would present the international community with an opportunity to press the two Somali sides to agree a timetable to de-escalate the war. It remains to be seen whether the new UN resolution will reinforce the Baidoa-based government's sense that it can advance its claim for international support; but if an expansion of fighting can be avoided in the coming days, there may still be a chance that Khartoum could begin to create a dynamic for peace.
It will be difficult to reach a decision that pleases opposing Somali sides - though this has been the case all along. Since the outbreak of civil conflict in 1991, fourteen Somali peace conferences have been held and up to five governments formed on different occasions. None received the full backing of the international community, and in the end each has collapsed at the whim of warlords who have had no mercy for ordinary Somalis.
The right kind of pressure
There are three ingredients of diplomatic success at Khartoum and after. First, the UN should follow its 6 December resolution by condemning countries that have violated its 1992 arms embargo on Somalia - the combatants in Somalia's "proxy war". The biggest culprits are Ethiopia and Yemen on the government's side, and Eritrea on the Islamic Courts's side.
The US and the Security Council's failure to condemn the arms flow into Somalia is unacceptable. The fact that today's resolution comes after the unlawful entry of Ethiopia into Somalia, and thus appears to sanction it, is a further political miscalculation.
Second, there needs to be greater recognition that the US and the UN have not put enough impartial pressure on the Somali sides to resolve their differences. The international community - notwithstanding the fact that the Security Council resolution recommends that "an inclusive political process" takes place in Somalia - must agree a united position and face Somalis without prejudice.
This point is reinforced by the political stance of the United States. When the current Somali government was formed in 2004, the US still supported some of the more powerful warlords in pursuit of "Islamists" in Somalia. It was only after the emergence of the Union of Islamic Courts, as recently as May-June 2006, that the United States recognised the Somali government.
As part of its submission to the UN, it would be helpful if the US could substantiate its claim that the Islamic Courts have links to al-Qaida. Otherwise, it - and the wider international community - will again be suspected of anathematising people just because they can be depicted as "Islamists".
Third, the international community must help make Ethiopia realise that although it may have legitimate security concerns in the region these can only be addressed through peaceful means. There is a border dispute with Somalia, and a traditional hostility based on different religions - but neither country can succeed by trying to occupy the other by force. Diplomacy is the only way forward.
Somalis need peace and development, not more war. The catastrophic floods that have affected the country in the last month are a reminder of the environmental damage of conflict and of long-term climate change, which need to be addressed if Somalis and their regional neighbours are to build sustainable lives and societies.
This is a decisive moment for Somalia and for the Horn of Africa.