Foreign drones tip the scales in Ethiopia's civil war

NAIROBI, Kenya – After the Prime Minister of Ethiopia succeeded in superb military victory at the start of the month reversing a rebel m...


NAIROBI, Kenya – After the Prime Minister of Ethiopia succeeded in superb military victory at the start of the monthreversing a rebel march on the capital which threatened to overthrow him, he credited the bravery of his troops.

“Ethiopia is proud of your incredible heroism”, jubilant leader Abiy Ahmed, said to his troops on the Kombolcha front, December 6. “You were our trust when we said Ethiopia would never lose.”

In reality, the reason for Mr. Abiy’s turn of fortune loomed in the sky: a fleet of combat drones, recently acquired from allies in the Persian Gulf region and beyond who are determined to keep him in power.

Over the past four months, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran have quietly provided Mr. Abiy with some of the remaining armed drones, even as the United States and African governments call for a ceasefire. and peace talks, according to two Western countries. diplomats who were briefed on the crisis and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The motivations of Mr. Abiy’s suppliers varied: to earn money; gain an advantage in a strategic region; and to support a winner in the spiraling conflict that engulfed Africa’s second most populous nation. But the impact of the drones was stark – hitting the Tigrayan rebels and their supply convoys as they pushed on a major highway towards the capital, Addis Ababa. The rebels have since retreated about 270 miles by road north, wiping out months of battlefield gains.

Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael told the United Nations on Sunday that he had ordered an immediate withdrawal of all forces from Tigray’s borders, citing, among other factors, “drones supplied by foreign powers”.

In a letter to Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Debretsion called for a ceasefire followed by peace talks. “We hope that our bold act of withdrawal will be a decisive opening for peace,” he wrote.

On Monday, his spokesperson said a wave of Ethiopian airstrikes inside Tigray had killed 18 civilians and injured 11.

An Ethiopian government spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the use of drones.

The demonstration of drone power confirmed that the year-old conflict in Ethiopia, so far largely regional, has become international. And it adds the country to a growing list of conventional conflicts, such as those in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, where combat drones have become an important factor in the struggle, if not the dominant factor.

“More and more, unmanned systems are a game changer,” said Peter W. Singer, drone warfare expert at New America, a research group in Washington. “It’s not just about the raw capacity of the drones themselves – it’s the multiplier effect they have on almost every other human and system on the battlefield.”

For Mr. Abiy, the drones arrived just in time.

He launched a military campaign in Tigray in November 2020, a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, in coordination with the leader of neighboring Eritrea. But its forces suffered a humiliating defeat last summer when Tigrayan rebels forced them out of Tigray and then began to push south. At the end of November, the Tigrayans were approaching the town of Debre Birhan, about 85 miles north of Addis Ababa.

But they couldn’t go any further. Swarms of drones appeared overhead, hitting soldiers and supply convoys, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, one of the main Tigrayan commanders, said in an interview with The New York Times.

“At one point there were 10 drones in the sky,” he said. “You can imagine the effect. We were an easy target.

Mr. Abiy built his arsenal of drones by leveraging the sympathy of foreign autocrats and a growing segment of the global arms trade.

Even as he spoke of negotiations, Mr. Abiy looked to other countries to strengthen his army. Almost every day, cargo flights have arrived from a military base in the United Arab Emirates, one of Mr. Abiy’s closest allies.

The Emiratis had formed Mr Abiy’s Republican Guard and provided crucial military support at the start of the war, launching drone strikes that destroyed Tigrayan artillery and weapons depots, a Western official and an official said. former Ethiopian official.

The UAE strikes ended in January after President Biden came to power, under pressure from Washington. But they have resumed in recent months, largely in the form of the latest Chinese-made drones, officials said.

Emirati drone strikes, led by national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, appear to be a snub to American diplomatic efforts to end the war. US officials say they are trying to draw the UAE into the peace efforts as allies, but this cooperation is limited.

In a meeting with US regional envoy Jeffrey Feltman earlier this week Sheikh al-Nahyan denied his country was shipping arms to Ethiopia, a US official with knowledge of the meeting.

By contrast, Mr. Abiy’s relations with Turkey have been relatively open.

In August, he signed a military pact with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Bayraktar TB2 drone played a decisive role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is made by a company run by Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law.

Turkish drones are attractive to many African countries looking for relatively inexpensive combat-tested equipment with few conditions. “Even in Africa, wherever I go, they want drones,” Erdogan boasted in October after touring Nigeria, Togo and Angola. (Drones are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles).

After the recent appearance of Bayraktar drones in Ethiopia, Turkish officials insisted that the sale of drones was a purely commercial activity – Defense and aviation exports to Ethiopia reached $ 95 million this year, up from $ 235,000 in 2020, the Assembly of Turkish Exporters reported.

But in recent days, Turkish officials have privately claimed to have frozen exports to Ethiopia, apparently in response to international pressure on a war that has become synonymous with atrocities and famine.

At least 400,000 people are living in conditions bordering on famine, according to the United Nations.

In response to reports of civilians killed, detained or deported, the United Nations Human Rights Council Okay Friday to set up a commission to investigate the abuses and identify the perpetrators – the latest of many international initiatives that so far have failed to stop the suffering.

Mr. Abiy, meanwhile, is focusing on his military campaign and foreign sponsors. On Friday, he landed in Istanbul for the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit – a two-day gathering of leaders from 39 African countries that analysts say is also a forum for Turkish arms sales.

Its adoption of Iranian drones, although much less powerful than the Chinese or Turkish models, has further strained its relations with Washington.

Since August, a number of cargo flights have arrived in Ethiopia, operated by Iranian airlines that the United States has accused of being fronts for the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. Flight tracking blogs have took note of the expeditions also.

US officials in Addis Ababa have made private representations to Abiy about the Iranian flights, urging him to stop them, a US official said.

Mr. Abiy’s drone army remains small: according to several estimates, he has no more than a few dozen combat drones at his disposal, and they can be expensive to operate, repair and supply with weapons. But they remain a powerful threat to the Tigrayan forces, which themselves do not have access to drones.

Dr Singer, the drone expert, said experimentation with drone warfare in Ethiopia and Libya had parallels with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when outside powers used wrestling to test new military technologies and assess the international response to determine what they might get out of it. “It’s a combination of war and a combat lab,” he said.

But, he added, technology is no guarantee of victory. “The United States had drones in Afghanistan, but the Taliban managed to hold out for 20 years,” he said. “Human will is what determines the outcome of war.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Foreign drones tip the scales in Ethiopia's civil war
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