Free Fire Zone To Be Declared Over Somalia?

December 11, 2008

Things are becoming very interesting in Somalia. Interesting and volatile.

One ongoing theme is that Ethiopia has been regularly threatening to withdraw its troops from the nation – although the retreat has not yet commenced. This has supposedly been conditional upon several things.

Firstly, the injection of a multi-national peacekeeping force either under UN or African Union authority. The 3,500 Burundian and Ugandan AU troops currently in Mogadishu don’t count as a viable “peacekeeping force,” yet there are no indications that another African nation has stepped forwards to provide the necessary manpower.

Secondly, Ethiopia’s withdrawal has been conditional upon some form of reconciliation within Somalia. In a sense this has happened, with the return in the past few days of Islamic Courts leader Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to Mogadishu after years of exile. Ahmed is a signatory to what has become known as the Djibouti Agreement, signed under the noses of U.S. troops at nearby Camp Lemonier, between factions of the old Islamic Courts movement and the Somali Transitional Government.


Ahmed jetted in under Ethiopian protection as head of the “Alliance to Re-Liberate Somalia” but it is hard to see how the Djibouti Agreement will achieve that elevated goal. Its terms require an Ethiopian withdrawal if the AU force becomes much larger, or a force of UN blue helmets replaces them. Neither seems to be particularly likely at the moment.

If consummated, Djibouti would represent a victory of sorts for the United States, which organized and funded Ethiopia’s invasion. That in turn marked an extension of previous policies, including the mustering of a “Counter-Terrorist Alliance” in 2006 by the CIA. That adventure ended in hundreds dying in Mogadishu as the U.S. backed warlords were defeated by a coalition of local people and members of the Islamic Courts movement.

Now, as Ahmed’s return shows, members of that movement have drawn closer to the U.S. and are willing to make concessions to its frankly imperialistic policy. Yet the bulk of the Islamic Courts movement remains outside the forces of “reconciliation.” Most notably, Sheikh Hasan Dir Aweys remains resolutely opposed to Ahmed’s faction and the Transitional Government.

As Aweys told Reuters last week, “This will only fuel war and bring more harm.” For Aweys, “Sharif’s return proved he had joined the “enemies”.

While Ahmed flew in for what was called a “consultation” meeting, Mogadishu continued to see fierce fighting between insurgents and Ethiopian, government and AU troops. The insurgents are extremely close to taking the city, and regularly attack military bases – drawing a heavy handed response from Ethiopian artillery. The foreign forces cannot move around openly.

On 7 December, Islamic Courts leader Sheikh Abdirahman Isse Adow reported attacks on five military bases. On 11 December, it was reported that insurgents had targeted “government bases” – drawing an artillery barrage in which fourteen people, including children were killed. A mortar also landed on the Bakara market, killing four.

It is commonly reported that the insurgency is dominated by the “al Shabaab” militia. This is half-true. The Islamic Courts movement has not died away, and in any case was rooted in different communities before the Ethiopian invasion. After providing a long-absent measure of stability, local Courts leaders attracted support, bringing Islamists and nationalists together against the invaders.

The insurgency is more nationalist than “Islamist” – and from the outset eschewed expressions of affinity with trans-national “jihadist” groups, preferring to stress the anti-imperial, or anti-Ethiopian nature of its fight.

The Transitional Government is closely identified with Ethiopian rule, but also with U.S. imperialism. That’s why indigenous fighters have almost succeeded in toppling it.

Yet they have done this before, in 2006. In that instance, the U.S. chose to dislodge the Islamic Courts using its Ethiopian proxy and private military companies. Now, the same may be happening again.

Tellingly, soon after the turncoat Ahmed returned to Mogadishu, Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi told the parliament there that the AU forces were considering withdrawal, putting the transnational effort to pacify Somalia at risk.

That this statement might not have been totally true is not necessarily important. For the record, however, Uganda’s Foreign Minister issued an immediate denial, stating that “Our position has always been that if Ethiopia pulls out of Somalia, we will increase our presence there” – the absolute opposite of what Zenawi had said.

What matters is that, as the BBC put it, Zenawi’s statement came “just as the United Nations Security Council is due to consider a US proposal to send a full UN peacekeeping force to Somalia.”

A campaign is heating up to secure a resolution that will dispatch UN peacekeepers to Somalia. This appears to be gaining momentum off the back of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Yemen. Instead of limiting the ambitions of gunboat diplomatists to the sea, the U.S. is reportedly circulating a draft resolution which “proposes that for a year, nations “may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea and to otherwise prevent those activities.”

This is extraordinary language. Put another way, it means that the U.S. is demanding that Somalia be made a free fire zone for a year. Or, in the banal language of the Bush administration, it seeks “to stabilize the long-violent and lawless Somalia.” This promises more of the same “stabilization” that has killed tens of thousands of Somalis in the past three years.

It also marks a last gasp effort to defeat the Somali insurgency and the Transitional Government is bending over backwards to promote it. The government is offering willing allies the opportunity to take “all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace” while the President’s office has said that “We’re also willing to give them a hand in case they need our assistance.”

Perhaps the Somali government realises that for now its time is spent. Operating from an enclave in Baidoa, north of Mogadishu, with Ethiopian protection and foreign air and sea power bombarding pirate/insurgent held territory may be the best it can hope for. This would of course be a catastrophe for the Somali people, yet they may still evict the occupiers.

It looks like the Transitional Government itself is close to fracturing between those loyal to the U.S. and those who wish to take a chance with the insurgency. As the Somali news site Garowe reports, a strongly pro-U.S. faction has developed around PM Nur Adde Hussein, who states that “The Djibouti Agreement is beneficial to the Somali people and we want lawmakers to ratify [it].” Meanwhile, a slightly harder to parse faction around the President Abdullahi Yusuf refuses to accept Djibouti, seeing it as a plot to dismember Somalia.

Moreover, the U.S. may well fail to secure backing for its resolution. Resolutions on piracy have succeeded recently, yet these are relatively uncontroversial (even if they are perhaps wrong-headed). Resolutions placing troops in a country famed for resisting such ventures is another matter, as is battling piracy “ashore.”

In November, Reuters reported that “a senior official of the U.N. peacekeeping department, Raisedon Zenenga, said there had been a “mixed” response from countries approached about contributing [to a force for Somalia]…Only seven of the 50 countries Ban wrote to had replied so far. One had offered equipment, two had offered funding and four had refused to take part. None offered troops.” Recent reports have also questioned the capability of UN member states to fund a deployment, particularly during a severe financial crisis.

Whatever happens in the Security Council, events on the ground are nearing an endgame of sorts in Somalia. Mogadishu has almost fallen. The Ethiopians are keen to leave, and the African Union has no more troops to call on. The end of 2006 saw the commencement of a brutal war in Somalia. Ethiopia invaded with U.S. support (logistic and aerial). Thousands have since died, through violence, starvation, crossing the Gulf of Aden, disease. War crimes have been routinised by the occupiers.

Now, as 2009 approaches, a new phase of the war may be beginning. Much depends on whether the Ethiopians stay – and whether Barack Obama will use them as George W. Bush has. Much depends on whether the U.S. continues to pursue its “war on terror” instead of backing negotiation and compromise. Much also depends on whether the insurgency holds together and, if it gains power, how that power is exercised.

If the U.S gets its way and converts Somalia into a free fire zone, then we could see another bout of wholesale violence, largely inflicted from a great height.

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