Morning Brief

Ethiopia Poised to Attack Tigray Capital

Federal forces prepare to bombard Mekele as the U.N. warns against targeting civilians.

A member of the Amhara Special Forces sits next to a machine gun at an improvised camp in the front of a shop in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020.
A member of the Amhara Special Forces sits next to a machine gun at an improvised camp in the front of a shop in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Ethiopia’s military prepares for an assault on Tigray’s capital, Afghanistan suffers a dual bomb blast in Bamiyan, and Thai protesters stage a mass anti-government demonstration.

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Decision Day for Tigray’s Leadership as Clock Winds Down

The 500,000 inhabitants of the Tigray region’s capital, Mekele, are bracing for an assault by Ethiopian federal troops as a 72-hour window calling for the Tigrayan leadership’s surrender elapses.

The past week has seen dueling narratives take shape between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The government seems assured that its offensive is having the desired effect, and that many Tigrayan forces have agreed to lay down their arms following Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Sunday proclamation. The TPLF tell a different story, of government forces routed by former Ethiopian military commanders now aligned with the TPLF.

Information wars. With communication lines cut and roads blocked, it’s difficult to know exactly what is happening on the ground. That’s made even harder when the Ethiopian government seems bent on controlling the story of the war at all costs. On Friday, Ethiopia expelled William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s Ethiopia senior analyst based in Addis Ababa. A press release from the International Crisis Group pointed to “the authorities’ increasing sensitivity to points of view that do not hew to its line” as the likely reason for his expulsion.

Foreign Policy has even been dragged into the information war after an Ethiopian government social media account attacked this Nov. 14 piece by Nizar Manek and Mohamed Kheir Omer as “outright lies.” In recent days, the government has been aggressively promoting other articles published in FP.

Diplomatic efforts. While spokesmen spin, diplomats deliberate. On Tuesday, the United Nations Security Council met for the first time to discuss the issue and expressed support for a mediation effort led by the African Union. Ethiopia has rejected the move as they don’t wish to legitimize the TPLF.

As Mekele’s residents prepare for war, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has warned Ethiopian forces to exercise restraint. Reports of Tigrayan leaders hiding among the civilian population “does not then give the Ethiopian state carte blanche to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas,” Bachelet said.

“Bothsidesism.” Hailemariam Desalegn, who governed as Ethiopia’s prime minister as part of a TPLF-dominated coalition from 2012 to 2018, had stern words for Tigray’s leadership in a piece published on Tuesday in Foreign Policy. The TPLF, Hailemariam writes, has “designed and is now executing a strategy meant to capitalize on the propensity of the international community to fall into its default mode of bothsidesism and calls for a negotiated settlement.”

He argues that such talks would set a “precedent for other groupings within the Ethiopian federation to learn the wrong lesson: that violence pays off.”


What We’re Following Today

Afghan blast kills 14. At least 14 people were killed and 45 were injured on Tuesday after a pair of bombs detonated in Bamiyan, an area of Afghanistan known for its relative peace. The Taliban have denied responsibility for the attack. The bombings coincided with a donor conference in Geneva where more than 60 countries agreed to pledge roughly $12 billion in aid over the next four years. The aid figure is reduced from a 2016 pledge of $15 billion, reflecting donor anxieties over corruption and the outcome of the intra-Afghan peace talks.

U.S.-Russia naval confrontation. The United States and Russia are offering competing explanations after a Russian warship confronted a U.S. destroyer on Russia’s eastern coast. Russia accuses the United States of overstepping its maritime border in Peter the Great Gulf by 1.2 miles, and allegedly threatened to ram the U.S. ship in order to get it to leave its waters. The United States asserts its ship was in international waters and was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in assertion of its right to travel through the area.

Protesters rally in Bangkok. Anti-government protesters hold another mass rally today in Bangkok calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and reformation of the countries monarchy. Thai authorities have stacked shipping containers to block protesters from accessing the Crown Property Bureau where the protest was originally planned. The rally comes after 15 of the protest’s leaders have been charged with insulting the monarchy.


Keep an Eye On

Period policy. In a global first, Scotland will provide free period products to all who need them, following the culmination of a years-long campaign to normalize menstruation as a subject of public policy. Along with making lives easier at a cost of only $11.6 million annually, the move is meant to tackle “period poverty” and the often high prices women must pay for sanitary products.

Swiss poll. Swiss citizens will vote on Sunday in a landmark referendum on whether to ban the country’s central bank and pension funds from holding shares in companies that make more than 5 percent of sales from weapons components. The initiative would also ban Swiss banks from lending to weapons companies. The Swiss central bank is against the measure, as are the major Swiss banks. Despite industry pushback, a recent poll showed 50 percent of respondents supported the ban, while 45 percent were opposed.

India-China tensions. India banned 43 more Chinese apps, bringing the total to more than 170 apps since the border clash in June that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. “This action was taken based on the inputs regarding these apps for engaging in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order,” India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statement. This is third wave of apps to be banned after similar blanket bans in June and September.


Odds and Ends

A different kind of drug bust. Two weeks ago, Thai authorities announced the biggest drug bust in the country’s history: 11.5 tonnes of ketamine with a street value of $1 billion. A string of officials posed in front of the haul, lauding the catch as a victory in the country’s war on drugs. However on Tuesday, one major problem with the story emerged: it wasn’t ketamine at all , but trisodium phosphate—a common food additive. The mistake was only noticed when a sample of the substance was tested by the Thai narcotics control board over the weekend. “This was a misunderstanding that our agency must accept,” Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin told reporters. “This wasn’t a mistake. It’s new knowledge.”


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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