Report

U.S. Africa Envoy: Ethiopia Crisis Could Make Syria Look Like ‘Child’s Play’

Jeffrey Feltman, the new American envoy to the Horn of Africa, faces a cascade of overlapping challenges in the region.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Jeffrey Feltman, then-U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, speaks in Colombia.
Then-U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman attends a press conference in Bogotá, Colombia on Nov. 15, 2017. Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration this month brought Jeffrey Feltman, a seasoned former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat, out of semi-retirement to assume the newly created role of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, where multiple crises threaten to unravel the entire region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday formally named Feltman to the post, where he will become Washington’s lead troubleshooter for a deadly conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and widespread allegations of war crimes.

The Biden administration this month brought Jeffrey Feltman, a seasoned former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat, out of semi-retirement to assume the newly created role of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, where multiple crises threaten to unravel the entire region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday formally named Feltman to the post, where he will become Washington’s lead troubleshooter for a deadly conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and widespread allegations of war crimes.

Feltman, in his first interview since being tapped for the post, told Foreign Policy the conflict has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged regional crisis, citing a comparison to the war in Syria.

“Look at what the collapse of Syria and the chaos of civil war has meant,” said Feltman, citing the refugee crisis and its impact on Europe, as well as the rise of terrorist groups in the power vacuum from the collapse of a country that had a prewar population of around 22 million people.

“Ethiopia has 110 million people,” he said. “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

Feltman, a longtime diplomatic heavy-hitter in U.S. and U.N. policy circles, is no stranger to crisis diplomacy. He served in a variety of posts across the Middle East, including U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008, which encompassed the 2006 Lebanon War. From 2009 to 2012, he served as the State Department’s top envoy for the Middle East, including during the Arab Spring. Later, as a top official at the U.N., he traveled to North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Un at the height of U.S.-North Korea tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

But his new task is daunting. There’s the conflict in Tigray and the question of Ethiopia’s broader stability. Neighboring Eritrea’s military intervention in the Tigray conflict, with its troops accused of widespread atrocities and human rights violations, is only complicating any solution. Sudan, meanwhile, is struggling with a fragile and uncertain transition to democracy after three decades under autocratic rule, and it is contending with a border dispute with Ethiopia that could spark a separate conflict between those two countries. There is still a political and security crisis in Somalia. And all the while, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are in the midst of a yearslong dispute over a massive Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration clumsily tried to mediate.

“I’m intimidated by the challenge of it. It’s a complex part of the world with a lot of overlapping crises happening at the same time. But it’s also extremely important strategically for the U.S., for our allies, for the region,” Feltman said.

“In terms of an immediate focus, without question, there has to be attention paid to Tigray,” he said. He added that other leading priorities were the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute and the tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Feltman said he would be traveling to the region “fairly soon” but declined to give specifics.

Counterparts in Europe are cheering the Biden administration’s decision. “We’ve had this post for years, and have been waiting for the day the United States appoints someone to be a counterpart and to really help in a joint effort,” Alexander Rondos, the European Union special representative for the Horn of Africa, told Foreign Policy.

Rondos said Feltman’s experience and contacts in the Middle East will be essential for the job, given Persian Gulf states’ increasing role in the Horn of Africa. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all expanded their political and commercial footprints in the region in recent years, with the UAE building a temporary military base in Eritrea and at one point floating plans to build one in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Somaliland. “The Gulf has begun to understand that the Horn is in a sense its western flank,” he said. “Anyone in the West who thinks we are the only players there had better wake up and understand there are all sorts of other players in the Horn, who are there to stay.”

Rondos described the Tigray conflict in grim terms and said finding a way to stop the fighting should be a top priority. “For God’s sake, how do we put the killing in Tigray to an end? Tigray has just become a whopping, great big concentration camp, basically,” he said. “This is open, everyone understands that now, the point is we have to get the parties to come to some arrangements. At the end of the day, people are dying, and under circumstances that are horrific.”

The conflict in Tigray erupted in November 2020 after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the region’s governing faction, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was previously the ruling party of Ethiopia.

The offensive has morphed into a protracted conflict, with forces from neighboring Eritrea and other militias partnering with Ethiopian troops in the conflict.

Since then, credible reports have emerged of possible war crimes by factions involved in the fighting, including massacring civilians and widespread, systemic sexual violence. Blinken has referred to the abuses as “ethnic cleansing” and urged Abiy’s government to halt all hostilities. A U.S. aid official told ABC News this month that humanitarian groups still don’t have unhindered access to the Tigray region to deliver critical food and medical care to civilian populations.

“The basic issues are revolving around the international humanitarian law and the need for access, the need for life-saving assistance to reach the people who need it,” Feltman said.

As much as three-quarters of Tigray’s population, 4.5 million out of some 6 million, are in need of food aid, according to U.N. estimates. The conflict has also spurred a massive refugee crisis, internally displacing over 1 million people and pushing over 60,000 to flee across the border to neighboring Sudan.

Efforts by the Biden administration to end the conflict haven’t taken root despite ramping up political and public pressure on Abiy. Biden dispatched one of his top Senate allies, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, to Ethiopia last month to address the crisis and urge Abiy to unblock humanitarian access to Tigray and remove Eritrean troops from the region. A month later, Coons said he was “disappointed” Abiy hasn’t yet fulfilled those obligations. Biden’s envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said there were “credible reports” that rather than withdrawing from Tigray, Eritrean forces were simply shedding their own uniforms and donning Ethiopian ones “in order to remain in Tigray indefinitely.”

Feltman said he planned to open difficult conversations with Abiy, and with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, on the conflict. “It’s disappointing to see public statements about withdrawal of Eritrean troops resulting in nothing on the ground, or perhaps even reinforcements of Eritrean troops on the ground,” he said.

“I go into this with the assumption that Prime Minister Abiy wants to see a strong, unified Ethiopia,” Feltman added. “He does not want to preside over the deterioration of the integrity of the state.”

Conversations with the Eritrean leader, who has ruled Eritrea with an authoritarian grip since 1993, could prove more difficult. “I met with President Isaias Afwerki in my U.N. capacity, and so I don’t underestimate how hard it is to influence his own calculations,” the new envoy said. “But we do need to talk to anyone in order to try to stabilize the situation. We do need to lay out for the Eritreans what we see as the implications for them and for Ethiopia of what’s happening in Tigray. I don’t expect they’ll be very easy conversations.”

On the controversial Ethiopian dam, which has been souring regional relations for years, Feltman said he saw some openings for potential progress on talks among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to avert a major diplomatic crisis. Sudan and Egypt have long voiced concern that Ethiopia’s massive dam project upriver on the Blue Nile threatens their own water security downstream; Ethiopia counters that it needs the power generation from the project and that existing water-sharing treaties give it short shrift.

Feltman said the differences were “not inherently irreconcilable,” though he added: “I can’t pretend that you’re going to be able to bridge these gaps of distrust quickly, or overnight.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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