The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) is currently carrying out a large military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray Region.
The region, that is located in Ethiopia’s far north along the border with Eritrea and Sudan, is the homeland for the Tigrayan, Irob and Kunama peoples. Under the Ethiopian Federal Constitution, the region enjoys a form of autonomy.
While the status of the region is determined by the constitution, the relations between the local groups and the capital, Addis Ababa, have been always tense.
The relations worsened in 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy first assumed office. The locals began noticing attempts by the central government to dominate decision-making process in the region.
A recent report by the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies traces tension between Addis Ababa and the Tigray region back to an incident that took place in September of 2019. Locals in Shire and Zalambessa assaulted a convoy of the ENDF carrying troops, which had withdrawn from the border with Eritrea under a normalization deal between the two countries.
Tension raised in Tigray after the last local elections which were held in August. A military parade that was organized by the TPLF escalated the situation further.
Addis Ababa responded to these move on November 4, when PM Abiy ordered to carry out a large military operation against the TPLF in Tigray. The PM said government forces are taking action in order to prevent local forces from taking over military positions in the region.
Soon after, a no-fly zone was announced over Tigray by the central government. The region was also placed in the state of emergency.
Despite Addis Ababa’s rapid action, the TPLF captured all the military positions of the Northern Region Command. Forces deployed at the positions defected, allegedly, and joined the TPLF and other local forces.
TPLF forces captured four S-125 Pechora air-defense bases, located in Aksum, Adigrat and the Alula Aba Nega Airport near the region’s capital, Mekelle. In the airport, local forces also seized a 36D6 “TIN SHIELD” radar, which has a range of 180 t0 360 km.
These equipment pose a serious threat to the Ethiopian Air Force which is struggling to survive with ever declining defense budget of the country. Between 86 to 95 warplanes of various types are in service with the air force.
Currently, the ENDF is advancing in the western section of Tigray likely to isolate the region from the border line with Eritrea and Sudan.
Government forces are advancing from the city of Gondar in two directions: the first towards the district of Tsegede and the second towards the district of Welkait and the city of Hmairah, that was captured on November 7.
In the eastern section of Tigaray, government forces attempted to advance to military positions near the region’s capital Mikkeli as well as towards the area of Raya Azebo. However, the TPLF has so far repelled all the attacks on this section. This forced government forces to launch airstrikes on the region.
The TPLF will pose a real challenge to the ENDF. The force has 200,000 to 250,000 experienced fighters. Government forces on the other side can amass only 162,000 soldiers.
Local fighters are not heavily armed. However, they operate a number of T-55, T-62 battle tanks as well as howitzers. Other heavy weapons were most likely seized from the Ethiopian military positions.
Addis Ababa is facing a serious challenge in Tigray. Fighting could spell out of the region provoking a full-on civil war. Furthermore, the TPLF experience in guerrilla warfare will likely prevent government forces from scoring an easy win.
If government forces fail to achieve their objectives within the expected timeline, international pressure on PM Abiy will likely increase. Ethiopia may end up losing Tigray for the TPLF in the foreseeable future.
A military defeat in Tigray will also effect the inner policies in Addis Ababa. PM Abiy has already replaced a number of commanders who held leadership positions in the armed forces.
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