Tigray Defense Forces Resist Ethiopian Army Offensive as Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethnic Militias Enter the Fray

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 10

(source: eremnews.com)

After nearly seven months of fighting, the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region shows no sign of abating. Instead, the highly predictable has occurred: the war has metastasized into a grinding insurgency that could continue for years. The ethnic-driven conflict has the potential to destabilize not only Ethiopia, but also the broader northeast African region (Terrorism Monitor, December 17, 2020).

The war in Tigray began on November 4, 2020 when security forces aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked Northern Command Headquarters staffed by federal troops from the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) (Nazret, November 2020). The ENDF responded by targeting TPLF forces and quickly securing most of Tigray’s major towns, including the regional capital, Mekelle. Three weeks later, on November 28, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared that military operations had concluded (al-Jazeera, November 28, 2020). However, since that statement was made, the fighting between all parties has intensified and taken on a dangerous ethnic component. As the violence in Tigray ratchets up, the window for ending the conflict in a way that might be amenable to all sides is closing.

The war comes at a time when Ethiopia faces multiple crises that threaten to upend the many gains the country has made over the last two decades. Besides Tigray, Ethiopia is also grappling with an entrenched insurgency in the regional state of Oromia, an economic crisis, rising commodity prices, and tensions with Egypt and Sudan over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Guerrilla War in Tigray

The best way to win a war is to not start one you are likely to lose. While it appears that the TPLF fired the first shots in the current war in Tigray, the Ethiopian government’s decision to escalate and pursue what seems to be a scorched earth strategy in Tigray will be disastrous for all involved. The TPLF, now merged into the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), is an organization that knows how to fight a guerrilla war. The TPLF fought a 15-year-long war against Ethiopia’s Derg regime which was overthrown in 1991. Due largely to its war fighting capabilities, the TPLF was at the forefront in the defeat of the Derg.

Furthermore, the TPLF, or now TDF, possess the two components most critical to conducting a guerrilla war: deep knowledge of the geographic and socio-political terrain and a sympathetic population. The TPLF/TDF also has caches of weapons and an abundance of fighters as well as professionally trained officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Many of these officers and NCOs defected from federal forces in the lead up to—and in the immediate aftermath of—the current war. [1] TDF commanders include Lieutenant General Tadesse Werede and General Tsadkan Gebretensai, who is former Chief of Staff of the ENDF (Borkena, January 22).

After the ENDF and soldiers from the Eritrean Army took over Tigray’s major towns, TDF forces retreated to strongholds in the mountainous central interior of the region. There, the TDF consolidated forces and re-organized for a transition to guerrilla-style combat. Before the outbreak of hostilities, the TPLF-controlled regional militia functioned as a more traditional military force that was well-supplied and trained in the use of heavy weapons. The ENDF and the Ethiopian Air Force successfully targeted the TPLF-led regional militia’s heavy equipment during the first weeks of the war. However, much of this equipment was abandoned by the TPLF before it was targeted. The TPLF leadership knew that such equipment would be useless for the kind of war that they would have to wage. Following what was a strategic retreat to the rugged interior, TDF forces re-organized into small, highly-mobile, lightly armed, detachments of ten to eighty fighters. These detachments were then further divided into mission-specific units. The TDF is using the same strategies that the TPLF used to defeat the Derg. [2]

Winning and maintaining the support of the local populace was at the heart of the TPLF’s strategy during the 1970s and 1980s. TPLF leaders, who had thoroughly studied Mao Zedong’s book, On Guerilla Warfare, understood that the goodwill of the local populace was what would sustain their movement and ultimately propel it to victory over the Derg. Consequently, any fighter caught abusing locals was punished or even executed by TPLF authorities. As a result, local support for the TPLF was consistent and invaluable. The local population shared food and resources with fighters, provided them with safe havens, and most critically, they supplied the TPLF with timely intelligence. [3] A million eyes were always watching the Derg forces.

Stoking Ethnic and Regional Tensions

The Ethiopian government’s scorched earth strategy in Tigray has all but ensured the alienation of most ethnic Tigrayans. It has also ensured that the TDF will have no shortage of committed fighters and sympathetic supporters within Tigray. Following the TPLF’s attack on ENDF Northern Command Headquarters in November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy’s government deployed federal troops to Tigray. However, the government simultaneously encouraged Amhara militias, based in the regional state of Amhara located to the south of Tigray, to attack TPLF forces in western Tigray where land disputes between Amharas and Tigrayans are present. In addition to Amhara militias, the government also allowed Afar militias, based in the Afar regional state to the east of Tigray, to pursue Tigrayan rebels in southeastern Tigray (Tadias, May 10).

Further, the Abiy government invited the Eritrean Army to cross into northern Tigray to help conduct its offensive against the TPLF/TDF. For months, the Ethiopian government denied that Eritrean troops were active in Tigray. However, in March, the Ethiopian government issued a statement saying the Eritrean troops were withdrawing from Tigray (All Africa, March 26). Instead of withdrawing, Eritrean troops, often dressed in Ethiopian military uniforms, remain deployed across a large swath of northern Tigray (al-Jazeera, April 17). They have controlled roads and occupied most border towns and villages in that area.

Both the military capabilities of the TDF and the broad-based support that it enjoys in Tigray contributed to the Ethiopian government’s decision to allow Eritrean troops to essentially occupy northern Tigray. The government also relies on the ethnic-based militias for support in the western and southern areas of Tigray. The ENDF alone is not capable of containing, much less defeating, the TDF. However, the reliance on ethnic militias and a foreign army to combat a domestic insurgency will greatly complicate any future de-escalation efforts.

Ethnic militias, federal troops, and the Eritrean Army are all accused of committing atrocities against civilians. Numerous reports of the mass rape of girls and women, the desecration of religious sites, and the destruction of farms and farm implements have emerged (Ethiopia Insight, April 21). The attacks will further fuel ethnic tensions and entrench support for the TDF among Tigrayans. Young men and women—many of whom fear being raped or murdered—are fleeing to areas under the nominal control of the TDF. The TDF is also accused of carrying out attacks on Amhara civilians (Africa Times, February 5).

The presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian territory also has the potential to undermine broader domestic support for Abiy’s government ahead of national elections, which have been scheduled for June 21 (Borkena, May 20). There is little reason for Eritrean troops to leave northern Tigray, and it is doubtful that the ENDF is in a position to force them to leave. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, is committed to destroying the TPLF, a one-time ally turned bitter enemy. Eritrean forces have also occupied areas, including Badme, that it fought Ethiopia for in the 1998-2000 war (TRT World, December 12, 2020). At the same time, Eritrea’s involvement in the war in Tigray has bolstered support for President Afwerki among ranking officers within the Eritrean Army.

Spillover from Tigray

Spillover from the war in Tigray is occurring. Beyond the involvement of Eritrea, the war also has the potential to draw in Sudan. The Fashaga triangle is a disputed area on the border of Sudan and Ethiopia that abuts parts of Ethiopia’s Amhara and Tigray regions. Ownership of al-Fashaga, which is home to rich farmland, has long been disputed by Sudan and Ethiopia. Following a 2008 agreement, both countries followed a “soft-border” approach that allowed Ethiopian farmers as well as seasonal laborers from both countries to access farms and land in the disputed area.

On December 15, 2020, Amhara militias are alleged to have attacked Sudanese forces in al-Fashaga. The Sudanese government responded by sending its own militias into al-Fashaga to takeover Amhara dominated villages and farms (All Africa, May 10). It is not clear which side made the first move in al-Fashaga, but it is clear that the war in Tigray led to a shift in the power dynamics around al-Fashaga. As Amhara militias were re-deployed to fight in Tigray, it is likely that Sudan seized on the opportunity to re-claim valuable territory. Sudanese forces, primarily comprised of local militias, now occupy most of al-Fashaga. Periodic fighting between Amahra militias and Sudanese militias continues. The Amhara regard al-Fashaga as part of their ancestral territory and will fight for its return. Given the fact that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed relies heavily on the support of Ethiopia’s Amhara, it will be hard for him to concede to any demands from Sudan for the return of al-Fashaga.

The seizure of al-Fashaga is also linked to Ethiopia’s filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Control of al-Fashaga is viewed by Sudan as potential leverage in future negotiations over water rights (The Africa Report, January 13). The war in Tigray and support for the TDF will undoubtedly also be viewed by Sudan and other regional powers as a way to place more pressure on the Ethiopian government if it does not soften its stance on the filling of the GERD. Sudan has a long history of supporting the TPLF. However, as yet, no indications have yet emerged that Sudan intends to support rebels in Tigray. The war in Tigray could easily induce a return to the widespread use of armed proxies by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Each of these countries have supported and armed rebel groups within one another’s borders over the last four decades, often with disastrous consequences.

Future Outlook

The war in Tigray shows every sign of only becoming more severe. The early gains made by the ENDF and Eritrean forces against the TDF have not led to any decisive defeats of the TDF. Eritrean troops occupy much of northern Tigray while the ENDF controls the regional capital of Mekelle as well as parts of eastern and northeastern Tigray. Amhara militias control much of western Tigray. The TDP controls most of the central region of Tigray. A deadly stalemate has taken hold and it is civilians who will suffer most as famine looms.

It is unlikely that the TDF will be defeated over the short or medium term. The TDF will draw on a deep well of local support to sustain itself over the coming months and, quite possibly, the coming years. Neither the ENDF nor the Eritrean Army are capable of launching the kind of sustained clearing operation that would be required to remove the TDP from central Tigray. Such an operation would also further and, rightly, provoke the ire of the international community. Instead, Ethiopia faces a grinding insurgency that may well draw in additional regional powers like Sudan. A war that was supposed to last weeks may persist for years barring meaningful negotiations.


[1] Author interview with a security analyst based in the region, May 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See: John Young, Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 1975-1991 (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Jenny Hammond, Fire from the Ashes: A Chronicle of the Revolution in Tigray, Ethiopia, 1975-1991 (Red Sea Press, 1998).