Ethiopia: Can Abiy win the war via airstrikes while failing on the ground?
The Ethiopian Air Force launched a bombing assault this week on Mekelle, Tigray’s capital.
MiG fighter-bombers strafed the city for three days in succession, targeting what the administration in Addis Abeba referred to as “hard military objectives.”
Addis Ababa stated on Monday that its aircraft were heading to a meeting of top Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) members.
Getachew Reda, the spokesperson for the Tigrayan administration, disputed this. On Wednesday, it seemed that the objective was a manufacturing compound full of brand new tyres.
According to Addis, the location was a covert workshop for repairing military systems. Images of huge plumes of black smoke and an innocuous-looking compound full of rubber tyres, some of which were burning, were extensively shared on social media.
It has now been verified that a small number of people, including women and children, were wounded by high-velocity bombs launched on the complex, which is situated in a residential neighborhood.
The targeted plant was formerly associated with the TPLF but is now mostly closed. According to sources, it is a decommissioned and abandoned facility that has been converted as a salvage yard for car components and tyres by local companies.
The strategy behind the air campaign is unclear. At this point, all we can say is that it has not caused substantial harm to the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF).
And this increases the likelihood that the bombings are merely a message from Addis that it can, and probably likely will, inflict misery and fear on Mekelle in retaliation for what is going on elsewhere in the conflict.
The most recent battlefield dynamics support this theory. The air campaign comes only days after the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and its ethnic militia were routed in one of their worst defeats since June.
A reporter for the US National Public Radio (NPR) who was interviewed by BBC Focus on Africa on Wednesday evening provided a terrible first-hand account of the ENDF and its allies’ severe casualties in Amhara State.
The reporter mentioned tens of thousands of dead fighters and claimed he observed hundreds of bodies in ENDF uniforms scattered along a key route between Kombolcha and Dessie in Amhara State.
According to him, the intensity of the conflict has resulted in significant population displacement. The TDF said over the weekend that it had taken possession of Chifra, a key vantage point in the Ambasscl Mountains.
With this victory, the TDF gains control of key supply lines to the south and to the cast — in the direction of Afar, where the TDF also operates.
Other accounts portray a more bleak and dismal image of Abiy’s troops. Long columns of military vehicles carrying ethnic militias equipped with primitive weapons like as machetes have been moving towards Kombolcha since Monday in an attempt to retake control of the northern route.
Nonetheless, there is delusory chatter in Addis that the troops massing in Kombolcha would somehow breach the TDF defenses and invade Mekelle.
An air force is only as effective as the ground forces it supports. The idea that Abiy can win the war only via bombing while failing on the ground sounds ridiculous.
Airstrikes are also not inexpensive. Their usage will further suffocate Ethiopia’s economy. Even cheaper ordnance costs approximately $50,000 per missile. A weaponized drone may cost anything from $8,000 to $15,000 per hour to operate.
Increased airstrikes pose significant dangers to people. Precision weapons are not used by the Ethiopian Air Force. So far, we haven’t seen any of the infamous Turkish drones in operation.
Even if they were, they are unlikely to be utilized to make the conflict less dangerous for people. As the past 11 months have shown, what we have in Ethiopia is a violent and filthy civil war devoid of any ethical considerations.
There is a genuine risk that Abiy, with his back against the wall, would turn to indiscriminate bombings to punish Tigrayans or because he has run out of other options. He has enough planes and ammunition to sustain a lengthy aerial assault.
In June, the TDF used a man-portable air defense system to shoot down an Ethiopian Cl30 cargo aircraft (MANPAD). It’s unknown how much stock they have left and if they’re useful against fighter aircraft.
The international community has few options at its disposal to prevent the escalation in Tigray. There is no desire to persuade the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Tigray (on the model of Kosovo), as Tigrayan activists are currently asking.
There also seems to be no will to confront the Abiy administration.
Unfortunately, there is no hope of the Tigray conflict ending very soon. And the toll of civilian fatalities – whether from aerial bombardment or hunger – will rise further.