NAROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia’s beleaguered prime minister, after securing a surprise military victory earlier this month, reversed a rebel march on the capital that threatened to overthrow him, crediting the bravery of his soldiers.
“Ethiopia is proud of your incredible valor,” the jubilant leader, Abiy Ahmed, told his soldiers on the battle front in Kombolcha on 6 December. “You were our faith when we said Ethiopia would never be defeated.”
Indeed, the reversal of Mr. Abi’s fortunes was looming high in the skies: a fleet of fighter drones, recently acquired from allies in the Persian Gulf region and elsewhere, to keep him in power. are determined to.
Over the past four months, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran have quietly supplied Mr Abiy with some of the latest armed drones, even as the United States and African governments were urging a ceasefire and peace talks According to the two Western countries, diplomats have been briefed about the crisis and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Abi’s suppliers had different objectives: to make money; To gain an edge in a strategic area; And to support a victor in the escalating conflict that has engulfed Africa’s second most populous country. But the drone’s effect was striking – crushing the Tigreyan rebels and their supply convoy as they pushed down a major highway towards the capital, Addis Ababa. The rebels have since retreated some 270 miles by road to the north, eroding the gains of months of war.
On Sunday, Tigre leader Debreshan Gebremichael told the United Nations that he had ordered an immediate withdrawal of all forces on the Tigre’s borders, citing “drones provided by foreign powers”, among other factors.
In a letter to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Mr Debreshan called for a ceasefire after peace talks. “We are confident that our bold act of return will be a decisive opening to peace,” he wrote.
On Monday, his spokesman said there was a wave of Ethiopian air strikes inside Tigre. 18 civilians were killed and 11 were injured.
A spokeswoman for the Ethiopian government did not respond to questions about the use of drones.
The display of drone power confirmed that Ethiopia’s years-long conflict, which has hitherto been largely a regional affair, has been internationalised. And it adds the country to a growing list of traditional conflicts, such as those in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, where fighter drones have become an important factor in fighting, or even a major one.
“Increasingly, unmanned systems are becoming a game changer,” said Peter W. Singer, an expert in drone warfare at New America, a research group in Washington. “It’s not just about the raw capability of the drones themselves — it’s their manifold effect on nearly every other human on the battlefield and the system.”
For Mr. Abi, the drone arrived just in time.
He launched a military operation in the Tigre in November 2020, a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, in coordination with the leader of neighboring Eritrea. But his army suffered a humiliating defeat last summer, when Tigrean rebels forced them from Tigre, then began pushing south. By the end of November the Tigrayans were moving towards the city of Debre Birhan, about 85 miles north of Addis Ababa.
But they could not go any further. Swarms of drones appeared overhead, striking troops and supply convoys, said a prominent Tigreyan commander, General Tsadkan Gebretense, in an interview with The New York Times.
“At one time, there were 10 drones in the sky,” he said. “You can imagine the impact. We were an easy target.”
Mr. Abi builds his drone arsenal by harnessing the sympathy of foreign autocrats and a thriving segment of the global arms trade.
Even as they talked about negotiations, Mr. Abi was turning to other countries to strengthen his military. Almost every day, cargo flights arrived from a military base in the United Arab Emirates, one of Mr. Abiy’s closest aides.
A Western official and a former Ethiopian official said the emirate had trained Mr Abiy’s Republican Guard and provided vital military support at the start of the war, running drone strikes that decimated Tigreyan artillery and weapons depots. Was.
The Emirati attacks stopped in January after President Biden came to power under pressure from Washington. But they have resumed in recent months, largely in the form of the latest Chinese-made drones, officials said.
The Emirati drone strike, directed by national security adviser Tahanoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, appears to be a setback to US diplomatic efforts to end the war. US officials say they are trying to involve the UAE in peace efforts as an ally, but that cooperation is limited.
In a meeting with the United States regional envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, earlier this week, Sheikh al-Nahyan denied that his country was sending weapons to Ethiopia, a US official with knowledge of the meeting said. said.
In contrast, Mr. Abiy’s dealings with Turkey have been relatively open.
He signed a military deal in August with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Bayraktar TB2 drone played a decisive role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is manufactured by a company run by Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Turkey’s drones are attractive to many African countries seeking battle-tested, relatively cheap hardware with few wires attached to it. “Even in Africa, wherever I go, they want UAVs,” Erdogan claimed after visiting Nigeria, Togo and Angola in October. (Drones are also called unmanned aerial vehicles).
After Bayraktar drones appeared in Ethiopia recently, Turkish officials insisted that the sale of drones was a purely commercial activity – The Turkish Exporters Assembly reported that defense and aviation exports to Ethiopia increased to $95 million this year, up from $235,000 in 2020.
Understand the conflict in Ethiopia
One year of war. On November 4, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation in the northern Tigre region of the country, hoping to defeat the Tigre People’s Liberation Front – his most troubled political foe.
But in recent days, Turkish officials have privately claimed exports to Ethiopia have halted, apparently in response to international pressure over a war that has become a derision for tyranny and starvation.
According to the United Nations, at least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions.
In response to reports of civilians killed, detained or expelled, the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday agreed to set up a commission to investigate abuse and identify perpetrators – among several international initiatives The latest, which has so far failed to deter the victim. ,
Meanwhile, Mr. Abi is focusing on his military campaign and his foreign sponsors. On Friday he landed in Istanbul for the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit – a two-day gathering of leaders from 39 African countries that, analysts say, is also a forum for Turkish arms sales.
Their embrace of Iranian drones, though far less powerful than Chinese or Turkish-made models, has further strained their relations with Washington.
Several cargo flights have arrived in Ethiopia operated by Iranian airlines since August, which the US has accused of fronts for the Quds Force, the campaign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Flight-tracking blogs have also taken note of shipments.
A United States official said US officials in Addis Ababa have made private representations to Mr. Abiy about Iranian flights and urged him to cut them.
Mr Abiy’s drone army remains modest: by many estimates, he has no more than a few dozen combat drones at his disposal, and they can be costly to operate, repair and supply with weapons. But they remain a formidable threat to Tigrian forces, which do not have access to the drones themselves.
Mr Singer, a drone expert, said experiments with drone warfare in Ethiopia and Libya parallel the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when outside powers used the fighting to test new military techniques and to determine whether The feedback was assessed to see what they could do. get away with. “It’s a combination of war and war lab,” he said.
But, he said, technology is not a guarantee of victory. “The US had drones in Afghanistan, yet the Taliban managed to last 20 years,” he said. “Human will is what determines the outcome of war.
carlotta gallo Contributed reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.