A recent report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations says unresolved tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea could inflame an already dangerous situation in neighboring Somalia. VOA's Catherine Maddux explains.
Professor Terrence Lyons of George Mason University in the U.S. state of Virginia, is the author of the report, called "Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Towards Ethiopia and Eritrea."
"So while today the most urgent question in the Horn of Africa is the rapidly and dangerously escalating conflict between the Islamic courts and the Transitional Federal Government within Somalia, my argument is that the breakdown of the Ethiopia and Eritrea peace implementation process contributes to what makes the Somalia crisis particularly dangerous," he said.
Lyons says the peace process that ended a two-year war in 2000 between the two Horn countries has, during the past year, gone dangerously off track.
In short, the ruling of an independent boundary commission to demarcate a new border has not been implemented due to objections by Ethiopia. Eritrea has expressed its frustration by refusing to negotiate and restricting the U.N. monitors in the region.
Lyons says the international community has not focused its attention on the ongoing tensions. He adds that neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea are motivated to do any real peace building on their own.
Furthermore, Lyons says Somalia has become a kind of proxy war for Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Ethiopia has deployed troops, in what it says is an advisory capacity, to support Somalia's weak transitional government. Eritrea, appears to be following the tradition of supporting the enemy of one's enemy, by backing the Islamic Courts movement.
According to Lyons these factors could cause the eruption of a wider war in the region.
He said, "The real explosive potential of conflict in Somalia, in my mind, is less because of a fight of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] and the Union of Islamic Courts."
"But rather a region-wide war that brings in Ethiopia on one side, Eritrea on the other and has the potential to spread across borders into Kenya and Djibouti and really creating a region-wide conflict and humanitarian emergency," he added.
Earlier this month, the United Nations authorized a peacekeeping force to protect the interim government. The force excludes using troops from Ethiopia.
But Somalia's Islamists say the move could start a regional war and are demanding Ethiopia withdraw from the country.
The United States is among the country's taking a hardline against the Islamists in Somalia, calling them terrorists.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said, "The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by East Africa / al Qaida cell individuals. The top layer of the courts are extremists to the core. And they are in control and that is a problem."
But Matt Bryden of the non-profit advocacy organization, the International Crisis Group, says calling the Islamists in Somalia terrorists is just too simplistic.
"The linkages between militants and the Islamic Courts and some of the members of East Africa's al Qaida, these are fairly well established," he said. "I do not think there is any doubt. But to suggest that al Qaida has now taken control of the courts, which is a very broad movement whose leadership are fairly public, I think this is an exaggeration."
Lyons of George Mason University agrees that the Somali Islamic movement is a very diverse organization with many elements, some of them more hardline than others.
Lyons says the international community and the United States need to push for diplomatic solutions that address the concerns of all the parties, instead of focusing exclusively on counter-terrorism.
He said, "U.S. foreign policy towards the Horn of Africa has been episodic, has been not focused on questions like Ethiopia and Eritrea but, rather Darfur [Sudan] and counter-terrorism issues and that what is needed is a comprehensive policy that recognizes the regional linkages and looks for opportunities in one part of this conflict system that will have positive impacts on other parts of the conflict system."
Terrence Lyons also argues the United States could help quell the situation by reaching out to Somalia's Islamists to find where they stand on governance issues and power-sharing.