A UN report that says the conflict in Somalia is in danger of spilling over into neighboring countries is being met with concern in the region, throughout the Middle East, and among officials in Washington. Among its principal findings, the report, compiled by a panel of military and financial experts, warns that the conflict could reignite a war between Eritrea, which is backing Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and Ethiopia, the chief arms supplier of Somalia’s transitional government (TFG). Political Science Professor Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College in North Carolina tells the Voice of America’s Howard Lesser that the flow of foreign resources illuminated in the report is powerful enough to kindle hostilities far beyond the Horn of Africa.
“That’s the one of the most important services that the UN report does. As an aggregate picture, it’s portraying a country that really is at the brink of a very substantial war drawing in external neighbors. It’s the most dangerous moment we’ve had in the Horn of Africa in some time,” he said.
Of the ten outside countries cited in the report for fueling opposing sides in Somalia, traditional rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia fought an unresolved border war that ended in dispute six years ago. Professor Menkhaus says that with the rivals competing again over Somalia, it is feared that hostilities between Asmara and Addis Ababa could resume.
“Eritrea certainly is by far and away the most active of the supporters of the Islamic Courts. Most of the other countries who have been named really are just dabbling. Ethiopia and Eritrea are substantially involved in arming their local clients,” says Menkhaus.
But the UN report goes beyond examining repercussions in the Horn of Africa. It cites roles by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon training mercenary Somali fighters, as well as armaments, food supplies, and money being contributed at various levels by Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda.
“I don’t think it’s substantial,” says Menkhaus. “I think most countries are providing relatively minor support to the (Somalia Islamic) Courts or to the TFG. Iran is a major supplier of arms throughout the Horn of Africa and it has been for some time. So that’s not surprising that they’re getting involved.”
What does concern the Davidson College Somalia analyst is what Iranian involvement means to US strategic interests in the Horn of Africa, as well as throughout the entire Middle East.
“It shows to me a confidence on the part of Iran that it can continue to expand its influence in the broader region and that should be a concern to the United States, as well as to countries throughout the Horn of Africa,” Menkhaus said.
With Americans awaiting the independent assessment of a Congressionally commissioned Iraq Study Group report on the war in Iraq, speculation has surfaced in Washington that the Bush Administration may be directed to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria on how to curtail Iraqi violence. Professor Menkhaus says the UN’s disclosure of these countries’ involvement in the Somali conflict will add to the discussion, rather than prevent it from taking place.
“I think the Somali issue will just be one of many bargaining chips, if and when those countries do sit and talk. I think it’s a matter of some concern, though, for the United States because Somalia has been a point of entry for terrorists, materiel, and individuals as they infiltrate East Africa,” he noted.
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