Violence continues to grip the East African country of Somalia despite a recent peace agreement between its transitional government and an Islamist opposition faction. Most analysts are skeptical that the U.N.-mediated accord would succeed where previous initiatives have failed. Some insurgent factions and opposition hardliners have already rejected the deal. What are Somalia's chances that the latest agreement will help restore stability? Aida Akl looks at the issue.

The agreement was signed in Djibouti on June 9 between Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and a faction of the opposition Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS). The deal calls for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops within 120 days of implementation, contingent on the deployment of a sufficient U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia. 

Ethiopian troops entered Somalia in December 2006 to help TFG forces remove an Islamist administration. Ethiopian and Somali forces have been grappling since then with an insurgency that has claimed more than 8,500 lives and displaced more than a million people. Somalia has not seen a stable central government in more than 17 years, and previous efforts to restore stability have failed. 

Hopes for Success

It is against this backdrop that former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, hopes that the latest peace accord will succeed. "It was a step in the right direction. And it deserves support, although there are some Somalis who vehemently are opposed to it. It's really the only proposal or arrangement on the table that has any hope of accomplishing anything," said Shinn. "Everything else is just a continuation of the status quo, which is a horrible humanitarian situation in the country that impacts most Somalis negatively, no chance for peace, no chance for any kind of a government of national unity and little chance that the Ethiopians will depart."

Shinn, a George Washington University professor of international affairs, says the agreement has promise, although splinter groups that oppose it are likely to continue fighting. "The big problem is the fact that a significant element of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia did not sign the agreement [and], in fact, actively opposes it, and has the support of Eritrea in that opposition and has at least the moral support of al-Qaeda," said Shinn. "And if you can convince the rank and file of people who oppose the agreement that there is a significant component of the ARS that favors discussions with the Transitional Federal Government and thinks that it might be possible to create a government of national unity and have peace in the country, you, in theory, could undercut a lot of this opposition." 

The Issue of Ethiopian Troops

But even a united opposition would still object to the continued presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia. James Paul, Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum, a group that monitors U.N. policies, says an Ethiopian withdrawal was a key demand in Djibouti and one that the peace accord does not fully satisfy.

"What's interesting is that there was news that the Ethiopian forces were moving out of the central region of the country. And this is, of course, a major issue of contention," said Paul. "So, the accord has been interpreted, certainly by many, including the rebels, to mean that the Ethiopians would be leaving. And the government has been saying that that isn't necessarily the case. So, can we see the Ethiopians move out? And if so, what is going to be the response of the rebel groups? And what about the government? What about the African Union force? What about the U.N.? These are all question marks."

Many analysts dismiss any notion of an imminent Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia. The reason for that, says Karin von Hippel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is that Ethiopia worries that Somalia's Islamist factions could threaten its security. 

"If Ethiopia is moving troops around, it's more likely to be doing so because they are being defeated in one area or they are trying to retrench and fight back in another area. So I think that their strategy has been to try to make sure that their borders are secure. Now Somalia could easily become a protracted conflict for them. It could become their own Vietnam. But they are very worried that if they leave, they will leave behind a vacuum until we can get more African Union troops in Somalia," said von Hippel. "Now, we don't have enough African troops and I doubt we will in the near future because, who would want to deploy in the middle of fighting?" 

Peacekeepers Are Key

The African Union already has about 1,200 peacekeepers in Somalia. But von Hippel and other Africa experts like Johns Hopkins University's William Zartman say the African Union is unlikely to send more troops to Somalia any time soon. 

"The African forces are particularly reluctant to come in a place that has shown itself to be as murderous as Somalia. We are not talking about a peacekeeping force in the U.N. sense of the term. We're talking about walking into a hornet's nest. I must say the long-term prospects of this going on are really very high. The only people who care about it are the Eritreans and the Ethiopians, and they care in order to fight a proxy war," said Zartman. "If they didn't care anymore, then nobody would care."

Some analysts fault the international community for leaving Somalia's volatile situation to the cash-strapped African Union. And George Washington University's David Shinn argues that even the deployment of a large international peacekeeping force will not solve Somalia's problems. 

"This isn't very realistic. It takes many, many months for that to happen, far more months than are included in this three-month long peace agreement," said Shinn. "So the real solution is trying to convince a majority of the people who are now skeptical about the Transitional Federal Government that this new arrangement has some hope of achieving peace in the country and to get behind it. And if it doesn't accomplish that goal, then you are going to have a continuation of the violence and the conflict that we've seen in Somalia pretty much sporadically since 1991."

Shinn and other analysts and U.N. experts say the problem with this scenario is that the country's deepening humanitarian crisis and the millions of Somalis who could face starvation by the end of the year cannot survive another failed peace initiative.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.