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''The Islamic Courts Union Opens A New Chapter In Somalia's Political History''
"Addis Ababa is the wild card in the game -- if it is acting alone, its military threat is probably limited; if it is acting with U.S. support, the power balance in Somalia becomes more uncertain and fraught with the possibility of intensified conflict."
Having consolidated their control over Somalia's official capital Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.) moved during the week of June 12 to extend their rule to most of the country's southern region, taking the strategic town of Jowhar -- the last stronghold of their warlord adversaries -- and then sweeping north toward Beletweyne near the Ethiopian border, meeting no significant resistance along the way.
As the I.C.U. approached Beletweyne, Ethiopia massed troops along its border with Somalia in an attempt to warn the I.C.U. not to try to influence Ethiopia's 40 percent Muslim population in an Islamist direction. On June 17, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the chairman of the I.C.U., accused Addis Ababa of sending 300 troops across the border through the town of Dolow in order to prop up Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.), which has been isolated in its provisional capital Baidoa. Addis Ababa denied the charge, but admitted to monitoring the border "vigilantly," claimed that the I.C.U. was engaging in "provocative" actions, and reaffirmed its support for the T.F.G., which it said was the responsibility of the international community to "protect."
On June 18, reports confirmed that Ethiopian troops had entered Somalia with 50 armored vehicles on the road from Dolow to Baidoa, although they could also head for Jowhar. Ahmed warned that if Addis Ababa did not withdraw its forces from Somalia, they would face determined armed resistance.
Addis Ababa's move was the first confrontational response to the meteoric rise of the I.C.U., which took all of the players in Somalia's intricate political game by surprise, causing them to reposition themselves in the face of a growing power that had shifted the pre-existing balance of forces militarily and decisively to its advantage.
The warlords, who had been leagued in an alliance against the I.C.U. in the battle for Mogadishu, which ended on June 5 with the I.C.U.'s victory, were routed and dispersed. Some of them declared their allegiance to the I.C.U., others acquiesced in its rule and returned to the safety of their clans, and the rest fled the country. The elders of the clans that had supported the warlords quickly changed sides and sought to make power sharing deals with the I.C.U.
The weak, but internationally backed T.F.G. moved to establish a "dialogue" with the I.C.U., but threw in a deal breaker when its parliament voted to authorize a foreign peacekeeping mission to Somalia -- an anathema to the I.C.U.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (I.G.A.D.), which includes Somalia, Ethiopia and their neighboring states in northeast Africa, and would provide peacekeepers, held an extraordinary session of its Council of Ministers, approving a mission and mandating members to freeze the assets of and bar entry to the warlords, accusing them of crimes against humanity. Previously, the I.G.A.D. states -- most notably Ethiopia -- had backed various Somali factions, including the warlords, pressing their respective and often competing geopolitical interests.
Having supported the warlords, who had promised to round up Islamic revolutionaries sheltered in Mogadishu and turn them over to the United States, Washington was forced to retrench and hastily formed a Contact Group (C.G.) of European allies and potential honest brokers, along with Tanzania, in a diplomatic effort to shore up the T.F.G. and prevent an outright Islamist takeover of southern Somalia.
The African Union (A.U.), which had only been given observer status in the C.G. and would have to approve an I.G.A.D. mission, urged the Somali factions to negotiate and called, through its Peace and Security Council, for an exemption to a frequently violated United Nations arms embargo dating from 1991, so that a peacekeeping force would be armed. The Council announced that it would meet during the week of June 19 to consider the peacekeeping mission.
The United Nations, which also only had been granted observer status in the C.G., had reaffirmed the arms embargo during the previous week, but as events unfolded it announced that it would reconsider its opposition to lifting it for a peacekeeping mission. In a pointed reference to the United States, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "I wouldn't have supported the warlords." Annan made it clear that the United Nations would work with the A.U. and I.G.A.D. in any efforts to stabilize Somalia.
The Arab states across the Red Sea from Somalia that are grouped in the Arab League (A.L.) and had been excluded from the C.G. along with I.G.A.D., floated proposals for an international conference on reconciliation in Somalia, at which they would take the lead. The most important Arab player in Somalia, Yemen, was reported to have been delivering arms to the T.F.G. at the height of the I.C.U.'s advance, but by the week's end proposed to play the role of honest broker and claimed that the T.F.G. and I.C.U. had accepted its offer, which proved not to be the case. At the same time, Yemen was holding talks with the United States that included discussions on Somalia.
The Domestic Balance of Forces
By changing the facts on the ground so decisively, the I.C.U. has opened a new chapter in Somalia's political history. Since 1991, when a coalition of clans led by warlords overthrew the dictatorship of Siyad Barre, the country has had a stateless society governed by regional and local authorities with varying degrees of organization and effectiveness. Especially in the southern regions of Somalia, statelessness has produced a chaotic situation in which shifting coalitions of clan-based warlords and businessmen have failed to secure order, resulting in economic stagnation and widespread distress and suffering in the population.
After an unsuccessful U.N. mission led by the United States to stabilize the country ended in 1995, external powers sought to bring the contending Somali factions together to form a national government. After 14 such efforts failed, the T.F.G. was formed in Kenya in 2004, but it was racked by a division between its president Abdillahi Yusuf and the speaker of its parliament Sharif Hassan Shaykh Aden, who had ties with some of the warlords dominating Mogadishu's neighborhoods. Yusuf wanted the capital to be provisionally established in Jowhar, where he had a power base, claiming that Mogadishu was unsafe; whereas Aden insisted on the official capital. Only in early 2006 did the adversaries agree to locate the capital temporarily in Baidoa, a neutral town.
Nowhere was the situation more chaotic than in Mogadishu, where warlords and their clan and business supporters divided the city and formed unstable and competing alliances, which often engaged in violent conflict with one another in bids to control key commercial roads and impose tolls on their use. In the post-Barre period, an estimated 250,000 Somalis have been displaced in Mogadishu due to the endemic conflicts.
The first Islamic court in Mogadishu was formed in 1996, shortly after the withdrawal of the U.N. mission, by Sheikh Ali Deere. Since then, the number of these bodies has grown to 14. Rooted in clan-controlled neighborhoods and supported by clan-based businessmen and clan-related members of the Somali diaspora, whose remittances are essential to the country's economy, the clerical courts have gained legitimacy and popular support through their ability to provide a semblance of judicial order based on Shari'a law. Over time, they acquired their own militias and expanded their functions to running clinics and schools.
The rise of the courts posed a challenge to the warlords and their clan and business supporters. As tensions mounted, the courts formed the I.C.U. and, in February 2006, the warlords formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (A.R.P.C.T.), setting the stage for the battle for Mogadishu.
With their attention focused on the T.F.G. and the warlords, external powers with interests in Somalia were caught by surprise when the A.R.P.C.T. was routed by the I.C.U. and when the Islamist militias moved so quickly and effortlessly to secure control over Somalia's south.
The attempts of analysts to explain the I.C.U.'s success have focused on the weariness of Somalia's population with chronic conflict and its debilitating effects, and on disaffection with the warlords who were responsible for the distress. Yet, while it is true that the I.C.U. could not have gained power had it not posed a more attractive alternative to the warlords, that necessary condition is not sufficient to explain the rapidity and conclusiveness of its ascent. The I.C.U. is not a compact centralized organization, but an umbrella group of local bodies divided between moderate Islamists who control 11 of them and radicals who control the other three. That it could move so effectively with singleness of purpose is traceable to the eruption of Somali nationalism in recent months.
The proximate cause of the I.C.U.'s power surge was revelations in early 2006 that the A.R.P.C.T. had been receiving funds to arm itself from the United States through the C.I.A. working with the Ethiopian secret services. Washington has neither confirmed nor denied support for the A.R.P.C.T., but it has admitted to funding Somali factions that would cooperate in rounding up and rendering Islamic revolutionaries, and has stated that its intent was not to finance the A.R.P.C.T. in its fight with the I.C.U.
The revelations of U.S. support for the A.R.P.C.T. and especially the implication of Somalia's traditional adversary Ethiopia in the affair set off a nationalist reaction that redounded to the benefit of the I.C.U., which has exploited it. In the mass demonstrations against the introduction of foreign peacekeepers into Somalia that the I.C.U. has mounted in Mogadishu since its sweep through the south, the dominant theme has been nationalism, not Islamism. Protestors have carried signs reading: "No Ethiopia, No Ethiopian Government."
Riding the nationalist reaction, the I.C.U. now has the possibility of becoming a force that transcends clan loyalties, but it must overcome its internal divisions and moderate its Islamist program in order to fill that role, requisites that have not yet been satisfied. The division between moderates and radicals has already surfaced in debates within the I.C.U. over whether to negotiate with the T.F.G. on a national unity government or to form a separate government based on Islamic law.
The I.C.U. has promised to continue to seek dialogue with the T.F.G. that was broken off when the T.F.G.'s parliament voted to approve the I.G.A.D. peacekeeping mission. On June 17, Yusuf announced that he would be willing to hold talks with the I.C.U. mediated by Yemen if the Islamists stopped their military advance and recognized the legitimacy of the T.F.G. Ahmed refused those conditions, but said that he was willing to meet with the "illegitimate government." I.C.U. spokesman Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali Omar assured that the courts did not intend to set up a competing national government and would not attack Baidoa, but added that if there was a popular uprising there, the I.C.U. would respond favorably to calls for help.
In consolidating its territorial gains, the I.C.U. has proceeded carefully, crafting deals with local clan elders in the regions that it has occupied that give the clans control over day-to-day administration, establish Shari'a law and place court militias in charge of security. In two letters to Washington, the I.C.U. has promised to be a responsible actor in the international community, to make sure that Somalia is not a haven or transit point for terrorists, and to disband the court militias and form a genuine police force.
Whether the I.C.U.'s promises are serious or a tactic to buy time while it groups to transform southern Somalia into an Islamic state remains to be seen. Much will depend on whether the umbrella group organizes itself around a coherent program and what such a program would turn out to be. The I.C.U. has gained a decisive advantage, but it is not clear yet whether it will be able to use it to secure a lasting order.
With the warlords out of the way and the clan elders and business interests accommodating to the I.C.U., the T.F.G. remains the only domestic actor with which the courts immediately have to contend. In the face of the I.C.U.'s challenge, the T.F.G. found an unaccustomed yet deeply ambivalent unity, as it simultaneously sought dialogue with the I.C.U. and called for foreign peacekeepers who would protect it from an I.C.U. takeover of Baidoa. The 155-79 vote in favor of an I.G.A.D. peacekeeping mission by the transitional parliament signaled a healing of the rift between Yusuf, who had insisted on peacekeepers from neighboring countries, and Aden, who was dead set against that. Having lost his base of support in the Mogadishu warlords, Aden was left high and dry, and accepted a compromise that would confine the peacekeepers to Sudanese and Ugandan troops, excluding Ethiopia, which has backed Yusuf.
With the I.C.U. steadfast in its opposition to foreign peacekeepers -- it suspects that any I.G.A.D. mission would be controlled from Addis Ababa -- and the T.F.G. lacking in military power and popular support, the latter is heavily dependent for its very existence on backing from donor powers such as the European Union and the United States, and international organizations. The emerging role of Ethiopia in supporting the T.F.G. shows a sense of desperation and it could backfire in light of the resurgence of Somali nationalism.
In the new domestic power configuration in Somalia, the I.C.U. has the upper hand. Removal of the U.N. arms embargo is essential to the survival of the T.F.G., which keeps pressing for an exemption for peacekeepers, but it is far from certain. The concerned great powers and the United Nations are not willing to place their bets unreservedly on the T.F.G., a reluctance that has hobbled the T.F.G. to the I.C.U.'s advantage.
External Powers Tentatively Reposition
Caught off guard by the I.C.U.'s success, external powers with interests in Somalia scrambled to reposition themselves and found that they were compromised and unable to mount any but tentative responses. Only Ethiopia decisively chose sides and the seriousness of its intervention cannot yet be determined.
Grouped into I.G.A.D., Somalia's immediate neighbors -- Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda -- had brokered the formation of the T.F.G. and had supported it officially, but had become accustomed to backing contending factions within and outside it financially and with arms in pursuit of their respective state interests, including engaging in their own conflicts by proxy. Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia in particular were reported to have violated the U.N. arms embargo regularly, and Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya were reported to be working with the United States.
I.G.A.D. responded to the I.C.U.'s sweep by approving a peacekeeping mission -- on condition that an exemption to the arms embargo be approved by the United Nations -- and by cutting off ties to the warlords, urging dialogue between the I.C.U. and the T.F.G. Given the tensions among its members and their history of taking sides in Somalia's domestic disputes, I.G.A.D. is not fit to play the role of honest broker between the T.F.G. and the I.C.U. The latter does not trust its neighbors and, by extension, I.G.A.D., and does not believe a Sudanese and Ugandan presence will be a firewall to keep out Ethiopian influence. Were an I.G.A.D. peacekeeping mission to come off, it would be the result of pressures exerted by greater powers, which do not seem ready to support one.
More than any other external player, Washington was disadvantaged by the I.C.U.'s success. A major objective of its foreign policy -- prevention of the emergence of Islamist regimes anywhere in the Muslim world -- had been placed in jeopardy, and there were fears that, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, southern Somalia under I.C.U. control would become a haven and training ground for Islamic revolutionaries.
Washington's policy in Somalia had been narrowly focused on the capture and rendition of foreign "terrorists," which led it to support the A.R.P.C.T. Backing the wrong horse left Washington with a policy void and discredited the C.I.A., which had been the instrument of its policy and had failed to assess accurately the I.C.U.'s power and support. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Henry Crampton admitted that Washington did not anticipate the I.C.U.'s strength and had an "imperfect understanding" of the group.
As the I.C.U. swept across southern Somalia, Washington hastily formed the C.G., composed of its allies Britain and Italy -- the former colonial powers in Somalia -- and potential honest brokers Norway, Sweden and the European Union, along with Tanzania, the only East African state outside I.G.A.D. The U.N. and A.U. were invited to be observers, and I.G.A.D. and the Arab League were excluded, provoking their anger.
The formation of the C.G. represented the handover of Washington's Somalia policy to the State Department, which has pressed for multilateral diplomatic initiatives across the board against the unilateralists based in the Defense Department and the vice president's office. The composition of the C.G. signaled tentativeness in Washington about weighing in on Somalia's new balance of power.
Chaired by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier, the C.G. met on June 14 and issued a statement affirming the T.F.G. as a "legitimate and viable framework" for stabilization in Somalia, urging unrestricted access for relief agencies to the country and calling for dialogue between the I.C.U. and the T.F.G. Conspicuously absent from the C.G.'s statement was support for a peacekeeping mission and exemptions to the U.N. arms embargo.
The I.C.U. influenced the deliberations of the C.G. with its letter promising not to harbor "terrorists," which prompted Frazier to say that Washington was encouraged by the I.C.U.'s assurances, but was suspending judgment on opening relations with the group pending an assessment of its future behavior. On the issue of exemptions to the arms embargo, Frazier said that each country in the C.G. would consider the question separately. In order to placate I.G.A.D. and the Arab League, Frazier said that they would be granted observer status at future C.G. meetings, the next of which is scheduled for July 2 in Sweden.
Analysts agree that the C.G. is not a robust response to the I.C.U.'s ascent, but a stopgap measure that keeps support for the T.F.G. in place, but does not give it the resources it needs to stand up to the I.C.U. The C.G. places Washington at a safe distance from Somalia's internal conflicts, but at too far a remove to exert effective influence. Given how the United States has been discredited in the eyes of Somalia's public, the C.G. is probably the best that it can do at present. Washington has taken a hit and has yet to decide whether to acquiesce actively in a strong Islamist presence in a Somali regime or in an outright Islamist takeover, or to resist the I.C.U. The first alternative will send a message to other states populated by Muslims that Washington might back down from its opposition to Islamist governments, whereas the second alternative will leave Washington with scant influence over Somalia's political future.
Analysts in the Arab world who speak for governments resisting Islamist pressures are urging the United States to establish ties with moderate elements in the I.C.U. in order to prevent a radicalization of the group. That would be a bitter pill for Washington to swallow and there are indications that it is moving simultaneously toward accommodation and resistance. The I.C.U. is convinced that Washington is working hand in glove with Addis Ababa, and it is unlikely that the latter would have made its military move without the former's blessing or at least acquiescence. Yet, local Somali media reported on June 17 that a State Department delegation would visit Mogadishu during the week of June 19 to ascertain the I.C.U.'s political agenda.
Having been relegated to the fringes of the C.G., the A.U., U.N., I.G.A.D. and the A.L. are reduced to making empty gestures. After opposing an exemption to the arms embargo, Annan backed off his hard line and said that the U.N. would consider the appeal, which is supported by the T.F.G., I.G.A.D. and the A.U. Barring support from the C.G., the U.N. and the regional organizations with which it is committed to work are powerless to influence the course of Somalia's politics. Bidding to be the honest broker, the A.L.'s credibility is weakened by its member governments, which are anti-Islamist. The major Arab player in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, is in the same position as the I.G.A.D. states -- compromised by having taken sides in Somalia's conflicts in the past and still tied to Yusuf's faction in the T.F.G.
The I.C.U.'s sweep of Somalia's south has opened a new chapter in the country's troubled political history, but all of the domestic and external actors who will determine its future are internally divided and tainted by past associations and, therefore, compromised. Except for the I.C.U., all of them have also seen their positions weakened.
In order to stabilize its newfound power, the I.C.U. will have to resolve its internal split between moderate and radical Islamists, and subsume its Islamism under Somali nationalism, neither of which results are certain. Washington and the powers associated with it must decide if they will deal with the I.C.U. and on what terms if they choose to do so. The T.F.G., I.G.A.D., the A.U., the U.N. and the A.L. are powerless to influence events on the ground without concessions from the I.C.U. and decisions favorable to them from the C.G.
Addis Ababa is the wild card in the game -- if it is acting alone, its military threat is probably limited; if it is acting with U.S. support, the power balance in Somalia becomes more uncertain and fraught with the possibility of intensified conflict. There is also the possibility that Washington's dual initiatives are being determined independently by power centers in the Defense and State Departments.
The initiative has passed to the I.C.U. and all the other actors will be watching and waiting to see how successfully it negotiates the difficult path ahead. If the I.C.U. performs the delicate balancing act between social experimentation and gaining broad popular support, and between fulfilling its Islamist program and its need to have stable, if not friendly relations with its neighbors and donor states, Somalia's chaos will cede to relative order. If the I.C.U. loses its balance, southern Somalia will revert to its pre-existing fragmented configuration of clan-based politics with a likely re-emergence of warlords.
Somalia's politics remain a tangled web, but now one of the spiders spinning it has taken the lead, edging the others to the fringes.
Report Drafted By:
The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of email@example.com. All comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: PINR, June 19, 2006