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Balance of Power in Somalia Shifts Towards the Islamic Courts
Balance of Power in Somalia Shifts Towards the Islamic Courts

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

During the second half of May, the balance of power in Somalia shifted decisively, as the armed insurgency against the forces of the Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) and the Ethiopian occupation has begun to seize and control territory in every region of the country. As the T.F.G.'s parliamentary speaker, Sheikh Adan Madobe, put it bluntly, "The situation in the country is very dangerous; the anti-government groups are capturing a new district every day."

The gains of the insurgency, which is composed of the radical jihadist Youth Mujahideen Movement (Y.M.M.), more nationalist Islamist forces operating through the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (A.R.S.) and anti-T.F.G. clan militias, have revealed the military weakness of the T.F.G., which cannot even pay its forces, and the over-extension of Ethiopia's forces, which have been unable to stem the opposition's rising tide. For the first time since the Ethiopian invasion in December, 2006, which ousted the Islamic Courts Council (I.C.C.) from control over most of Somalia south of the autonomous sub-state of Puntland, central and southern Somalia has become contested territory. The Courts and their allies on the ground are no longer the "remnants" of a defeated movement; they have the military power and popular support to deprive the T.F.G. of even nominal sovereignty.

As the insurgency achieved a new level of success, a strategic split opened up in the A.R.S., which is dominated by the Courts movement, but also includes dissident parliamentarians, ex-warlords and leaders of the Somali diaspora. The split was occasioned by the decision of some A.R.S. leaders, notably its chief executive, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, former chair of the I.C.C.'s executive council; and Sheikh Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, the chair of its central committee and former T.F.G parliamentary speaker, to participate in peace talks with the T.F.G. in Djibouti that were mediated by the United Nations and supported, at least rhetorically, by Western powers.

The decision to take the A.R.S. into a "reconciliation" process with the T.F.G. before a timetable for Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia had been set provoked determined opposition from A.R.S. hardliners, notably Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former head of the IC.C.'s consultative council; and former warlord and I.C.C. defense secretary, Yusuf Indha'ade, who - bolstered by the successes of the insurgency on the ground - held out against the Djibouti talks and pressed for a military approach until the Ethiopians withdrew from or were forced out of Somalia.

The strategic split between diplomatic and military approaches had always been incipient within the A.R.S., which from its inception in 2007 adopted the familiar dual-track strategy of resistance movements (for example, the Irish Republican Army and Palestine Liberation Organization) of pursuing diplomacy and armed insurgency simultaneously. The dual-track strategy, which is essential for a resistance movement to secure a foothold, tends inexorably to create a division in the movement between a political wing and a military wing, each one wedded to its half of the double strategy.

In the case of the A.R.S., the incipient tension broke into a split, because the non-Islamist elements of the A.R.S., which favor diplomacy, joined with the more nationalist components of the Courts to move toward negotiation at the precise moment that the armed insurgency was achieving its first significant successes.

The strategic split within the A.R.S. should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign that the alliance is weakening. The successes of a resistance movement's military wing provide its political wing with bargaining chips, and prolonged negotiations conducted by its political wing give the military wing some lee- way for its operations. Obviously, disunity has its dangers, but as long as the two wings understand their own limits and the other's function, they can create a synergy.

On the Ground

It is an understatement to say that the insurgency's successes on the ground have been under-reported in the international media, although they have been reported extensively in the Somali media. Under-reporting means under-valuing, impeding accurate analysis; that is, the interests served by the international media - the major world-power concentrations - would rather not publicly acknowledge Islamist gains, but would prefer to pretend that their plans for "reconciliation" and possible international peacekeeping forces still are viable.

Just as an example of a day's monitoring of Somalia in the recent past, look at
May 26 through the Somali media.

In the Juba regions, the Islamic Courts commander, Abdirahman Abdullahi Waheliye said that he was conducting discussions with elders and intellectuals aimed at setting up Shari'a administrations in Kamsuma, Jilib and Jimaame districts, which the Courts forces had recently captured. Waheliye expressed optimism that the districts would defect from formal support of the T.F.G. and join the Courts movement.

Context: The insurgency has been gaining territorial control in the Juba regions throughout 2008, to the point that there were fears that the Courts forces would attempt to take the strategic port city of Kismayo, now controlled by an administration of the Marehan sub-clan of the Darod clan family that is not recognized by the T.F.G. On May 23, there was a report that the Marehan had made an agreement with the Courts, in which the Marehan would give thirty percent of port revenues to the A.R.S. forces and thirty percent to the Y.M.M. in return for the promise that the Courts would leave the present administration in control. Whether or not this report is accurate, it would not
have appeared even two months ago; nobody could have taken it seriously.

In the Middle Shabelle region, Courts leader Sheikh Dahir Adow announced a ban
on carrying small arms in the region's capital Jowhar in response to an increase in arms bearing stemming from inter-clan conflict. The significance of this news bit is the implication that, for the moment, the Courts are taking over security in Jowhar, which has changed hands several times recently.

Context: The insurgency has been taking over districts in Middle Shabelle through the spring and negotiating with local leaders to set up "independent" administrations outside the framework of the T.F.G. Middle Shabelle borders the Banadir region (Mogadishu and its environs); what does it mean that the Courts have been able to establish themselves there?

In the Hiraan region, Ethiopian forces were conducting vehicle searches for weapons and ammunition in the region's capital Beledweyne, after they had been attacked the previous day and had seized a bag of explosives from a car. It was reported that Courts forces were moving towards Beledweyne, which they had briefly captured earlier in the spring.

Context: With their third largest concentration of forces in Somalia in Hiraan (after Mogadishu and Baidoa), the Ethiopians have not been able to reverse the insurgency's momentum. On May 20, thousands or hundreds of people (depending on the source) were addressed by A.R.S. officials who had come from Asmara to the town of Bulo Burde. Col. Umar Hashi, secretary general of the A.R.S., told the crowd to "beware of the deceptions of the enemy" and told the media that the delegation had come "to encourage the people to resist." This was the first time that high-ranking members of the A.R.S. had appeared openly in Somalia. Hiraan is of key strategic importance to Ethiopia as a the gateway to central Somalia and as a source of instability in the Ogaden region if it fell into hostile hands. The region was one of the first places into which Ethiopia made incursions when the Courts were rising in 2006, yet neither it nor the T.F.G. is able to control Hiraan.

In Mogadishu, where the insurgency began and continues, Ethiopian soldiers were
reported to have shot dead three civilians after beating them with clubs. The Y.M.M. attacked forces of the small African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) near the strategic Km4 junction. Eleven civilians were killed in the cross-fire.

Context: The insurgency continues to flourish in Mogadishu, with several incidents every day, some of them involving face-to-face combat spreading over several districts. Increasingly, the insurgents have been able to seize checkpoints and government facilities. On May 14, the "peacemaker" in the Hawiye Tradition and Unity Council, Ahmed Behi Ali, said that Somalia had "no government" and that the Somali people had to form their "own administrations." Hawiye sub-clans that are marginalized and threatened by the T.F.G. and the Ethiopian occupation have been unwilling to participate in "reconciliation" and still control much of what remains of Mogadishu after a year and a half of warfare. Their leadership functions independently of the A.R.S., but the situation on the ground is more complex.

May 26 is a representative day in the life of the insurgency. On other days, similar news would have come from the Bay, Bakool, Gedo, Lower Shabelle, Galgadud and Mudug regions. Is it likely that protracted "reconciliation" talks in Djibouti can change the flow of events on the ground? It does not appear that Ethiopia has either the will or the ability to reverse the momentum militarily. The "international community" (Western powers) will not back an international peacekeeping force beyond AMISOM (half-heartedly) until there is progress toward "reconciliation."

The failure of the external actors to secure Somalia has opened the way for the Courts' comeback. Nobody, including the A.R.S. leadership, knows what to do about what is happening on the ground. The development does not appear to be centrally coordinated and responds to highly localized circumstances, even though it is unified by a resistance struggle against occupation and the general strategy of detaching districts from allegiance to the T.F.G.

In the Halls

In light of the insurgency's successes on the ground, the brutality of Ethiopian responses to insurgent initiatives and U.S. missile strikes against alleged "terrorists," it is not surprising that the first round of "reconciliation" talks between the T.F.G. and A.R.S., which began on May 12 and ended on May 16, did not result in direct negotiations, but only in a commitment to a second round on May 31 and an agreement to facilitate humanitarian access.

The talks, mediated by the U.N. and pushed by the Western powers as their latest last resort to stabilize Somalia, foundered due to the pressures on the pro-"reconciliation" wing of the A.R.S. to take an uncompromising line. From the outset, on May 13, the A.R.S. stated that it would restrict itself to discussing with U.N. special representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abadallah, an Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia. On the same day, A.R.S. defense secretary Indha'ade opened the split between the political and military wings, declaring that the Djibouti conference was an attempt to "destroy" the A.R.S., that the pro-"reconciliation" faction did "not represent the opposition" and that there should be no talks with the T.F.G.

The hardline counter attack gained momentum on May15,when Shekh Aweys took
the lead, saying in an interview with Reuters that the ARS delegation in Djibouti should walk out of the talks, which were "hastily" arranged and had not been based on a consensus within the A.R.S. on "thorny issues." Aweys added that the solution was simple: the Ethiopian "enemy" needed to be "removed."

On the same day, the pro-Courts website Qaadisya carried a statement attributed to the A.R.S. that the A.R.S. representatives to the Djibouti talks had violated the alliance's constitution by failing to seek and gain approval from the A.R.S. central committee. Charging that the pro-"reconciliation" faction had made a "secret deal" with Western powers in Nairobi in March, the statement went on to assert that there would be no talks with the T.F.G. prior to an Ethiopian withdrawal, that no foreign troops should be introduced into Somalia "without the people's consent," that "killers of civilians" must be brought to justice and that the "international community" should provide "urgent" humanitarian aid.

When the talks broke down on May 16, the A.R.S. demanded a timetable for Ethiopian withdrawal. A.R.S. representative Abdishakur Abdirahman Warsame told the press that there had been an agreement to meet again and "nothing else worth mentioning." Ould Abdallah commented: "It is a good day for Somalia. We should not minimize what has been achieved."

On May 17, the U.N. and T.F.G. departed from Djibouti, but the A.R.S. delegation remained there for the arrival of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad and Sheikh Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan. From Asmara, Aweys said that the pro- "reconciliation" faction had not been there for forty days, underscoring the failure to consult.

On May 21, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad was reported to have held talks with the
U.S. ambassador to Djibouti. A.R.S. representative Abdirahman Abdishakur announced that the A.R.S. was preparing an agenda for the next round of talks, including prosecution of "war criminals," the return of internally displaced persons to Mogadishu and improved security. Aweys raised the rhetorical pressure in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, saying that the T.F.G. is run by "traitors" who would be exiled or put on trial in the event the Courts prevailed. He remarked that Ethiopia would not have invaded Somalia without U.S. backing and that the U.N. was not impartial, concluding that the Somali people would remove the Ethiopians by force. Aweys said that the opposition would form a "unity government" based on Islam: "We have no idea of secularism. The people will place their trust in religion."

Aweys continued his rhetorical offensive on May 25 in an interview with al- Sharq al-Awsat, in which he said that Ould Abdallah's conduct of the negotiations was "very bad," emphasizing that he did not oppose talks on principle, but adding that the opposition should not sit down with the "agents" of the occupation.

Aweys' drumfire attacks finally provoked a response form Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad who complained that Eritrea was trying to break up the A.R.S. (presumably to prevent reconciliation and keep Ethiopian forces tied down in Somalia). He apologized for Aweys' remarks and assured that "the alliance is a peaceful movement set up to represent the Somali people in the international arena," quickly adding that if - as Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi said to the country's parliament in May - Ethiopia intended to remain in Somalia until the jihadists were defeated, "they will leave by force."

On May 26, A.R.S. social affairs secretary, Muhamad Sudan Garyare, said that the A.R.S. would hold a meeting to resolve its internal disputes when a quorum arrived in Asmara.

The West and Ethiopia would welcome a split in the A.R.S. that would "isolate" its military wing, and Eritrea would welcome a split in the A.R.S. that would strengthen its military wing. At present, Asmara seems to be more perceptive than Addis Ababa and Washington. Indeed, it appears that the pro- "reconciliation" wing of the A.R.S. is feeling the pull of its military wing more strongly than the push of the "international community."

Fundamentally, the facts on the ground are likely to drive the A.R.S. negotiating position should talks resume. The Courts will not surrender their gains on the ground and those gains give negotiators bargaining chips; protracted negotiations, which even Ould Abdallah anticipates, will allow the armed opposition to continue to succeed and consolidate. From that perspective, the split in the A.R.S. would not be internally destructive, but synergistic. Although uncertainty clouds the future of the A.R.S., it is most likely that the alliance will not dissolve.


The key to the current situation in Somalia is that the balance of power has shifted in favor the insurgency/opposition, throwing Western hopes for "reconciliation" into severe doubt, and presenting Ethiopia with bleak prospects.

Had Addis Ababa been able to reverse or stall the insurgency, the pro- "reconciliation" faction in the A.R.S. might have been tempted to sue for peace and make the concession of talking while Ethiopian forces remained in Somalia. That the opposite scenario is unfolding makes any concessions by the A.R.S. less likely, indicating that the Djibouti initiative will not bear fruit, at least in the short term. With no decisive military action to curb the Courts on the horizon, look for them to continue their momentum, threatening the interests of the external actors, except for Eritrea.

The December, 2006 invasion cannot be repeated and the Courts are back.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University

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