The United States has no arms embargo on Ethiopia. It means that the war in Tigray may continue indefinitely.
The most dramatic—and unlikely—option would be the invasion of Tigray-region, either unilaterally (like the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989) or multilaterally (like the 1990 war against Iraq). Although Ethiopia’s military has reportedly purchased some advanced military equipment and supplies from Israel, Russia, and Ukraine, advancing U.S. troops would be unlikely to face sustained resistance.
While an actual military intervention might be relatively simple, and occupation would be much more difficult. Following a military intervention, the Biden administration could find itself responsible for a politically and ethnically fractious nation.
A U.S. military intervention in Ethiopia also would likely be condemned by China, Russia, and other nations. China would perceive the presence of U.S. forces as a threat as biggest foreign investor in Ethiopia. Russia would certainly be concerned. Without the support of other nations, the United States could find itself isolated and subject to widespread international criticism.
Another military option that could be suggested is for the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Tigray to prevent the Ethiopian military from using its fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters against the Tigray warriors. A no-fly zone would rebalance the fighting to the advantage of the Tigray armed groups, possibly leading to the defeat of the Ethiopian army.
One of the main challenges of this proposal would be establishing and maintaining the logistical support to sustain the no-fly zone. It would be difficult to find a nearby nation willing to allow the United States to set up such a logistical support center. All African nations are unlikely candidates, except Sudan.
Also, while the elimination of air support for Ethiopia’s troops would alter the situation on the battlefield, Ethiopia’s military would still be able to deploy its artillery and other heavy land equipment. As such, it is unclear how significant change the establishment of a no-fly zone would be in the balance of power in Ethiopia’s ongoing and intensifying war in Tigray.
From a military perspective, the maintenance of a blockade would involve fewer resources than a no-fly zone. Ethiopia does not have a blue-water navy of any size or capability to challenge a U.S. blockade. There would undoubtedly be some international criticism of the airstrikes, most likely from China, Russia, and France and the EU, and the African Union. It is unlikely that China would attempt to intercept the U.S. airstrikes, given the risk of direct confrontation. The airstrikes might also provide moral support for Ethiopians and African nations in unity against the US.
Another important consideration is the long-term implications of U.S. military support for anti-government opposition forces. Recent U.S. experience with such endeavors has been rather mixed. In some cases, what was at one time allies became enemies, such as in Afghanistan. Any efforts in the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Ethiopia would be blocked by China and Russia.
It seems now, what the Biden administration is trying to apply indirect pressure on nations to join the United States in isolating Ethiopia from its neighbours. Thus, economic sanctions are the only and the most appealing option to the Biden administration and Congress, even if it doesn’t satisfy the hopes of securing the US interests in the region.
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