Predictive Analysis of Conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia


    Conflict in Tigray

    Key Judgements

    KJ-1. Armed conflict will highly likely continue and de-centralise in the following 6 weeks. Ethnic-driven civilian militias and the large unregistered amount of firearms make it highly likely that armed confrontations involving Tigrayan ethnicities will occur.

    KJ-2. Conflict is likely to spread beyond Tigray’s borders into further Ethiopian and Eritrean territory. Ethnic and historic divisions broaden the range of actors involved in the conflict. This, together with increasingly individual confrontations, make it likely that violence will steadily expand into Eritrea and further Ethiopian territory.

    KJ-3. The civilian nature of the conflict together with the lack of oversight by law-enforcement bodies makes it likely that small and medium weapon trafficking and use will increase in Ethiopia and particularly around the border of Tigray. Porous borders, an increase in demand and a communications blackout are likely to increase the use and trafficking of small weapons by individuals or small informal groups.

    Current Environment

    Military Dimension

    The Ethiopia National Defence Forces (ENDF) declared victory after taking the capital Mekelle and airports in Humera and Aksum where attacks left the runway inoperative. Armoured divisions of the ENDF have reportedly been targeted by the TPLF while air defences were destroyed in airstrikes in the first half of November carried out by the Ethiopian Air Force. The conflict advanced rapidly through Tigray both in its western, eastern and northern border.

    Military capabilities are highly unequal between Tigray and the Ethiopian government. Tigray People’s Liberation Forces (TPLF) are reported to recruit around 250,000 while active personnel in Tigray are at least 30,000. The Eritrean troops number 200,000 in total, while out of the 140,000 troops in the ENDF it is estimated that 50,000 have deployed to Tigray.

    Conflict in Tigray

    Current reports of fighting in rural areas of Tigray, particularly around the Amhara-Tigray border, indicate the struggle of a capably superior ENDF force against Tigrayan forces. Although the ENDF’s capability is higher, particularly in full-scale warfare, Tigrayan forces have managed to deter the advance of the ENDF. Air-defence systems like the S-75 and SA-15 were reported in Mekelle belonging to Tigrayan forces.

    Initial airstrikes by the ENDF using SU-27 and MiG-23 fighter planes highly likely targeted and neutralised a large part of Tigray’s capability to counter air attacks. Reports of the use of Wing Loong II UAE UAV’s based in Assab in Eritrea have likely been fabricated, although Ethiopia and Eritrea have demonstrated a superior air capability in Mekelle and through full-scale warfare.

    The reported use of militias has highly likely incentivised the consideration of civilians as legitimate conflict targets. Paramilitary and civilian militias have been recruited by both the ENDF and the TPLF. ENDF militias have expressed resentment against a perceived

    Tigrayan aggression while Tigrayan civilians have described abuses by the ENDF. There is a lack of accountability which currently fuels radicalisation and incentivises violent action without judicial responsibility or social responsibility. Tigray missiles targeting Gondar in Amhara and Asmara in Eritrea is an indicator of the relevance of the social dimension of the conflict. Targets are likely chosen based on ethnicity and region of origin rather than on legitimacy or on the physical threat.

    Conflict in Tigray

    Social Dimension

    History of political alienation and social abandonment combined with a conflict involving an ethnic minority increases the likelihood of Tigrayan civilians being perceived as legitimate targets by militants and armed actors in the conflict. Tigrayans represent 6.1% of the Ethiopian population, while Oromo represent 36.4%  and Amhara 28.5%.

    The estimate of at least 6,000,000 civilians in Tigray according to figures provided make it unlikely that logistics and capability to deliver water and other resources can be achieved while the conflict continues. Over 45,000 refugees have been reported to have fled to Sudan where the camp-capacity limit is 20,000 individuals. Aid support of the ENDF only delivers to specific communities in Tigray, and the lift of communications has solely been applied in Mekelle. The government has almost certainly shown a  lack of capability and intention to attend to all humanitarian demands.

    The ethnic division has led to violence in the past in Ethiopia and the fighting in Tigray increases the acceptance of violence as social behaviour to resolve these divisions. 54 were killed in a schoolyard massacre targeting the Amhara ethnic group in July. Violence has been recorded against the 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray as they are perceived responsible for actions by Eritrean Armed Forces. Ethnic civilians and communities have likely been reciprocally targeted both physically and verbally with a decreased difficulty due to the conflict in Tigray.

    The food and water scarcity make communities in Ethiopia, and particularly Tigray, vulnerable to not only conflict and violence but to governmental willingness to aid. UN observes reporters and international aid organisations have been denied access within regions of Tigray. ENDF forces opened fire against UN staff claiming a lack of cooperation, while the demand for social and basic aid continues to grow. The rejection of uncontrolled aid and the blocking of humanitarian materials has highly likely alienated the current Tigrayan population in areas not controlled by the ENDF.

    Geopolitical & Diplomatic Dimension

    International support is perceived through a peace-keeping role or through support to Ethiopia. The non-official status of the TPLF and the legitimacy of Ahmed pushes states to side with the Ethiopian government. The geographic location of Ethiopia in the horn of Africa and the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GRED) are major drivers of attraction in the region, together with the regional geopolitical significance of states within countries in Africa. Conflicts in Libya and the Sahel and the participation of states like Turkey, the UAE, Russia or NATO are indicators of the geopolitical interest which countries have in increasing its footprint in the region.

    Conflict in Tigray

    The presence of military bases in the Horn of Africa of Turkey, Russia, NATO or the US directly has highly likely provoked interests of states towards the humanitarian and security crisis in Northern Ethiopia. A recent Russian military investment in 6 military bases in African countries including Eritrea and Sudan makes the conflict in Tigray an opportunity for Russia to increase legitimacy in the region.

    The use of UAV’s by the UAE seems unlikely and has been denied, although satellite imagery confirms the capability of this intervention option. With the EU cutting €90 million in aid due to insufficient humanitarian efforts in the conflict in Tigray, there is a vacuum of influence in the conflict apart from UN or regional efforts like Sudan to mediate with the Ethiopian government. States will likely avoid associating with the Ethiopian government as long as allegations of ethnic violence are reported, although the strategic interest in the region will likely push diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions.

    The participation of Eritrean forces and violation of Ethiopian sovereignty has highly likely deterred the overt military or diplomatic support by states, whether European, Asian, American or African. The UN has provided security details to report and examine the events in Tigray, the declaration of a ceasefire by the central government and there has been a lift of communications, make it unlikely that states will currently offer any offensive military capability support. Still, the strategic interest in the horn of Africa likely pushes states to take a peace-keeping interest in the region and increase their perceived significance.

    6-Week Predictive Analysis

    Nature of the Conflict

    The conflict in Tigray will highly likely shift to an armed insurgency, adopting guerrilla-like strategies in the following 6 weeks. The geographical nature of Tigray provides a mountainous save haven for TPLF forces to adopt insurgency strategies. The ethnic division amongst the armed forces has caused defections towards the TPLF of members of the Northern Command, while UN AMISOM Tigrayan troops have been de-armed. Reports of armed actors in Tigray continuing to clash despite the cessation of hostilities are almost certainly indicators of the intention of armed actors, particularly those associated with the TPLF, to continue the conflict.

    It is likely that rural communities in Tigray will support or provide aid to TPLF forces in the following 6 weeks. The conflict fuelled ethnic divisions, and the targeting of civilians is a likely motivator to increase the ethnic confrontation. The TPLF has a history of using intelligence and supply networks from 1975 to 1991 against the military government through rural communities. These will likely prove useful for the TPLF in its transformation to a covert or guerrilla-like organisation. The TPLF will likely seek to legitimise their role as a governmental figure in the long-term and secure local support, although it is unlikely that this will be fully achieved in the following 6 weeks.

    TPLF forces are highly likely more capable of carrying out Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations than ENDF forces. History of conflict with Eritrea and mountainous regions have likely shaped Tigrayan forces to develop superior capabilities in insurgency and COIN operations. The ENDF currently has reduced COIN capabilities despite forces having experience in COIN operations against Somali insurgent groups. Reports of war crimes and violence against civilians in 2008 against the then EPRDF although there are reports of Ethiopian forces attacking and targeting civilians Defections to the TPLF and re-structuring of the armed forces have likely focused most existing COIN capabilities with the TPLF.


    Military and security targets will likely shift in the next 6 weeks to supply networks and hotspots of Tigray forces. The adoption of insurgency tactics will highly likely push the ENDF to target key leaders of the TPLF and deter the flow of income and resources of the group. The lack of transparency observed in the last month makes it likely that the Ethiopian government will also adopt non-military targets. Tigrayan officials, particularly of a lower level, will likely be removed from their posts both as an intimidatory measure and to prevent any type of governmental support to Tigrayan armed forces.

    Civilians and rural communities will likely be criminalised in the following 6 weeks. The changing nature of the conflict to guerrilla warfare will increase the importance of communities in aiding the TPLF or law-enforcement bodies. The lack of official conscription in the TPLF, ENDF and the Eritrean forces reduces the accountability and increases the level plausibility of any denial. A lack of transparency and history of ethnic violence are drivers of a likely targeting of civilians by paramilitary and militia bodies.


    Conflict is likely to become more de-centralised and irregularly spread amongst rural communities in the following 6 weeks, particularly in mountainous areas like the east and south of Shire. Considering that 83% of the Tigrayan population lives in rural areas, it is likely that conflict remains spread and the TPLF maintains confrontations in areas with support and increased capability in comparison with the ENDF. Cities like Mekelle, Aksum or Humera will likely remain controlled by the ENDF which has already established a provisional government.

    It is likely that the presence of criminal actors and the flow of trafficking will increase in Tigray in the following 6 weeks. The reduction of capabilities of the TPLF will likely push the group to obtain resources, support or sponsorship, attracting the presence of criminal actors seeking to profit from the conflict. The focus on the insurgency-like conflict by the ENDF will highly likely deter governmental efforts at preventing the incursion of criminal actors in Tigray.

    The legitimacy and influence of law-enforcement bodies in Tigray will highly likely diminish or almost disappear. The conflict status of the region and the continuing armed clashes between the Amhara and Tigray border have likely decreased the capability of law enforcement to maintain social stability amongst rural communities. Looting and communal violence will likely become more common, likely feeding governmental alienation and the sense of insecurity. The provisional government established by the ENDF will highly likely not be perceived as legitimate by a large majority of the Tigrayan population.

    Social Issues

    Tigrayan ethnicity is likely to be targeted through violent and non-violent actions in the following 6 weeks. The ethnic identity of the conflict creates a perception of responsibility placed on entire ethnicities and communities rather than armed actors. Although Tigrayan citizens have not been targeted systematically, the blockade of international aid and the partial lift of communications indicate that the Ethiopian government will continue to perceive Tigray, including its citizens, as a legitimate and capable threat. With legitimacy to target Tigrayan civilians, reciprocal violence from the TPLF and the ENDF will likely be observed against rural communities.

    Ethnic rivalries will almost certainly increase in the following 6 weeks, particularly between Tigrayan and Amhara communities. Food scarcity and lack of security will likely increase the Tigrayan diaspora, incentivising confrontations between Tigrayan refugees and Amhara local community. Violence between communities will likely grow, although social alienation and abuse will highly likely become more common towards Tigray communities in non-violent areas.

    International Support

    Direct military intervention by states or regional bodies over the next 6 weeks is highly unlikely. The conflict is an opportunity with countries with dual interests in both Ethiopia and neighbouring countries to appear as a mediator and reduce tensions while maintaining original interests. Russia, for example, would likely benefit from the conflict mediation in Ethiopia and reduce tensions over the GRED and with Egypt. The escalation of violence, although unlikely to reach military bases on the East Coast or in Sudan, does create a potential security risk for countries which will likely maintain capable forces to engage in the conflict if necessary.

    A vacuum of diplomatic influence will likely emerge in Ethiopia in the following 6 weeks. Organisations like the EU have cut economic aid while the UN has demanded observers to be permitted to report events in Tigray. Ahmed rejected efforts by the UN to agree to a cease-fire unless the TPLF completely surrendered, increasing the likelihood of rejection by international bodies.

    The rise of individual states providing specific aid directed at humanitarian issues will highly likely rise. The US is providing $35,600,000 in aid to Ethiopia and Sudan for demands of refugees. The participation of the US likely pushes states like Russia has in Cameroon to intervene in a more visible manner, reducing and blurring the line between diplomatic, humanitarian and military support. The Russian base in Sudan as well as the diplomatic relationship with Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt provides Russia with the capability to deploy peacekeeping support, as well as the opportunity to exploit the vacuum of diplomatic influence.

    Image: Ethiopian News Agency    

    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo is a graduate in psychology specialised in decision-making. He is currently finishing a postgraduate in Politics and History, with particular interests focused on intelligence, non-state actors and information warfare.

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