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Border ructions escalate over Al Fashqa

Role of Egypt and UAE in region under scrutiny as Washington changes its posture

Like a game of three-dimensional chess, the revived border disputes between Addis Ababa and Khartoum about sovereignty over the fertile Al Fashqa area, have been layered on top of regional tensions over the flow of refugees from the Tigray conflict, and the three-sided dispute over Ethiopia's mega-dam on the Blue Nile. Sudan has now joined Egypt's opposition to Ethiopia's schedule to fill the dam (AC Vol 62 No 2, Abiy risks more war).

On 18 February, Ethiopia suggested that Khartoum's position on the border at Al Fashqa was being 'trumpeted by Sudan's military leadership to serve the interests of a third party at the expense of the Sudanese people'. Decoded, Ethiopia's foreign ministry was arguing that the close relations between Sudan's military leader General Abdel Fattah Burhan and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi were driving Khartoum's handling of the border issue. 

Egypt's government, which has spent millions in the region campaigning against Ethiopia's dam project, might gain ground in the short term by stirring tensions between Khartoum and Addis Ababa but it will do little to resolve the dispute over the dam.

Khartoum's military responded to Ethiopia's statement with fury on 20 February, calling the allegation that Cairo was driving its foreign policy an 'unforgiveable insult' by Addis Ababa. And it added its own accusations, that 'what the Ethiopian foreign ministry cannot deny is the third party whose troops entered with Ethiopian troops trespassing on Sudanese land'. 

The 'third party' would be Eritrea, which has been widely accused of backing Ethiopia's military campaign against the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front and sending its troops through Sudan's territory to prevent refugees, both Eritrean and Ethiopian, from leaving Tigray (AC Vol 61 No 24, Citadel falls but the war goes on).

Surveying these developments, United States President Joe Biden's administration has been trying to dampen down regional tensions by dropping some of the more contentious positions adopted under Donald Trump's presidency (AC Vol 61 No 24, War resets the region). 

These include Trump's strong backing for the Sisi government against Ethiopia in the dam dispute and its giving carte blanche to the United Arab Emirates to build a military presence in Eritrea, as part of a base of operations in the war in Yemen.

Washington now says it will back the multilateral talks on the dam being mediated by the African Union, and will de-link its bilateral policies on development and other aid to Addis Ababa from any considerations of the Nile Waters dispute. Last year, the Trump administration cut $100m of development aid to Ethiopia for its refusal to accept a US-brokered resolution of the dam dispute.

Also, under US pressure, the United Arab Emirates is cutting back on its military base at Assab port in Eritrea, where about 10,000 Sudanese fighters were stationed as part of its force in the Yemen war. Within days of the Biden government's inauguration last month, it froze contracts for fighter jets and arms with UAE and Saudi Arabia.

US officials are said to regard Abu Dhabi's growing role in the Horn and East Africa as functioning as a back door for China and Russia.

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