US pushes diplomacy, prepares sanctions as Ethiopia launches new offensive in brutal war, risking famine

Up to 900,000 people are already facing famine conditions because of fighting.

The U.S. announced Tuesday it is providing $26 million more humanitarian aid, but that will do little to stop the suffering as of now. Aid convoys into the Tigray region have been blocked and attacked throughout the conflict, with a particularly brutal blockade by the Ethiopian government for nearly 110 days now keeping resources like food, fuel and medicine out.

"Looking forward, it's pretty dark and pretty bleak without a significant change either politically or militarily -- I hate to say that, but the status quo really cannot continue. The famine is only going to start taking more lives at an accelerated pace," said David Del Conte, the former deputy director for Ethiopia at the United Nations' humanitarian agency.

Spurred by warnings like that, the U.S. seemed to kick diplomacy into a higher gear this week, too. The U.S. hosted a summit of high-level donor countries to urge humanitarian access and a halt to fighting -- openly weighing the possibility of a humanitarian airlift. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also met with the African Union's envoy trying to negotiate a ceasefire.

But once again, it is all seems to be falling on deaf ears on the ground. In the last week, the Ethiopian government launched a new major military offensive against Tigrayan forces, the country's former longtime ruling party that has been at war with the federal government since last November.

Those forces say Ethiopian forces, backed by troops from the neighboring country Eritrea and a neighboring province Amhara, have launched attacks on several fronts, according to the Associated Press.

Every side in this nearly one-year-old conflict has been accused of atrocities, in some instances documented in great detail by monitors like Amnesty International and media outlets. Blinken has said the U.S. has seen reports of "ethnic cleansing" -- but increasingly, reports from the region are hard to come by because the Ethiopian government has cut cell phone and internet communications.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday the U.S. was aware of the reported offensive, adding, "Escalating fighting undermines critical efforts to keep civilians safe and the ability of international actors to deliver humanitarian relief to all those in need, and we know there are too many in need."

The Biden administration is "considering the full range of tools," including using those economic sanctions that Biden authorized last month, Price added. One source familiar with the administration's plans said those sanctions are being prepared, although Price declined to preview any announcement Tuesday.

But it's unclear what, if any, effect that will have on Ethiopian officials, up to and including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. His government declared a ceasefire in June as its military and aligned forces retreated from Tigray and Tigrayan troops retook territory. But fighting has continued, including Tigrayan offensives into neighboring regions like Amhara and Afar -- each side defying threats of sanctions from the U.S., European Union and others.

"From Abiy's perspective, this fight is existential, at least politically for him, so the idea that these sanctions are going to make him turn on a dime and reevaluate the nature of the campaign is unlikely," said Hardin Lang, vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International, an advocacy group. But, he added, it is an important "tool" that could "erode support of those around Abiy."

Abiy's blockade has created shortages of food, fuel, medicines and medical supplies, and cash in Tigray, while continued fighting threatens to heighten humanitarian crises in neighboring regions. The United Nations, aid groups and other countries, including the U.S., have increasingly sounded the alarm about the risk of a massive famine in Tigray and beyond, especially now in Amhara and Afar.

In total, more than 2 million people have fled their homes, and some 48,000 have fled across the border into neighboring Sudan as refugees, according to U.S. officials.

In response to those warnings, however, the Ethiopian government expelled U.N. officials from the country two weeks ago -- sparking more international condemnation. Ethiopia's ambassador to the U.N. accused those officials last Wednesday of falsifying data -- prompting a striking rebuttal from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Already, there are reports of people starving to death. USAID Administrator Samantha Power said today that people are going multiple days without food, left to eat leaves.

"Innocent Ethiopian lives depend upon the government of Ethiopia immediately reestablishing communications, banking and other vital services within Tigray, and fully restoring transport corridors and air linkages to Tigray," said Power, who convened Tuesday's high-level meeting of G7 countries and other major donor countries.

The countries discussed the "possibility of augmenting road operations -- which are failing to meet urgent humanitarian needs due to government obstruction -- by expanding air operations to deliver relief supplies directly to the region," she added in her statement.

That kind of airlift would still require the Ethiopian government's permission, however, and would be far less effective at bringing in supplies than convoys of trucks, according to Del Conte. One cargo aircraft would cost more than up to 100 trucks in a convoy, he said, while feeding only about as much aid as what one double-trailer truck could carry.

In addition to Power's summit, Blinken held his own high-level meetings Tuesday on Ethiopia. He met one-on-one first with the African Union's Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president now serving as special envoy for the Horn of Africa -- before they joined Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who heads the regional bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, along with the EU and UK's top diplomats and senior diplomats from Germany and France.

Together, they discussed the conflict and agreed to urge "the parties to the conflict to immediately end abuses, to enter into negotiations toward a ceasefire, and to lay the foundation for a broader and inclusive dialogue to restore peace in Ethiopia and preserve the unity of the Ethiopian state," Price told reporters during a briefing.

But with this new offensive, it seems clear Abiy has no interest in a dialogue -- instead hoping a communications blackout means the world will not pay attention.

"The government in Addis has shown remarkable commitment to a military solution to the conflict," said Del Conte, now the leader of Refugees International's Stop Tigray Famine campaign. "What we see out of northern Ethiopia is going to be dramatic and significant. ... I'm deeply concerned at the unwillingness to change directions in any way."

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