In the midst of turbulent events taking place in the Horn of Africa and the southern Red Sea, a new curve in US-Eritrean relations began to emerge with Washington issuing a new country strategy towards Eritrea.
The document issued on November 17, 2023 outlines changes in the American approach towards a country that has long been hostile to it, as it stated that the Ethiopian peace process and Asmara’s reduction of its military presence in its major neighbour, provide “an opportunity to reshape bilateral relations with Eritrea to a more productive end.” .
Adding that the Washington Embassy in Asmara will seek to open lines of communication to establish commonalities that serve the interests of the peoples of the two countries, and to listen to Eritrean views on regional and international issues.
In reference to the American competition with China and the United States’ desire to strengthen relations with Eritrea through trade, the document made it clear that Beijing has large investments in Eritrea, but given the diversity of investment areas in the East African country, Washington enjoys a better competitive position compared to China.
US-Eritrean relations have always been characterized by constant fluctuation, as the years between 1993 and 2000 represented their spring, which coincided with former President Bill Clinton’s strategy to support what was described as “new African leaders,” in reference to the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda.
In an article published by the New York Times, American journalist James McKinley Jr. linked his country’s adoption of the four leaders to the desire to confront Islamic fundamentalism that threatened Washington’s interests, which was represented at the time by the Salvation regime in Sudan.
According to this vision, this stage witnessed high-level American-Eritrean coordination, which included Washington’s support for Asmara’s efforts to overthrow the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir in the mid-1990s, after it accused him of supporting Eritrean Islamist opponents, according to what was reported by Jonathan Fisher, professor of international relations at the University of Birmingham. .
Hostility and penalties
However, the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war and its repercussions marked the beginning of a new phase between the two countries, as Asmara accused Washington of siding with Addis Ababa, which led to escalation of tension between the two parties, leading to the United States accusing Eritrea of supporting the Al-Shabaab Mujahideen movement in Somalia in 2008.
The following year, the administration of former US President Barack Obama mobilized its efforts to impose sanctions on Asmara in the UN Security Council, which resulted in Resolution 1907. Washington also supported the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva of the decision to establish a special rapporteur on Eritrea in 2012, in the context of what Professor Michael Wolde described. Maryam called “the industry of the pariah state.”
This hostile escalation led to the transformation of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki into one of the most prominent African critics of American policy on the continent, and into a herald of a new multipolar world order, accusing Washington of working with Ethiopia to target his country’s independence since the 1940s.
From containment to hostility
In the face of these pressures, Asmara worked to strengthen its relations with Washington’s opponents, led by Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow, as alarm bells rang in the corridors of American decision-making due to the development of Eritrean-Iranian relations, Tehran’s expansion into the Red Sea environment through the Houthis, and Beijing’s consolidation of its geopolitical influence in Djibouti.
According to an analysis published on the American Rand Center website, Washington’s competition with international powers was a prominent priority in the strategy of the former President Donald Trump’s administration towards Africa issued in 2018, a year after China established its military base in Djibouti, and the latter was close to handing over the strategic port of Doraleh to Chinese companies.
The aforementioned strategy encouraged the Eritrean-Ethiopian rapprochement, which in turn supported the steady improvement in bilateral relations between Washington and Asmara, which represented an attempt to contain the latter through a peace process supported by Washington’s allies in the region.
However, the Ethiopian factor emerged again as a catalyst for hostile Eritrean-American relations, as Washington condemned Asmara’s pivotal participation in the Tigray War (2020-2022), demanded that it withdraw its forces from Ethiopia, and imposed sanctions on it that included the ruling party and the military establishment in November 2021.
Red Sea security
Although the new strategy issued on November 17, 2023 did not abolish the aforementioned sanctions, it carried different positive trends, which appear more clear when looking at some of the amendments made to its original version issued in May 2022.
In the updated version, what was previously described as the primary goal of the American strategy, which is “developing the next generation in Eritrea and preparing for the era after Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki,” was deleted.
The short period of time between the date of issuance of the two versions, which does not exceed a year and a few months, calls into question the changes driving these major amendments, especially since the US State Department website states that the country strategy clarifies Washington’s priorities towards the country in question for a period of 4 years.
In this context, addressing the security turmoil in the southern Red Sea region represents a priority for the US administration at the current stage, as the Houthis in Yemen’s targeting of Israeli interests in the Bab al-Mandab region led to repercussions that threatened shipping and supply chains.
These disturbances cast a shadow on the global economy, in which reliance on maritime transport has increased over the past years by more than 400%, according to Ashraf Kishk, Director of the Strategic and International Studies Program at the Derasat Center in Bahrain.
Washington's new strategy towards Eritrea emerges as an attempt to prevent Bab al-Mandab from turning into a region hostile to American interests, as Eritrea, with its view on the western bank of the sensitive corridor, has extremely dangerous security importance, while reports previously circulated accusing it of passing Iranian weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, which Asmara denied.
Blocking the road to Tehran
Given the fears that the situation in the region will deteriorate into a regional war as a result of the continuation of the Israeli war on Gaza, the American step represents a proactive effort to prevent Tehran and Asmara from regaining warmth in their relations, which have cooled since the latter granted the UAE a military base to attack Yemen, as part of its participation in Decisive Storm. In 2015.
The continuing American threats to Eritrea and Iran and the two countries’ alliance with Moscow and Beijing constitute a common ground for revitalizing their relations, while Tehran seems open to returning to the region, as Bloomberg published a report on Iran providing support to the Sudanese army with drones.
Reduced pressure policy
On the other hand, Eritrea, within the state of fluid security that prevails in the Greater Horn of Africa, appears to be a single, stable island, amidst internal wars that threaten both Ethiopia and Sudan with fragmentation and collapse.
In addition to this, there has been a noticeable escalation in the activity of the Al-Shabaab movement in Somalia in recent years, transforming it from a local danger into a regional threat. The region is also witnessing unprecedented tension between Ethiopia and Somalia, warning of the outbreak of a military conflict between the two parties.
This reality calls on the United States to reconsider its approach towards Asmara, as the policy of the big stick and sanctions did not succeed in putting pressure on Eritrea, which holds many influential cards in the volatile arenas of the region, which appeared in its clearest form in its decisive participation in the Tigray war in Ethiopia.
The attempt at containment within new American regional arrangements appeared clear in the updated strategy’s welcome of several steps taken by Asmara in 2023, such as developing its relations with Kenya, which represents one of Washington’s most important allies in the region, as well as its decision to return to IGAD after it suspended its membership in it since 2007.
Washington's new approach was highlighted by its strategy, which placed at the top of its goals support for regional peace and security, including encouraging Eritrea to support global initiatives that have commonalities with the United States, and enhancing the Eritrean government's positive support for peace and security initiatives led by the region.
Banish the Chinese-Russian specter
In light of the tension in American relations with Asmara against the backdrop of the position on the Tigray war, Eritrea's ties with both Moscow and Beijing have witnessed clear changes.
In February 2021, the Eritrean ambassador to Moscow stated that his country welcomed the construction of a Russian “logistical” center on its shores. Eritrea was also the only African country that voted against the United Nations General Assembly resolution requiring Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine in April 2022.
In November 2021, the Eritrean Foreign Ministry also signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing to join the Belt and Road Initiative, guaranteeing China access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
In this context, Washington's new step represents an American effort to curb the acceleration of Eritrean relations with China and Russia, and an attempt to besiege its two rivals, whose influence in Africa has witnessed a significant expansion through the Chinese loan policy and the activity of the Wagner Security Group, in different regions of the continent.
Bridging the gap
The issuance of the new American strategy was met with deafening official Eritrean silence, while accounts loyal to the Eritrean regime welcomed it as a victory for the policy it followed.
On the other hand, the success of this strategy in removing the two countries from the square of hostility seems to depend on their ability to bridge the gap of mistrust, which does not seem an easy task given the hostile nature that has characterized their relations for more than two decades.