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Ken Menkhaus’s insights on Somalia

The situation in Somalia is, as it always is, extremely confusing. Headlines yesterday alternated between reports of fierce battles and reports that both sides were returning to the negotiating table.

An excellent interview with Ken Menkhaus in Foreign Policy helps explain this pattern:

Neither the Ethiopians nor the Islamists has the ability to deliver a knockout punch. The only way this armed conflict will be short is if each side is trying to send a signal to the other. In other words, they bloody each other’s noses, then step back and assess the very high risks to both sides, and someone steps in to mediate.

He goes on to explain that this situation favors the UIC – because they control so much of the country, they win in a stalemate:

Some people argue that the prospects of a negotiated settlement are nil, that the Courts have nothing to gain. They are already in a position of tremendous power within Somalia. They are the strongest military and political force by a long margin.

This, in turn, means that Ethiopia may be caught in a long quagmire, making them more vulnerable to pressure from Eritrea on their northern border.

It’s difficult to get news from Somalia right now – it continues to be a dangerous place for non-Somali journalists, and it’s very hard to get a “man on the street” impression of the situation in Baidoa or the surrounding area. I’d had my fingers crossed for Andrew Heavens, who pulled out of the Global Voices meeting to try and travel to the Ethiopia/Somalia border region – his most recent blog post suggests that he had to abort the trip. Mike Pflanz from the Telegraph is writing from the other side of the border – he’s travelling with MSF and offering a diary from the road – at present, he doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the fighting, but he’s giving some interesting impressions of the comparative normalcy of southern Somalia under the UIC.