The tensions in Somalia between the forces of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (SICC) and the interim government and its Ethiopian backers broke into open warfare as Ethiopian forces launched airstrikes against SICC positions in several locations on Sunday and Monday and began moving ground forces. The attacks came a month after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called Somalia's Islamists a clear and present danger during an address to parliament. In the intervening weeks, both sides have maneuvered for better position before the end of the rainy season. The outbreak of fighting was far from unexpected. As we noted in October
, both sides began preparing for a showdown after it became clear there was no room for a negotiated settlement between the SICC and the interim government — not as long as Ethiopia determined the SICC was a threat to its own security. By November, the battle lines were being drawn as the SICC made a final push to claim territory while significant Ethiopian reinforcements were delayed by the flooding due to the annual Deyr rains
. With the rains over and the ground drying up, the inevitable Ethiopian strike has now come. In the initial push, it appears the SICC front lines are starting to falter as Ethiopia brings better-trained and better-equipped military forces to bear. SICC forces reportedly have abandoned the central city of Beledweyne (initially taken by SICC forces in June) after fierce ground fighting with Ethiopian forces; Somalian transitional government forces, backed by Ethiopian equipment and fighters, have pushed back SICC forces in Idaale, Jawil and Bandiiradley. But the initial push is not necessarily a reflection of the conflict to come. The SICC has not gained territory as much by fighting as by making arrangements with local warlords and village leaders, and by capitalizing on popular dissatisfaction with other warlords and the general lack of security and stability. The SICC forces are not structured for conventional military-to-military warfare; they lack heavy equipment, organization and training. However, they are structured for insurgency and guerrilla warfare — and if Ethiopia is unwilling or unable to make the commitment of forces and time to ensure the security and stability in Somalia, the interim government certainly is in no position to make the same guarantees. What is shaping up is a battle in which the Ethiopians push the buffer back farther from their border, and carry out long-range strikes on Mogadishu in an effort to stem the flow of foreign weapons and fighters to the SICC as well as return the country's areas of control to their pre-June position. On the SICC side, there is now an open call for foreign fighters, both from Ethiopian rival Eritrea and from foreign jihadist fighters, something the SICC has flirted with, but will now seek without concern for international considerations. Earlier moves by the SICC to reshape itself as a political force with minimal religious goals are no longer valid, and the SICC is openly seeking foreign Islamist assistance. This has the potential to create a shift in the dynamic of the international Islamist militancy. While Iraq has been the focal point of international recruiting and volunteering for Islamists seeking a place to fight for their cause, Somalia is shaping up as a new center for international fighters. This could begin to reduce the flow of fighters into Iraq and Afghanistan. But it also creates a location where Western forces are extremely unlikely to intervene, unlike the steady presence of U.S., NATO and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the interim government unable to fully control Somalia even with the assistance of Ethiopian forces, Somalia becomes a prime area for al Qaeda and other Islamist forces to train, rest and recruit — something that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq currently provide beyond the realm of tactical battlefield training. This makes the conflict in Somalia extremely important for Washington, but history and current priorities make active involvement highly unlikely. Thus, Washington will offer increasing levels of support to the Ethiopian forces and attempt to revive the warlords in Somalia. There is one more immediate concern for the United States. The conflict in Somalia is serving as a proxy war for Ethiopia and Eritrea. As it continues, direct fighting between Addis Ababa and Asmara could break out. And this raises security concerns for U.S. operations in the Horn of Africa, which are based out of Djibouti, squeezed between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.