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Critics charge US policy fuels conflict in Somalia. The Somali regime, battered by insurgency and discontent within and criticism from without, may be in danger of collapse.

The United States government is facing pressure to rethink its support for Somalia's beleaguered regime. Fighting between Somali rebel and government forces that erupted in the north in late May remains ``very, very serious,'' a ranking State Department official says.

According to well-informed Western sources, the 19-year rule of President Mohamed Siad Barre is in danger of collapsing - not directly at the hands of the insurgents, but because of rising discontent in the military and a narrowing power base.

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The US, meanwhile, continues to aid President Siad's government. US personnel recently repaired the war-damaged communications facility that links the northern capital of Hargeisa to the Army command center in Mogadishu, the national capital. Regular US shipments of small arms continue.

Critics of US policy, including members of the House Subcommittee on Africa and the rebel Somali National Movement (SNM), charge that US assistance is fueling the conflict and could have ill effects on US-Somali relations in the post-Siad era.

This could jeopardize long-term US access to strategic Somali air and naval facilities, most notably the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, they say.

US aid to Somalia for this year will total at least $41 million, including $5 million in military aid. Critics say that since Somalia and Ethiopia signed a nonaggression pact in April, the ``external threat'' the US cited in justifying its military-aid program is gone. US officials respond that even with the pact, which is fragile, Soviet-backed Ethiopia is still a threat to Somalia.

Critics would also like the US to complain more vocally about reported Somali human-rights abuses, which US officials admit are severe and longstanding.

The House subcommittee has threatened to hold up aid if some of these concerns are not addressed.

``People on the Hill need to be more realistic,'' the State Department official says. ``Foreign assistance gives very little leverage when you want one-for-one results.... And criticizing Siad wouldn't be productive anyway.''

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The official adds: ``The sign that you give is that you stick by your friends.''

Still, the Somalis are already unhappy that US aid has been declining as it has throughout Africa because of the budget deficit. The fact that the Somalis wouldn't allow the US Embassy to fly a plane to the north to evacuate Americans when the fighting began indicates how little clout the US can have at times, the official says.

The official played down the importance of Berbera, calling it a ``contingency facility,'' and added that even if the rebels did overrun it, the gain would be mostly psychological. Fighting throughout the north and around Berbera, reportedly heavy over the past week, has already rendered the port less usable, he says. Still, the US is building small petroleum-storage facilities there.

Meanwhile, the aged and ailing Mr. Siad faces increasing discontent within his regime, which is centered on family and clan connections. According to an informed Westerner, there has been a ``falling out'' among senior military men. One who lost his job is Brig. Gen. Mohamed Siad Morgan, the President's son-in-law and a rival to Siad's eldest son, Brig. Gen. Maslah, whom some believe Siad may be grooming to take his place.

Last month's defection to Djibouti of a Somali pilot, who refused to bomb civilians, as he claims he was ordered to do, has been the most visible sign of discontent among the military rank and file. Some field commanders have been reported unwilling to carry out orders. According to a Western development administrator who witnessed the first several days of fighting, morale among Army soldiers is low.

``You can oppress people and put guns in their hands, but they're only going to be defending themselves,'' the administrator says. The way the government recruits soldiers, even during peacetime, is to clear a bus at gunpoint and load the young men onto a truck, he says.

``The Somali government is embarrassed,'' the official continues. ``The rebels are very motivated, and they have a lot of popular support - more than anyone expected.''

So far, the fighting has been only in the north, where the dominant Issak clan feels particularly abused by the Marehan-clan-dominated government. Foreigners and relief workers are barred from the north.

A team of US aid officials left for Somalia last Friday to assess the situation in the north, though they were not sure if they would be permitted into the area. The US hopes to have a humanitarian assistance package, with European and United Nations input, ready to go in anticipation of a request from Siad.

Some 200,000 Somalis have fled to Ethiopia and are being fed by the UN refugee agency. Others have moved out of the major towns to be safer from government attack and in search of food and water. The death toll since the fighting began is estimated in the thousands.

Public statements by the Somali government have done little for its credibility since the fighting began. The US is encouraged by talk of the need for ``reconciliation.'' But so far that has meant little more than an appeal to get ``civilians misled by the criminal armed bandits to return home to their motherland,'' to quote a July 28 statement from the Somali Embassy.

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