RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Somalia, Ethiopian forces reportedly pushed back Islamist fighters from the main front today. This comes a day after Ethiopian fighter jets bombed Somalia's two main international airports. The Ethiopian forces are backing Somalia's weak U.N.-supported government which has been losing ground to Islamist since June. Ethiopia's involvement has intensified a conflict some fear could engulf the region.
Matt Bryden is with the International Crisis Group, and he joins us from his base in Nairobi, Kenya. Good morning.
Mr. MATT BRYDEN (International Crisis Group): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Could you bring us up to date on the latest on the ground in Somalia? And this is, you are observing Somalia from Nairobi.
Mr. BRYDEN: Yeah, that's right. And as you said, the Islamic Courts Union has been in retreat over the last couple of days. They have withdrawn now from several of their frontline positions both in the north - the towns of Abduuch(ph), Adado, Beled Weyn, and now Bulo Burti, which is about half way between the Ethiopian border and Mogadishu. They are calling this a tactical withdrawal, which of course they would to put their spin on it. It's clear that they've come out worse off in their clashes with the Ethiopian forces. But I think this is what we would have expected in the earlier days of the conflict.
MONTAGNE: Well, Ethiopia of course is using fighter jets in this conflict. They're heavily armed in ways that the Islamist aren't. The balance of force seems pretty lopsided.
Mr. BRYDEN: Well, it is pretty lopsided, at least in the short term. The problem is that the Transitional Federal Government, which Ethiopia is backing, is very weak, and its failure to govern left a vacuum that the Islamist expanded into. Militarily defeating the Islamists brings us back to where we were before with an impotent government sitting in the middle of the country and a vacuum waiting to be filled.
MONTAGNE: You know, the African Union has just come out and backed Ethiopia in this conflict. Why is that?
Mr. BRYDEN: As a general rule, the AU does not accept the overthrow of recognized governments by force. And I think this is a message to the Islamic Courts that they can't do that. Also, the AU has authorized deployment of a regional force to protect the government. And so I think they see Ethiopia as really just being the lead element of this force.
MONTAGNE: Ethiopia has said that it's acting in its own interest. Why is it concerned about Islamist Courts Union government in Somalia?
Mr. BRYDEN: The Courts pose a threat to Ethiopia in several ways. First, they have laid claim to Somalia-inhabited territories and neighboring countries, including Ethiopia. Second, they are supporting at least two Ethiopian rebel groups. And third, parts of the Courts are allegedly linked to terrorist activities in Ethiopia in the mid-1990s and to members of al-Qaida's East African network. And so Ethiopia has acted essentially preemptively to deal with this threat, believing that if they don't, that the Courts rule will carry the fight to Ethiopia.
MONTAGNE: If Ethiopia should succeed in pushing back the Islamists and supporting the central government, does it have enough forces to maintain a presence in Somalia?
Mr. BRYDEN: No. I think the problem for Ethiopia is that it can push back the Islamists, but they probably cannot enter their bases, their areas of core support in Mogadishu and Kismayo. Broadly speaking, they've got more populous support in southern Somalia than the government does. So the Ethiopians are in the position of supporting a government which really most Somalis now see as a faction rather than a national authority.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. BRYDEN: You're most welcome.
MONTAGNE: Matt Bryden is with the International Crisis Group, and he joined us from Nairobi, Kenya.
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