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Saturday, May 27, 2000

Wars drag on in an interconnected world


LONDON -- Two wars should be ending this month, for the Tamil separatists have all but won in Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia has already won in the Horn of Africa. Neither result is wonderful, but -- at least in the past -- outcomes as decisive as these used to end the fighting and let ordinary people get on with their lives. Not any more.

The defeat suffered by the Sri Lankan Army has been stunning. For 17 years it has fought the guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, initially a ragtag band of fanatics seeking independence for the Tamil-speaking Hindu minority who live in the north of the island. Five years ago, it even drove the LTTE out of Jaffna, the northern city that is the de facto Tamil capital. But now it is on the brink of losing Jaffna again.

The LTTE, lavishly funded by the Tamil community overseas, has grown into a force able to stand and fight in the open, with better artillery than the demoralized Sri Lankan Army. Last month, it took the Elephant's Pass army camp at the base of the Jaffna Peninsula, which had remained in government hands even when the LTTE controlled Jaffna itself.

Now some 28,000 government soldiers are trapped in the city, supplied only by sea and air, waiting for the ax to fall. (Both the airfield and port are within the Tigers' artillery range.) A new army commander, Maj.-Gen. Janaka Perera, has been flown into Jaffna to take charge of the city's defenses, but it is a bit like flying Gen. Friedrich Paulus into Stalingrad.

Jaffna will fall before very long, probably to a combination of external assault and internal uprising (the vast majority of the city's half-million people are Tamils), and then the war should end.

It would not be a happy ending, for it would be hard to disentangle two peoples who have lived side by side on the island for so many centuries -- nor do they necessarily want to be disentangled. The LTTE leadership is not democratic, and ruthlessly murders Tamils who do not share its goal of complete independence. The Sri Lankan government is democratic, and in recent years has tried to rise above the Sinhalese ethnic exclusivism that drove Tamils into revolt in the first place. But now it is too late for a sensible compromise.

Once Jaffna falls, with thousands of progovernment Tamils executed and tens of thousands of government troops in rebel hands, the momentum passes irretrievably into the hands of the Tigers. Both logic and humanity then argue for a deal that recognizes the facts on the ground. At least the killing would stop, and people could get on with building two countries where there used to be one.

That would make sense locally, but it will not happen. Instead, earlier this month, the government in Colombo suddenly restored diplomatic relations with Israel after a 30-year break. The idea is to get Israeli-built aircraft and weapons for a government counteroffensive -- and if the Israelis fail to come through, then there's always Taiwan, or North Korea, or even Pakistan.

The world is so full of countries with hungry arms industries or obsessive political agendas, or both, that almost any government in trouble can come up with enough arms to keep a losing conflict going. Moreover, the "international community" hates decisive outcomes that split countries up, or even shift borders around. It may make sense locally, but in a world of 186 sovereign states it is a recipe for perpetual turmoil.

This will also prevent a prompt and sensible conclusion to the two-year-old war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which should be ending just about now.

While the border dispute that lies behind the war in the Horn of Africa involves a tangle of legal claims going back to colonial times, three facts are beyond dispute. First, the territory in question is virtually worthless. Second, the Eritreans, confident of their innate military superiority over their much larger Ethiopian neighbor, were the first to resort to force. Third, the Eritreans were wrong about the Ethiopians.

Eritrea fought a long guerrilla war for independence from Ethiopia in the '70s and '80s, and as a result enjoys in some quarters the romantic image of an African Cuba. In reality, however, it is a highly militarized one-party state with a bad case of arrogance: it attacked a country with 20 times its population, and it is now being soundly thrashed.

Today's Ethiopian government is much more democratic and considerably more competent than its predecessors who were beaten by the Eritreans. After early defeats and a year's futile peace talks -- in which Eritrea, then in possession of most of the disputed territory, refused to discuss the border until after a permanent ceasefire -- Ethiopia launched an offensive two weeks ago that rapidly broke through the Eritrean lines.

The Ethiopian Army is now within striking distance of the Eritrean capital, Asmara. In times past, this would have been the signal for a rapid peace offer by the Eritrean government, handing over the disputed territory in order to ensure its own survival.

Now, however, the whole world will intervene to prevent such a decisive outcome. Indeed, the United Nations has just imposed an arms embargo on both sides in a belated attempt to freeze the conflict.

It is not a bad thing, in principle, that the world has become a more interconnected place. It is certainly not a bad thing that the U.N. is determined not to acknowledge territorial changes that are brought about by force. But a major side effect is that wars are getting a lot more difficult to end.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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