The escalating violence in southern Somalia, especially in the battered capital, Mogadishu, risks undermining the modest political gains made since last December. Unless concerted and urgent steps are taken to mediate a speedy end to this fighting, there is a high probability the country will slide into a full civil war, with ever more refugees and violent extremism as its most likely exports.
The scale and ferocity of the latest fighting between the transitional government and the hard-line Islamist factions opposed to it is unprecedented, even by Somalia's grim and bloody standards. More than 100,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting in and around Mogadishu over the past month, with hundreds killed and thousands injured. The fighting has spread to suburbs untouched by the violence, even at the height of the worst fighting throughout the last three years. It has also extended to the country's relatively less violent central regions, with the pro-government Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah movement locked in a battle for supremacy with the extreme militant Al-Shabaab.
The massive wave of dislocation, most acute in Mogadishu, is aggravating the country's humanitarian crisis and straining aid agencies' ability to deliver assistance. And, according to reports, al-Qaeda fighters have begun to leave Pakistan for Somalia because of the opportunities for jihad.
This tragic state of affairs is not exactly unexpected. It is the predictable result of a series of political missteps and squandered opportunities. The past six months have offered Somalia a rare chance to reorient and broaden the peace process and reach a durable political settlement. A rapid succession of positive political and military developments created a momentum that at last offered some hope.
Last December, the deeply unpopular president of the Transitional Federal Government was pressured to leave office. Ethiopia drew the curtains on its ill-fated two-year military intervention in Somalia, which had further radicalized the country and increased support for militant Islamist groups, including Al-Shabaab. The Djibouti peace process culminated in a peace accord between the TFG and the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia faction led by Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. An expanded joint parliament overwhelmingly endorsed him as president shortly afterward, raising hopes his Islamist credentials would enable him to reach out to erstwhile comrades who were opposed to the Djibouti process and its outcome. He quickly relocated to Mogadishu and began exploratory talks with powerful insurgent leaders, using influential community leaders and regional Islamist leaders.
But it is now clear Mr. Ahmed went into these talks ill-prepared and severely handicapped. To begin with, he misjudged the deep personal antipathy and mistrust that now animated many of his opponents. As far as they were concerned, he was a traitor and part of the enemy camp.
He also had little to offer by way of concessions and his bargaining position was undoubtedly weaker militarily. Militant factions buoyed by Ethiopia's troop pullout, successive military gains and their de facto control of large areas in southern and central Somalia had no incentive for compromise. The lack of international consensus on the inclusion of militants in the peace process also meant Mr. Ahmed was largely operating in the dark.
Some governments favoured selective engagement, while others wanted the outreach strategy to include the militants. United Nations envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah appeared unclear of what strategy to adopt and often sent contradictory signals on this critical issue.
Contacts with militant leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, were particularly undermined by this ambivalence. Beyond the vague promise that the TFG and Arab governments would push for his name to be removed from the U.S. list of foreign sponsors of terrorism, nothing else was offered to Mr. Aweys. It was inevitable he would soon view the whole outreach strategy as a ploy to obtain his support for the TFG on the cheap. Little surprise, then, he turned into a spoiler.
Considering the gravity and complexity of the Somali crisis, a period of international hand-wringing and confusion is perhaps inevitable, even understandable. However, inaction would be inexcusable and highly irresponsible.
The international community needs to reinvigorate the peace process to reach out to the militants and make the required meaningful concessions to win them over. Immediate talks in a neutral venue between the TFG and the militants - to discuss terms for ceasefire, safe havens for civilians and corridors for humanitarian aid - would be a start.
The other options - delays or half-measures that leave Somalia to fester and spawn extremists who could pose a serious threat to countries far beyond the Horn of Africa - do not bear thinking about.
Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Stroehlein are deputy Africa program director and communications director of the International Crisis Group.Report Typo/Error