Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on Ethiopia

Published: Tue Jan 11 2022

Via Teleconference

3:12 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And good afternoon, everyone. And thank you for joining the NSC press call on Ethiopia.

As a reminder, this call will be on background, attributed to a "senior administration official," and the contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

For everyone's awareness but not for reporting: Our speaker today is [senior administration official].

[Senior administration official], we'll turn it over to you now. And after your remarks, we'll open it up for Q&A.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks very much, [moderator]. And thanks, everybody, for being on the call.

The crisis in Ethiopia has been very challenging for the United States from before this administration took office but certainly through the entirety of our tenure up until now.

It has a number of dimensions. There's obviously a humanitarian crisis that is particularly acute.

There's also a security crisis that has regional implications, given the role and influence of outside states. And here, I would note, particularly, the unhelpful role of Eritrea in this conflict.

And it also runs the risk of distracting from other regional priorities to the United States, like the fight against al-Shabaab.

I wanted to clarify, given the range of accounts we sometimes see, how we see the approach the United States has been taking to this conflict from day one. We've been emphasizing to all parties that there is no military solution to this conflict. We've been warning against atrocities. We've been trying to facilitate a peaceful resolution through dialogue between the parties. We are not choosing sides or putting our thumb on the scale.

As I think many of you know, we sent a Senator Chris Coons out to speak - as a personal emissary of the President - with the Prime Minister early in our tenure and named a very senior diplomat, Jeff Feltman, as our Special Envoy to help manage this crisis.

This has, obviously, also been a major focus of time across our administration - from the President to the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and really to the entire national security interagency - with regular meetings among senior officials held on this topic.

The trajectory of the conflict has been a bit of a pendulum, with each side having moments of clear advantage. In recent days, the Prime Minister has begun sending more positive signals: prisoner releases, openness to dialogue, and pledges with regard to humanitarian access.

The Tigrayan side has also publicly committed to dialogue.

On the other hand, given what we've seen in the past, it's hard to know how long this relatively constructive phase will last.

So, the purpose of the call today was really to reinforce some of the more constructive steps and inclinations Prime Minister Abiy may be demonstrating, to put the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship onto a constructive footing, and reiterate where we need to continue to see progress - specifically, the Ethiopian army not going into Tigray; stopping airstrikes, which has taken place in recent days and about which we've been quite concerned, including publicly; expanding humanitarian access to all regions of the country; and engaging in ceasefire talks.

So, we do see this as a moment of opportunity if the parties are willing and able to seize it. That remains to be seen. And this window won't be open forever. So, our goal will be to facilitate that to the greatest extent possible.

MODERATOR: Great. And with that, we will open it up for Q&A.

Q Hi, thank you so much for doing this. Will Pres- - did - will President Biden's call to Abiy today result in any humanitarian access to Tigray?

And you mentioned the Eritreans, so I wanted to follow up on that. Have the Eritreans returned, as the TPLF has said? And if so, is it a full-scale invasion again aimed at ending the TPLF or a limited incursion? What information do you have about the penetration of Ethiopian security structures by Eritreans? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you. I'll respond to those in the order in which you ask them.

Humanitarian access was a significant focus of the discussion between the two leaders today. President Biden was very clear, as I just explained in the readout, that full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country. The Prime Minister seemed to understand that that was the request. He has made a series of commitments, including publicly, to expand humanitarian access. And it will now be up to the Ethiopian government to deliver on what they have been pledging to do.

But we think this is broadly in the interest of all Ethiopians and, certainly, of the humanitarian situation.

On the Eritrians, as I indicated in my opening comments, their role in this crisis has been a negative from the start. You know, we do not believe that they have a constructive role to be played in a conflict that is taking place on the other side of their border. I'm not going to get into our various intelligence and other assessments of the role that they're playing currently. But suffice it to say we still believe that their role is unhelpful and that they should, frankly, stay out of this conflict.

Q Hi, there. Thanks very much for taking this call. Speaking of countries that are playing an unhelpful role, can you tell us what is the - what message is the United States sending to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which have been reported to be support - supplying the government with armed drones in order to prosecate [sic] the - prosecute war?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I'm not going to get into private diplomatic conversations that have taken place –with a whole range of countries, by the way, including some of the countries that border Ethiopia and other countries in the broader region.

Our approach has been to try to align all of the international actors with a voice in what is happening in Ethiopia and with any influence over Ethiopia's leadership - including the parties, by the way, on both sides - around what I described was our objective, which is that there is no military solution, that there is only peace through dialogue between the parties. And right now, there should be a lot of energy put into dialogue aimed at a ceasefire that can try to bring this conflict to a better place.

That is how - that what we communicate in private to the various parties, including the one that you mentioned, and it's what our public message is as well.

Q Hi, [senior administration official]. Thanks for doing this. I'm wondering how you would describe the tone of the meeting, in particular Abiy Ahmed, and if he made any commitments for next steps.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, look, I would describe the conversation as businesslike, as serious, as substantive, and, you know, focused on issues. You know, and in terms of next steps, I think we made clear, the President made clear what the President would like to see - which is, again, the Ethiopian army not going in to Tigray; to halting airstrikes, including - and particularly those that have caused a loss of life among civilians; expanding humanitarian access; and engaging in direct ceasefire talks.

You know, those are the next steps that we would like to see. There have been some commitments made, including publicly, by the Prime Minister on some of those issues. And, you know, our view is that he should now move forward on those commitments.

Q Yes, thank you for doing this, and thank you for taking my questions. Simon Ateba, Today News Africa. First, I would like to know who initiated today's call. Was it President Biden or Prime Minister Abiy?

And you also said that the Prime Minister seemed to understand that humanitarian access should be restored. But did he make any commitment to allow humanitarian access into Tigray? And as, you know, (inaudible) what kind of commitment did he make?

And did the President make clear that - what his redline is in Ethiopia? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, President Biden asked for this phone call for the reasons that I explained during my opening comments.

As for commitments that were made: You know, it is our general approach in reading out these calls that we don't characterize what the other side said; we focus primarily on what President Biden has communicated. So, that's what I've done here.

I will say it was quite clear from President Abiy - Prime Minister Abiy's comments that he understood the imperative of restoring humanitarian access. And, again, I will refer you to his public comments in this regard - public commitments that have been made and to our desire that those be implemented. But I won't go so far as to characterize his side of the conversation in any more detail than that.

Q Hi, [senior administration official]. Thank you so much for doing this. As you know, Special Envoy Feltman has been engaging in these conversations with the Abiy administration and other parties for a very long time. So, I'm just wondering if you could help characterize - how would you compare these talks or the status of the conversations happening right now to those that have happened, going back, you know, six months ago - even just a few weeks ago? Has there been - you know, is this a reflection of appreciable progress being made? How would you characterize the context of all this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Ali. So, you mentioned Special Envoy Feltman, as I did. And I should note that, obviously, Special Envoy Feltman has reached the end of his tenure and will be giving way to a new special envoy, David Satterfield, who is one of, you know, our most experienced diplomats - obviously, coming off of a position as a U.S. Ambassador to Turkey but has served a number of other roles as well - and will be very well placed to carry this work forward.

You know, in terms of where we are in the current moment, I guess I would come back to what I said at the end of my comments: This could be a moment of opportunity, but only if the parties are willing to take advantage of it. And, you know, I'm not going to come out and say that I have a lot of confidence that that will be done. I think that remains to be seen.

This window will not be open forever, and we are going to do everything that we can to help facilitate continued progress. We have heard some public statements from both sides that are more constructive than some of the things that have been said in the past. And we have seen at least the beginnings of some steps in a more constructive direction. I've mentioned a few of those.

But unless the momentum is maintained, we'll be back where we were not so long ago. And so, our strong hope - and we will be working towards this - is that they will seize this opportunity. But it's really up to the parties to do it.

Q Thank you for doing this. I had a question about the AGOA trade pact. Ethiopia was removed from it at the start of the year; this is, in a way, a consequence. Are you guys considering any other form of sanctions going forward if this momentum, as you call it, doesn't go forward the way you want it to?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I would refer you to what we've said publicly on AGOA in the recent days and weeks, which is: Obviously, this - this, you know, program was terminated with regard to Ethiopia because the statute is very clear about their requirements and the criteria that must be met for countries to participate, and those relate to human rights, among other things.

We've also been quite clear that if more positive and constructive steps are taken to address the concerns that were raised by the U.S. Trade Representative that we would be willing to enter a process of discussion with the government of Ethiopia about an off-cycle review of their status. But we would need to see significantly more progress on the concerns that led to the termination in the first place in order to go down that road.

Q Hi, thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask if you could provide any more details on Ambassador Feltman's trip last week.

And when will - I know you mentioned that his time is over, but when will Ambassador Satterfield officially assume the role? And are there any plans for him to visit the region? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I'll refer you to the State Department on the exact timing for Ambassador Satterfield, but we expect it won't be long.

The President and the Prime Minister did discuss Ambassador Satterfield making a trip to the region, you know, soon after he is fully on board. But again, nothing scheduled yet, and I'll refer you to the State Department to determine that.

In terms of Ambassador Feltman's visit, it came at the request and the suggestion of the Ethiopian government. And it was in many ways a preview of some of what was said on the current call, and some of what the government of Ethiopia and the Prime Minister himself have said publicly. So, I think the substantive readout would not be any different in meaningful ways from what I've already described. And I will leave those conversations to the State Department to describe further if they'd like.

MODERATOR: Thank you all. And those are all the questions we have time for today.

Again, thank you for our speaker for joining. And thank you for all of you for joining to cover the call.

As a reminder of the ground rules: The call is on background, attributable to a "senior administration official."

The embargo is now listed [lifted], so feel free to report the contents of this conversation.

3:27 P.M. EST

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