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War in Somalia: Protecting Somaliland's Peace Should Be a Priority

The war in Somalia has entered a new phase. Even by Mogadishu's standards, in recent days the fighting has been intense. More than 100 people have been killed. The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), supported by the international community, are engaged in a violent power struggle. The dynamics are fluctuating by the day but al-Shabaab, along with other Jihadist movements such as Hisbul Islam, controls most of the territory in south-central Somalia and they are preparing for a final push to seize the presidential palace.

This turn of events is not surprising. Only recently, the very same day rich countries were opening their pockets in Brussels to prop up the weak TFG, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys landed in Mogadishu. As the leader of al-Shabaab and a former colleague-turned competitor of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the arrival of Aweys was significant. He pledged war and has delivered on it. Once in Mogadishu, Aweys addressed crowds in calling the African Union troops "bacteria" that must leave Somalia. Foreign troops in Somalia have always been a point of contention and deeply unpopular. But the reality is that without them the TFG cannot survive. Brushing off overtures from President Sharif for dialogue, al-Shabaab appears to be looking for a military victory.

In the coming days the international community will certainly be considering what options it has. These appear relatively limited -- the US has little appetite for intervening and al-Shabaab gave the Ethiopian military such a serious fight that they too do not look eager to invade again.

The concerns widely discussed about the current crisis in Pakistan, particularly as to whether the government is viable and can withstand the Taliban being within 100 km of the capital, are amplified in Somalia. In Somalia, foreign and local fighters, some of who have trained in Afghanistan, actually do control all but a few streets in the capital. There are reports that al-Shabaab is set to be provided with additional reinforcements of foreign and local jihadists in the coming days.

Somaliland, the un-recognized peaceful and politically stable northwestern region of Somalia, must also consider its own security. Somaliland rightly prides itself on being an oasis of peace in a violent region. In September 2009 they will be holding their third presidential elections which, building on the 2003 elections, appear set to be competitive and free. After years of fighting for independence and after years of watching their brothers in the south slaughter themselves, Somalilanders do not take their accomplishment of peace lightly. Unfortunately, they may have already been pulled into this war.

Somalilanders know al-Shabaab's wrath well. They have been the victims of its impeccable timing -- the October 29th suicide bombers that that struck the presidency, UNDP and the Ethiopian embassy coincided with an international meeting for the TFG in Nairobi. A crucial part of the leadership of al-Shabaab currently hails from Somaliland and the October bombings were partly a response to internal criticism suggesting that that they should bring their own clans and land into the war. Al-Shabaab has a presence in Somaliland and events in the south make al-Shabaab sympathizers bolder.

The Somaliland government will certainly be asking difficult questions in the coming days. Should Somaliland forge new security relations with Puntland, the autonomous region to the east? This appears to be happening to some degree, but what would a more dynamic alliance look like?

These are very real and complicated dilemmas for Somaliland and are issues they will be grappling with in the coming days and months. Domestically there will be new debates as now-marginalized politicians that have lost out in President Sharif's government look for influence. Somaliland has so far managed to successfully build its own democracy and state without intervention, largely because a local and organic peace process was allowed to flourish without external engineering.

At this critical juncture a chance remains for the international community to act to at least preserve and protect the one island of hope -- a peaceful, democratic and independent Somaliland that could become a beachhead for extending peace with justice in the region. But Somaliland should be realistic -- the international community will allow Somaliland to fail. Somalilanders have rightly prided themselves on succeeding without international intervention but they may yet face one of their greatest tests.

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