The United Nations has confirmed reports of Eritrean forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, despite steadfast denials of their presence by both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments. Ethiopia has also rejected U.S. assertions of acts of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, calling the claims “a completely unfounded and spurious verdict against the Ethiopian government.”
The senior White House official told Foreign Policy that Coons is also expected to press Abiy on resolving an ongoing border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia and urge him to open up access to Tigray for humanitarian assistance.
“The humanitarian situation is getting to a point that we really will need Abiy to loosen up the humanitarian space so that we can actually get the right amount assistance, getting a good assessment of what’s going on on the ground … and to do what he can to get those other forces out who are being unhelpful,” the official said.
It’s unusual for a president to dispatch a sitting U.S. senator to carry out a diplomatic mission, though officials said Coons has unique political clout given his leadership roles in the Senate and close relationship with the president, whose Delaware Senate seat he won in 2010 after Biden became vice president. From his perch on the foreign-affairs committee, Coons has also been an active voice on U.S. policy on Africa, serving on the subcommittee that oversees Africa and global health.
Several U.S. officials familiar with the matter said the move could also reflect the fact that after only two months into office, Biden still has only a thin bench of senior, Senate-confirmed appointees in his administration to deploy to crises around the world as he works to fully staff up his foreign-policy team and State Department.
Biden has yet to name an assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and several other senior Department of State nominees are still awaiting Senate confirmation.
The Biden administration is expected to create a new position, a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, to manage the U.S. response to the crisis in Ethiopia and other sources of instability in the region.