NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somali government forces attacked insurgent strongholds across Mogadishu on Friday in a drive to retake strategic sites in the capital.
Here are possible scenarios for the Horn of Africa nation:
* The new government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is seen by many as Somalia’s best chance for peace in 18 years. But it needs to eliminate the threat from hardline Islamist rebels including the al Shabaab group, which Western security services say is al Qaeda’s proxy in the country.
* Until Friday, pro-government forces had not looked strong enough to break Shabaab’s grip on parts of Mogadishu. But last week’s defection of a veteran warlord and former opposition leader with hundreds of fighters under his command may have prompted Ahmed to order the new offensive.
* Donors have pledged $213 million to build security forces and help African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Mogadishu, but funds are not being disbursed as fast as the government would like.
* Ethiopia says it will send troops back to Somalia if “terrorists” take power and threaten its security. But the return of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers looks unlikely, and the small AU mission AMISOM has no mandate to pursue the rebels.
* Pro-government forces may be able to take back significant parts of the capital, but experts say they will be hard-pushed to extend their reach to far-flung provinces.
* Estimates of Shabaab numbers vary, but may be around 10,000, experts say. The U.N. special envoy to Somalia says the group has been swelled by about 300 foreigners drawn by the prospect of fighting a jihad, or holy war, in a conflict that some have dubbed Africa’s Iraq.
* Although Ahmed is an Islamist, was co-chair of the old Islamic Courts Union (ICU) whose security wing was Shabaab, and parliament has voted to introduce sharia law, that has not satisfied the hardliners. They accuse him of selling out to the West by forming a government in a U.N.-sponsored peace process in neighboring Djibouti and by accepting AU troops.
* Shabaab wants to topple Ahmed, implement a stricter version of sharia nationwide and expel the peacekeepers. Experts believe it has enough strength to do daily damage to the government, but probably not force it out altogether.
* Protracted fighting, without a definitive outcome, is probably going to continue in the short- and medium term.
* Shabaab is likely to continue guerrilla-style strikes against the government and AU troops, as well as engaging in bigger battles when the administration steps up its response.
* The government and regional IGAD bloc accuse Eritrea of arming the rebels, but Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki denied it and told Reuters the allegations were the work of CIA agents seeking to tarnish his country’s image.
* A moderate Islamist movement, Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, will continue to battle Shabaab in provincial areas, with territory going backwards and forwards between the two, analysts say.
* Mindful of the disastrous U.S.-U.N. intervention in the early 1990s, which collapsed after the “Black Hawk Down” killing of 18 American soldiers, the world is unlikely to intervene beyond trying to beef up the 4,300-strong AMISOM force and fund the government’s attempt to build an army.
* Neither the U.N. Security Council nor U.S. President Barack Obama have much political appetite for another major push of their own, and the Ahmed’s government fears any deployment of U.N. troops could rally fighters to the insurgents.
* President Ahmed has said he wants to talk to Shabaab and has sent emissaries — but the rebels have so far rejected his overtures and responded with insults and more attacks.
* An important figure in any reconciliation would be hardline opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. He returned to Mogadishu in April and is an influential figure for many Somalis.
* There are splits within the rebels, and clan rivalries look to be giving Shabaab some difficulties. On Thursday, the rebels replaced their main spokesman, who hailed from the south, with a colleague from Somalia’s central region.
* Experts say al Shabaab wants to shore up support among the area’s powerful Hawiye clan — whose elders have tried and failed so far to persuade Aweys to reconcile with fellow Hawiye, President Ahmed.
* Italy hosts donors on June 9-10 to discuss how to stabilize Somalia and tackle rampant piracy.
Editing by David Clarke