The Corner

National Security & Defense

Is the West Dropping the Ball on South Sudan’s Civil War?

At the United Nations meetings in New York last week, a major topic was the civil war in South Sudan, which became the world’s newest nation in 2011 by breaking away from Arab-dominated Sudan. The new nation had oil wealth and an industrious people. But in December 2013, a new civil war broke out between President Salvir Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. After 21 months of fighting, a shaky peace deal was signed under international pressure last month. 

The good news is that foreign-aid shipments of food, medicine, and plastic sheets for shelter are reaching civilians displaced from their homes by the fighting. 

The bad news is that the peace deal imposed by Western governments, including the U.S., is an artificial one and lacks credibility on the ground. British prime minister David Cameron even used his United Nations speech to announce he will dispatch 300 British soldiers to South Sudan, which used to be a British colony.  Cameron justified the sending of troops as necessary to prevent future outflows of refugees fleeing to Europe, but almost no one from Sudan is currently among the flow of people streaming into Europe. The kind of intervention Cameron is taking is likely to only inflame both sides in the civil war.

Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down with Awan Riak, Salva Kiir’s chief of staff. In that meeting, Minister Riak reiterated the South Sudan president’s commitment to ending the conflict. He cautioned however that the agreement was hastily assembled and many of the Western countries — including Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. — seemed more interested in proclaiming a peace settlement than addressing the underlying concerns that caused the conflict to start with.

In a speech delivered electronically to the U.N. Security Council, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan reiterated those concerns.

“[It] is the most divisive and unprecedented peace deal ever seen in the history of our country and the African continent at large,” he said. Indeed, early signs suggest that the peace accord is in trouble. Minister Awak told me that the cease-fire is breaking down in parts of South Sudan. This is mainly due to delays in putting together a Joint Monitoring and Verification group on the ground.

Yet he said that the cease-fire is currently holding only in some parts of the country. This is mainly due to the absence of peacekeepers who are supposed to be part of a Joint Monitoring and Verification Mechanism that is to be created inside South Sudan.

A diplomatic conflict is building as pressure is exerted by the Western nations who threatened South Sudan and rebel forces with sanctions if the peace agreement they dictated wasn’t signed. A Western diplomat in Juba has been quoted by African newspapers as saying that because Western nations provide so much foreign aid to the region, “South Sudan does not and should not have a say on who contributes to the U.N. peacekeeping mission.”

Western nations spent a lot of time and energy in helping largely Christian South Sudan achieve independence from the Arab-dominated north in 2011. It is understandable they are frustrated that the country hasn’t yet achieved peace and stability. But, once again, heavy-handed Western interventionists who don’t adequately consult the players on the ground aren’t likely to provide a lasting recipe for peace.

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