The M23 have taken the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern city Goma. Yet again, a Rwandan-backed rebel movement has reignited fears of renewed war. It is a depressingly familiar story.
A dysfunctional Congolese military crumbles and the UN remains on the side-lines. The international community prevaricates, distracted by conflict elsewhere. Congolese civilians, once again, bear the brunt.
It marks a step-change in the seriousness of conflict in the East. The M23 and its predecessor, the CNDP of General Laurent Nkunda, have continued a low-level insurrection since 2006, a cyclical pattern of failed government offensives and abortive peace deals. But though they have remained undefeated, they have also hitherto been limited in their goals, seemingly content with a status quo that saw them in control of their highland fiefdoms and profitable mineral sites. They had threatened to take Goma on numerous occasions, but each time stopped at its gates. Not so today.
The most pressing question is why the M23 has now decided to cross the Rubicon. Kinshasa politics provides part of the answer. The government had made significant concessions to the CNDP following a 2009 peace deal, but this was driven by political expediency; keeping the East quiet in the run up to the elections of November 2011, which saw President Kabila re-elected but politically weak. The Kinshasa elite fear the disintegration of the DRC and are desperate to maintain central control over its far-flung and fractious provinces. Anti-Rwandan feeling is deep and widespread. Kabila could not afford to seem weak on Rwandan-backed rebels. Once the elections were out the way, the Congolese government began to squeeze the CNDP. They deployed former CNDP combatants out of the East, and threatened the arrest of ICC-indicted Bosco Ntaganda, a key CNDP commander.
The birth of the M23 rebellion was in part a result of this pressure: a move by CNDP elements - and their backers - to head off any further attempts by Kinshasa to whittle away their military base. But their bluff was called. Instead of entering into direct talks demanded by the M23, the Congolese government has stuck to its guns, refusing negotiations and finally launching a renewed military assault. The M23 counterattack has left it in control of Goma, the Congolese military humiliated and President Kabila running out of options.
The second part of the answer lies in Kigali. The Rwandan government has sustained a double game in Eastern DRC, backing rebels while denying involvement to its international allies. But this has become increasingly difficult to maintain, as compelling evidence has stacked up - provided by NGOs and a series of UN expert panels - for the provision of logistics, weapons, recruits and even the active support of its army to its Congolese allies. Aid has been suspended or cut, and Kigali has faced unprecedented international scrutiny.
But this pressure has not resulted in the hoped-for change of heart. Instead, Kigali has deployed a fierce rhetoric of self-reliance, decrying external meddling and setting up a citizen and diaspora financed development fund to symbolically offset any loss of donor support. And, rather than pulling the M23 back, it seems likely to have - at the very least - given its consent for the M23 to take Goma, humiliating the Congolese government and forcing Kabila to negotiate from a position of weakness.
Rwanda and the DRC are caught in a stand-off. Both are playing for high stakes; Rwanda will likely face further international approbation, and Kabila's political base risks crumbling underneath him. Both will be hoping the other blinks first. The UN Security Council has issued a condemnation of the M23 and its backers, but it has not yet directly censured Rwanda. Individual donors may well look again at remaining development funding. In the face of an acute crisis, there may also be a short-term temptation to push the Congolese government to negotiate.
Perhaps most importantly, the crisis may begin to clarify the agenda and goals of key actors in the East. The politics of the M23 - and the CNDP before it - has hitherto been obscure, a hybrid of anti-government rhetoric and demands on the status and security of the Rwandan-speaking Congolese who form the backbone of the movement. But many Rwandan-speakers are as tired of conflict as the rest of the population, and may not want to implicate themselves in another war. Other Congolese recoil from the Rwandan taint on the organization, but have little love for their government.
The views of the long-suffering population of Eastern Congo have been crowded out by clamour from Kinshasa and Kigali. A political solution to the crisis may emerge, but its sustainability will depend on the willingness of all parties to negotiate in good faith - a commodity in short supply across the region - and the level to which local voices are finally allowed to be heard.
Ben Shepherd is an associate fellow of the Africa Programme of Chatham House.