3 January 2014

South Sudan: Has South Sudan Passed the Tipping Point?

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Virtually all observers have been taken by surprise at the rapidity with which events have spiraled out of apparent control. Even if stalled negotiations in Addis Ababa begin rapidly and are fully successful--and there is no evidence of this, three weeks after the precipitating events of December 15--without an immediate cease-fire, fighting will continue to escalate rapidly. But Riek and his lieutenants continue to speak of detailed monitoring terms and mechanisms before committing to a ceasefire, even as this pushes South Sudan closer to, or further beyond, the point of no return, even as Salva Kiir offered an unconditional cease-fire or cessation of hostilities agreement on December 27--a full week ago and a very long time in present circumstances. How is it that the demands for negotiation of a cease-fire have been so inexcusably dilatory? Does Riek really want a cease-fire? Or does he wish to accrue greater strength on the ground, more military equities with which to leverage other demands in these upcoming negotiations?

In response to a question about whether the two sides were committed to negotiating a cease-fire, British special envoy to South Sudan, Andrew Mace said "more needed to be done to demonstrate that commitment. '(It) looks like they're still moving for a military advantage rather than preparing a ceasefire,' Mace said" (Reuters [Addis Ababa, January 2, 2014). But this assessment comes many days after it became clear that it was Riek who was determined to seize Bor and Malakal if possible. Malakal is temporarily back in the hands of the SPLA, but Bor has changed hands for the third time in this conflict and is now in the hands of Riek's forces. Salva Kiir and the SPLA several days ago, by way of making clear their commitment to a cease-fire, declared they would not mount an offensive against Bentiu, capital of Unity State and the epicenter of the oil regions. Perhaps this was done with the expectation that the offer would be rejected by Riek and his forces, as it was. But the offensive on Bentiu could very easily have been monitored by any number of means; Salva and the SPLA would have squandered whatever position of moral advantage they have by virtue of having offered an unconditional and immediate cease-fire. For again, it was Salva who such an "unconditional cease-fire" on December 27.

In response to this, Riek's emissary in Addis sketches a future for negotiations that could be made to drag out indefinitely, while evermore destructive fighting continues:

Johannes Musa, a member of the negotiating team for former Vice President Riek Machar, told Al Jazeera that there are significant problems to be overcome, and that the rebels will not lay down their arms unilaterally. "We did not refuse a ceasefire," Musa said. " But we put out some conditions. The government may not commit itself to mutual ceasefire, that will not be monitored." (Al Jazeera [Addis Ababa], January 2, 2014)

This confusing, perhaps disingenuous conflation of issues is the best context for assessing an ominous report that the SPLA says it has evidence of the forced recruitment of civilians into the rebel army in the Bor area:

Rebel militia currently hold Bor, the capital of the key oil-producing state of Jonglei. The military spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer said the government had sent in reinforcements but claimed the rebels were arming reluctant civilians as they focused on their next target--Juba, the seat of the central government. "Juba, that is their intention," he told the Associated Press. "They are trying to march to Juba. The [military] will return them to where they came from." (Associated Press [Addis Ababa], January 2, 2014).

If true--and forced recruitment has a long and ugly tradition in the South--this suggests that the drive for Juba is serious and that this most catastrophic of military events could occur soon. Reports this morning from the BBC (January 3, 2014) indicate that the battle has already begun and involves tanks and heavy artillery.

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