South Sudan: Has South Sudan Passed the Tipping Point?

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Riek Machar claims that "[President Salva] Kiir is the one who wants to provoke a tribal war" (Interview with Asharq Al-Aswat (January 2, 2014). But it is the continued fighting, the refusal to initiate a military stand-down, that has turned what is essentially a political rivalry into conflict that daily sees more civilian destruction--destruction with an increasingly ethnic character.

The stakes for the country as a whole could not be greater. If Riek is as good as his word and marches on Juba, then South Sudan will almost certainly disintegrate. Ethnic violence, already reported in highly alarming terms in various locations besides Bor and Juba, will spread rapidly; insecurity for humanitarians will becoming intolerable in many locations where human need is greatest; and the deterrent effect of the SPLA in keeping Khartoum's military forces (the Sudan Armed Forces and various militia allies and proxies) in check along the border will disappear. For the ruthless opportunists in the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, the time to re-draw the North/South boundary will have arrived, and the oil fields of Unity and Upper Nile states may be seized under color of "protecting" a mutual and shared natural resource. Without a functioning central government and without oil revenues, it is difficult to imagine anything remaining of a true national state of South Sudan.

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.

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