Compromising Positions

Peace was declared! The peace was broken!

For some, it’s hard not to despair after the enthusiasm of Friday’s meeting between President Kiir and Dr. Machar that led to a promised ceasefire. But the Friday summit between President Kiir and Dr. Machar was a positive step even if the guns couldn’t stay silent for more than an hour.

International diplomatic intervention in South Sudan isn’t useless. It keeps the top leadership occupied (i.e. gives them less time for shenanigans); it makes them take serious the threat of economic sanctions or military intervention; and it forces them to make on-the-record statements about what they’re fighting about, why, and what would make them stop.

All of this helps create “space”, a pause that gives people hope as well as an opportunity to repair some of the damage or slow down the runaway train heading towards the cliff. In this case, it showed that President Kiir and Dr. Machar may be willing to talk compromise, either out of mutual trust or mutual fear of retaliation by an increasingly impatient international community.

Though the carrot/stick approach with GRSS and Dr. Machar bears some fruit, the current international engagement is not *disrupting* or *replacing* the crucial main drivers of the conflict (to borrow some terminology from counterinsurgency):

  • a tradition of inter-tribal raids for cattle, territory and retaliation
  • lack of a shared language and practice of compromise, not just among the opposing sides in South Sudan but also among South Sudan and its many international colleagues (Uganda, Ethiopia, China, Norway, the UN). What do “peace”, “noncombatants”, “democracy”, “national security”, “self defense” and other words mean?
  • opposing leaders that are entrenched in distrust and self-aggrandizement
  • wide availability of arms
  • absence of centralized control of combatant groups (the “rebel army” does not wait at the beck and call of Dr. Machar, there is no clean split along Nuer/Dinka lines, some of the fights are continuations of conflicts that predated the December 15)
  • virtually no prominent economic activity besides petroleum and bureaucracy
  • continued intervention/encouragement from certain elements in Khartoum, Kampala, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, etc.

Curiously, what disruption of these factors has taken place has come from two internal sources: South Sudan’s geography/climate and its nascent civil society.

  • The size, terrain and weather of South Sudan shaped the miserable lack of roads, and without reliable supply chains (for arms, fuel, moving vehicles) it is hard to have a serious organized rebel insurgency. Likewise antigovernment forces can almost always disperse and regroup.

  • There are many South Sudanese opponents of the fighting – those who recognize some of the underlying grievances but deny justification for the killing of civilians and destruction of property. They do not have the normal anti-war/pro-peace “levers” that exist in a democracy, in that they can’t threaten to vote leaders out of office. But they do have a voice, and they use it.

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