On the list of "Things Nobody Needs Right Now," another open war in the middle of Sudan ranks high on the international community's agenda. Western and Eastern officials alike have scrambled to avert full scale hostilities between Sudan and the freshly-declared South Sudan. In one hemisphere, U.S.officials in Washington are nervously watching years of political negotiations play out on Heglig's disputed battlefield, a scenario laced with al-Qaeda's growth in Africa. They're joined by their counterparts in Beijing, who require stability to expand China's economic infrastructure across the region and through Heglig's oil fields. Of course the inhabitants of both countries and their neighbors don't need another war either.
"This is not the time for war," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters last week. "This is a time for leadership, for engagement, for negotiation — in the name of humanity, and in the interests of the people of both countries and the region. The last thing the people of these two countries need is another war — a war that could claim countless lives, destroy hope and ruin the prospects of peace and stability and prosperity of all Sudanese people."
The problem is that Sudan and South Sudan's governments don't necessarily agree. After speaking to representatives from each side, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman claimed, "virtually everyone I have talked to has said, 'Look, we don't want to go to all-out war with the other. We need to find a way." Lyman also admitted that "emotions are running very, very high," but his cautious statements conceal a major slight of hand in the word "all-out." Theoretically, the two governments do intend to avoid a war that would destroy each other's economy. Neither "wants" to go to war. They do, however, want what they believe is theirs and are willing to employ force to get it.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in particular believes that Heglig is his to develop and cash in on. al-Bashir's words and actions speak for themselves; Sudanese artillery and air power has formed the crux of his response to Southern movements in the area. During his send-off ceremony for a "popular defense" brigade, al-Bashir declared that South Sudan's "capture" of Heglig "revived the spirit of jihad and martyrdom among the Sudanese people" and threatened to "cut off the hand that harms it" by toppling Juba. al-Bashir has patiently awaited an opportunity to strike after January 2011's referendum, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) left Heglig's status to be determined at a later date (the process was frozen after repeated clashes). The South's new movements in Heglig, which President Salva Kiir attributed to self-defense, finally offered the perfect scenario to "legally" retake the area.
al-Bashir may not seek a war now that he's done so, but he was looking for a battle with his new neighbor.
The international community must decide what to do based on these factors. Too little energy was applied to Heglig's negotiations over the last year and Western powers are suffering the consequences. President Barack Obama's calls to ceasefire and begin a dialogue have traveled straight through al-Bashir's ears, and the strongman appears convinced that America will shirk military action. Meanwhile China has nurtured both sides for its own benefit and ultimately encouraged al-Bashir to flex his muscles. Being the dominant international powers, Washington and Beijing must combine their own strength with the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to extinguish Heglig's fires. They must decide how much to confront al-Bashir and how much to cooperate with him.
For its part, the South Sudanese government also believes that no crime has been committed since Heglig's status is undefined (British colonial borders are similarly invoked). Juba has reportedly offered to withdraw from Heglig if the African Union can guarantee a ceasefire, evict Sudanese forces from the area and complete the deployment of Ethiopian forces to Abyei region. These terms are unlikely to satisfy al-Bashir after his forces displaced the South's from Heglig, leaving the international community to navigate through a stalemate in the middle of Africa.
Step one to averting total war is not assuming that one or two parties don't seek a near-war outcome. Although neither government has issued a formal declaration of war, each side claims that the other has declared war on them. Both governments are prepared to apply force at a relatively high scale and this mindset could spin out of control. The Obama administration and other Western governments seem to have been lulled to sleep by al-Bashir's long-term plots.
Ferocious urgency is critical to politically resolving the crisis in Sudan's stomach.