April 26, 2012

How to Defuse Sudan Conflict

Tensions along the oil-rich border that divides Sudan and recently independent South Sudan have escalated in recent weeks, raising the prospect of a full-scale war between the longtime foes. China, which maintains considerable oil interests in both countries, has called for restraint (Reuters) and vowed to work with the United States to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, says while the role of mediation should remain with the African Union, the United States and China are vital players in this conflict that can bring pressure to bear on both parties. However, Frazer says it is "a strategic mistake and it has never worked" for the international community to treat both sides equally, since the northern Sudan is clearly the aggressor in this latest conflict as well as many of those in the past. "The international community should be united against northern aggression," she says.
Is there an "aggressor," or are both parties equally culpable in this conflict? 

I don't think both parties are culpable, and that's where the international community got it wrong last week when they universally condemned South Sudan for going into Heglig. This dispute is really over borders, over oil, over many of the issues that were not finalized before secession. The tension has been rising since the beginning of the year, in which you would have had the north bombing areas in South Kordofan, in Blue Nile--basically bombing the SPLA North [South Sudanese-affiliated rebel forces operating in Sudan]--and continuing to fight with rebels in Darfur. 

The north has continued to be an aggressor for months before this particular conflict over Heglig came up. Yet the international community's condemnation of the north couldn't be heard at all. And so this heavy unified condemnation of the South for going into Heglig seemed to me to be overkill, and in fact, it created a cover for further northern aggression--which is what we are seeing right now with the bombing into Unity state. These aerial bombardments and killing of civilians have been going on constantly. This is the north killing [its] own people--the Southerners of the northern state--and now going into South Sudan and bombing. So there's a very clear aggressor here and it is northern Sudan, continuing to do what it's always done, which is bomb and kill civilians. 

The international community--the position of the United States--is going to try to be the arbitrator and treat each one equally; it is a strategic mistake, and it has never worked. In the past, the United States has been very clear that the north has been the aggressor, and the South has been our ally and our partner--and we need to treat them as such. It's all well and good for the African Union to come in as a neutral arbitrator. In the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement, Kenya was a neutral mediator; the United States was not the mediator and should never be the mediator because we are clearly on one side of the conflict. 

What's China's role in all of this? As a long-time ally of Khartoum, but also a large purchaser of oil from South Sudan, can it play a mediating role? 

 No, it shouldn't be a mediator--no more than the United States should. The mediation should stay within the African Union. But China and the United States are two of the most important players here, from the point of view that they can bring pressure to bear on both parties. They can bring coercive pressure--i.e, sticks, sanctions--and they can also bring incentives to bear. They could bring the goods that would actually deliver parties to the mediator. So China has an essential role to play, as does the United States. And the United States and China working hand in hand is even better. 

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