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Experts Reflect on What U.S. Could Have Done to Prevent South Sudan War

By Anna Gawel

Just two years after triumphantly breaking away from Sudan and becoming the world’s newest nation, South Sudan plunged into a civil war that has been called one of the most destructive conflicts of the 21st century.

Five years of fighting, mass killing, looting, rapes and other atrocities have destabilized the nation of over 12 million. Almost 4 million South Sudanese have been internally displaced, with half of them seeking refuge in neighboring nations to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 have died since 2013, the U.N. reports.

But that figure may be grossly understated. Because of the chaotic conditions on the ground, accurate death tolls have been difficult to determine. But a new State Department-funded report out this week estimates that at least 382,000 people have died because of the conflict.

The conflict erupted in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his Vice President Riek Machar, a political rival, of attempting a coup. The fallout led to clashes between the government forces of the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement (SPLM) and Machar’s SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO). The violence quickly spread as supporters of Kiir (a Dinka, the largest tribe in the country) and of Machar (a Nuer, the second-largest tribe) took up arms against each other (also see “South Sudan Envoy Denies Atrocities, Says 2018 Elections Likely Postponed” in the August 2016 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Once the fighting erupted and expanded to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, several international powers tried to step in and mediate between the warring factions. The United States was one of them, authorizing 150 Marines to enter the young nation merely 20 days after the first spark of violence.

But early efforts failed to staunch the ethnic bloodletting, which continued to rage despite the presence of nearly 19,000 U.N. peacekeepers, international sanctions and multiple efforts by Eastern African nations to prod both sides to the negotiating table. Under intense international pressure, a peace deal was finally reached in 2015 but fell apart a year later.

People roam a market in Yambio, South Sudan, on July 10, 2018. Despite South Sudan’s oil wealth, the country’s civil war has decimated the economy and prevented farmers from planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide. (UN Photo / Nektarios Markogiannis)

This month, however, Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel groups that would reinstall Machar to the vice presidency. While hopes are high that this power-sharing deal will stick, many observers remain wary.

That includes the U.S., which was instrumental in the 2011 independence referendum that allowed South Sudan, made up largely of Christian and animist tribes, to break away from the Islamic-leaning government in Sudan after decades of fighting.

Given America’s prominent role in helping South Sudan secede from the north, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted a panel discussion on July 19 to assess what lessons can be learned from U.S. policy toward South Sudan, both in the years leading up to and during the civil war, in the hopes of applying them to prevent future disputes and atrocities.

Jon Temin, a visiting fellow from the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the director of Sub-Sahara Africa programs at Freedom House, is the author of “From Independence to Civil War,” the report that acted as a catalyst for the discussion.

“South Sudan currently finds itself in a critical juncture, as nearly five years of conflict have left a devastating impact,” said moderator Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at USIP, calling this “an important moment for the international community to pause and reflect.”

Temin began the discussion of his report with the caveat that “hindsight is 20/20 compared to being in the midst of the fog of war,” and said that he himself made mistakes in trying to find solutions to South Sudan’s downward spiral.

But through his report, which involved interviews with over 30 key officials, he sought to identify four “pivotal periods” where “either events compelled the U.S. to act, or times when the U.S. could have acted with greater conviction but did not.”

He noted that U.S. policymakers were torn between a post-Rwanda mindset, where the impulse was to try to prevent mass atrocities, and a post-Benghazi mindset, where the impetus was to try to protect American personnel and facilities almost at all costs.

At the same time, in the run-up to the war, there were key vacancies in the State Department that further hindered Washington’s diplomatic response.

One of the first periods Temin identified was in the spring and summer of 2013, during the immediate lead-up to the outbreak of violence. “You start to see all these warning signs, [including] increasingly autocratic behavior by Kiir,” who removed Machar from power, Temin recalled. “These warning signs were received in Washington. The lights were blinking.”

But despite America’s critical role in establishing South Sudan’s independence, Temin argues that there was a “real reluctance to get our hands dirty within the SPLM party mechanics [and its dysfunction] in the sense that this is not our issue.”

Second, soon after the war began, the Ugandan army promptly intervened. Their troops were initially welcomed as they helped to secure Juba, but, Temin argues, Uganda’s presence quickly expanded throughout the country and “it clearly took sides with Salva Kiir and in many ways propped up the government.” Temin added that this “gave Uganda a foothold in the conflict that it really never gave up,” allowing it to act as a spoiler in the peace process. It was at this point that the U.S. should have considered trying to limit Uganda’s role.

Third, there was the question of an arms embargo, which was only just imposed by the U.N. this past July. “But early in 2014, only weeks into this conflict, there was a lot of discussion … on imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan, and it seemed like a very logical thing to do,” Temin said.

“It raises the costs of importing arms, it prevents the purchase of large weapons systems…. It could’ve empowered the U.N. panel of experts and above all else, it would’ve sent a clear message to the government and the opposition, too.”

Temin concedes that an arms embargo is not a perfect tool. It is hard to enforce in a country already awash with guns, it disproportionately harms the government, and it usually represents the last form of leverage to use in negotiations.

“But I don’t think any of those arguments hold up particularly well,” he concluded.

Fourth, like many observers, Temin blamed the Kiir government for sabotaging any attempts to reach a peace deal, including the one in 2015. “Even before the ink was dry, the government did what it could to pull apart the agreement.”

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir attends a signing ceremony in Juba in August 2015 to end the country’s civil war. But that agreement fell apart less than a year later. Kiir, a former rebel leader who fought for South Sudanese independence from Sudan for decades, was initially hailed as a hero by the U.S., which supported the south’s secession from the north. But two years into his presidency, Kiir began consolidating power and was accused of instigating a devastating war with his political rival, Riek Machar. (UN Photo / Isaac Billy)

In March 2016, Machar returned to Juba but quickly fled after fighting resumed. Temin put the blame squarely on Kiir, even accusing him of trying to assassinate the opposition leader.

“The evidence is clear that the government made a concerted effort to kill him, to assassinate him. This is something that still boggles my mind. Riek Machar is a killer and has a lot of blood on his hands for sure. But he was also the co-signatory to a peace agreement and the first vice president of South Sudan and the government was trying to kill him. And almost nobody said anything about that. There were some murmurs here and there, but there was no concerted statement or effort to call out the fact that the government was doing this and I still find that shocking,” Temin said. As a result, the U.S. was sending another “clear message to Kiir and his government of tacit support for what they were doing.”

While Machar was in exile in South Africa, Kiir supported the nomination of opposition politician Taban Deng Gai to be his vice president. Here again, Temin contends that the U.S. made two crucial mistakes: backing Gai’s nomination and telling Machar to stay away — an endorsement that the world then supported.

“Again, Riek is no saint, but he does represent a certain constituency … and keeping him out of the picture was counterproductive.”

Temin said there are lessons in South Sudan that can be applied to other crises. This includes questioning the legitimacy of leaders, even erstwhile allies such as Kiir. Temin also urged U.S. policymakers to challenge assumptions, especially where mass atrocities are involved. For instance, the U.S. had long believed that Kiir, a former independence fighter, could turn around the destitute but oil-rich nation even as his leadership became increasingly autocratic and violent. Finally, the U.S. should decide to what extent “it owns” a conflict and consistently stick to that position.

Donald Booth, who worked as U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan in 2013, agreed for the most part with Temin’s analysis, particularly that the U.S. waited too long to impose an arms embargo. But Booth disputed the notion that the U.S. perpetually sided with Kiir and pointed out that the U.S. did try to push both Kiir and Machar from the scene, but it did not have regional or international backing for such a move. “We did go to the highest levels to push that particular policy but it did not succeed.”

He also cautioned that outside intervention can only help so much in a complex conflict where there are no “good guys versus bad guys.”

“What civil war or mass atrocity has ever been prevented by outside intervention? How many civil wars or atrocities have actually been stopped by negotiations, particularly outside of military intervention?” Booth asked. “So sadly my conclusion is that the U.S. and the international community, we really lack the tools, the will and the cohesion needed to prevent or resolve or prevent civil wars in our sovereign system.”

Fellow panelist Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, had direct responsibility during the Bush administration for U.S. aid efforts toward South Sudan. She had an even more pessimistic view of the prospect for peace in South Sudan, arguing that a power-sharing government won’t work because both Kiir and Machar lack the legitimacy to the rule the devastated and fractured nation.

She added that no amount of foreign aid, investment or peacekeeping troops will succeed until a legitimate political framework is established.

Knopf says this lack of legitimacy among the current regime is “the Achilles’ heel of our current policy to South Sudan,” arguing that the U.S. should instead support some sort external transitional administration or a temporary government made up of technocrats.

“It’s insanity to keep repeating the things that haven’t worked,” said Knopf of keeping both Kiir and Machar in power.

But that is unlikely to happen any time soon, especially with the signing of the recent peace agreement. In a subsequent Aug. 20 analysis on that agreement written by USIP, Verjee outlined several major challenges ahead.

“An unrealistic timeline for the integration of [security] forces may lead to another security collapse,” he wrote. “Not all the aggrieved parties are yet included in the deal, which may incentivize some to keep fighting. And perhaps most crucially, there is little evidence of genuine political will and desire to reform among those that signed the deal. Will they spend the country’s resources to rebuild the ruined economy rather than enrich themselves? Will they hold accountable those soldiers and commanders responsible for war crimes, and, ultimately agree to downsize the army? Can they trust each other to govern collectively? The enthusiasm with which many South Sudanese greeted the deal indicates how desperate people are for any chance of peace. But we are a long way from that peace becoming a certainty.”

Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. Editorial assistants Chiara Vercellone and Jeffery Miles contributed to this report.



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