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De-escalating South Sudan’s New Flare-up

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South Sudan Civil War, courtesy Surian Soosay/Flickr

This article was originally published by the International Crisis Group on 12 July 2016.

Violent clashes in the capital of South Sudan have soured the country’s fifth anniversary of independence. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were killed in the four days after 7 July, including two Chinese peacekeepers. The confrontation threatens to destroy the fragile progress made toward implementing a 2015 peace agreement to end a two-year civil war. The deal had allowed some opposition soldiers back into the capital, Juba, and the clashes have been between them and units of the national army and presidential guard. The UN is protecting tens of thousands of civilians in its compounds around the city, one of which has been repeatedly hit.

In this Q&A, senior analyst for South Sudan, Casie Copeland, explains what is behind the fighting in Juba and what can help prevent the conflict spiralling out of control.

What triggered this recent spate of violence, and who is responsible?

The return to conflict was a growing danger, as Crisis Group noted in its 1 July statement on Preventing Renewed War in South Sudan. In the nine months that the ceasefire has been observed, forces have simply paused hostilities while remaining in close proximity: there has been no joint security oversight or move toward unification or demobilisation. This would have been an untenable status quo even if there had been political progress, which has not materialised.

The South Sudanese warring parties signed the 2015 peace agreement, brokered by the regional security organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), under tremendous external pressure, particularly from neighbouring Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as China and the U.S. Following the signing, regional powers greatly reduced their focus on South Sudan and IGAD’s mediation became inactive. This allowed the South Sudanese parties to backtrack to their original uncompromising positions. By early July, there had been no political progress on implementing the peace agreement and, in the absence of credible external intervention, no such progress seemed likely.

Tensions thus never dissipated between government forces loyal to President Kiir and Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO) troops following First Vice President Machar, who had returned to Juba under the 2015 peace agreement. Frictions rose over a series of incidents – with both groups at fault at different points – in the last weeks of June and early July. By 7 July almost anything could have sparked the larger battles that began on the weekend of 9-10 July. Once fighting broke out, combat continued despite calls by both leaders to stop, highlighting the complicated relationship between the leadership and different military units.

What’s at stake for South Sudan?

Renewed war would be devastating. The civil war from 2013 to 2015 was particularly brutal, with many instances of ethnic targeting and other atrocities, and humanitarian suffering that was compounded by a growing economic crisis. The fighting killed far more than 50,000 people, displaced approximately 2.3 million and the UN estimates that some five million will require humanitarian assistance in 2016. In 2014, regional powers were drawn in when the Ugandan military intervened in favour of Juba and Salva Kiir, and Sudan provided limited support to the SPLA-IO opposition forces.

IGAD’s mediation mission was partly motivated by the risk of regional war. International actors joined the group in putting enormous pressure on President Kiir and First Vice President and SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar to sign the August 2015 peace agreement and establish a transitional government – both leaders objected to parts of the deal.

What can IGAD do to pull South Sudan back from the brink?

A unified regional position in IGAD, backed up by the African Union, China and the U.S., is crucial. Both Kiir and Machar know they cannot sustain a war for long without the support of at least some neighbouring states. During the recent days of fighting, each of the IGAD heads of state reached out to Kiir, Machar and others involved in the fighting to make clear that they needed to lay down their arms and that no one in the region supported a return to war.

Beyond a ceasefire – which is a temporary measure at best – IGAD must come to agreement, again supported by the African Union, China and U.S., on the consequences the two men, their military commanders and factions will suffer if they do not stop fighting. This is especially important for Uganda and Sudan, which have particular influence with the government and opposition SPLA-IO respectively.

Will Uganda and Sudan seek to repeat their interventions seen earlier in the civil war?

A nascent rapprochement between Uganda and Sudan, and a great wariness in Khartoum and Kampala about the destabilising potential of greater involvement in South Sudan’s conflicts, are directing their efforts toward peace rather than supporting renewed war. Uganda in particular feels unfairly criticised for sending in troops to support the government in 2013.

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IGAD member states, along with their supporters including the U.S. and Chinese governments, helped secure a ceasefire which was declared by Kiir and Machar on 11 July. If it does not hold, the position of regional states will be critical, since any additional measures, such as an intervention brigade or any form of sanction, whether against individuals or an arms embargo, would need to be implemented and enforced by these countries.

In its communiqué on 11 July, IGAD called for an “intervention brigade”. This was first proposed in 2014 during the mediation but faltered as the UN and IGAD could not agree on its relationship to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), or on the mechanisms of financial and logistical control. The Security Council also suggested UNMISS could be augmented by troops from the region to secure Juba. Deploying regional forces into UNMISS or independently would take time and would not resolve the immediate standoff.

Why is the IGAD-led peace process worth saving?

Some argue that the IGAD deal deferred some issues, such as what type of federal government should be created and whether a power-sharing arrangement between the war’s two main protagonists could set South Sudan on the path to stability. But it halted the fighting, created a framework for reform, transitional justice and elections and prevented regional powers being further sucked into South Sudan’s war. IGAD agreed that it would not be destabilised under an agreement that kept Kiir as president and Machar as first vice president. A divided IGAD where individual states meddled in South Sudan would have led to far greater bloodshed.

A particular problem since the peace agreement’s signing has been that the IGAD leaders who helped forge it have been absent during the difficult implementation phase. Specifically, the failure to implement a number of the agreement’s political and security provisions laid the groundwork for recent conflict. Now that a ceasefire has been called, those IGAD leaders should push Kiir and Machar to quickly operationalise the security arrangements in the peace agreement, particularly by establishing Joint Integrated Police units to patrol Juba, empowering the Joint Operations Center to ensure communication and coordination between forces in Juba, and empowering the Joint Military Ceasefire Commission. These mechanisms should also be supported by donors.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 11 July urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, sanction leaders and commanders who are blocking the implementation of a peace deal and fortify a UN peacekeeping mission. If agreed to, would this help?

At this point, with a fragile ceasefire agreed and thus far holding, any punitive international action should be imposed carefully – and only in close coordination with IGAD and regional powers – otherwise it could undermine the ceasefire or even empower hardliners who support renewed war. Sanctions and arms embargoes can be valuable tools, but only where they serve clear political objectives.

Given the breakdown in the peace agreement, IGAD, supported by the African Union and major powers, particularly the U.S. and China, should re-assess their various political objectives in South Sudan, including the promise of stronger action if there is no compliance or if there is further fighting. The African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government summit meeting in Kigali, Rwanda on 17-18 July is a good opportunity to convene a high-level meeting on South Sudan.

Do President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar actually have full control over their forces?

The situation is fluid and, especially on the opposition side, lines of control have exhibited the same level of flux they exhibited during most of the war. Many soldiers have followed senior opposition officials other than Machar. Another problem is that many of the opposition soldiers killed were from Machar’s own official guard.

As Crisis Group noted in South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, many opposition forces are not personally loyal to Machar, instead they rose up in response to violence against ethnically Nuer civilians in Juba in December 2013 and only begrudgingly accepted Machar as the movement’s overall leader. This has always been the case and the recent fighting is no different to challenges in command and control the opposition SPLA-IO faced across the country during their rebellion.

The government has continued to counsel restraint among its forces but reports of looting, drunkenness and attacks on the UN base indicate that many have not heeded these orders.

With a number of peacekeepers killed in the recent fighting, how vulnerable is the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)? Do they have the resources needed to protect civilians fleeing the violence?

Peacekeepers have the means to respond to and deter some attacks on protection of civilian sites in or near UNMISS bases. When challenged by UN forces, some South Sudanese armed groups have retreated. UNMISS, however, lacks the numbers and equipment to protect all civilians, including those in Juba. Yet the mission has not been very assertive and not all of its forces are equally committed to its mandate. Some have literally run from their protection obligations.

There have been many attacks on UN facilities during the last years of war and, to date, no one has been arrested or prosecuted. The UN is an “easy target” in the eyes of many, making the situations particularly dangerous for its staff and civilians under its protection.

So far, the violence appears to be mainly confined to Juba. What is the risk that the fighting may escalate to other areas in South Sudan?

Fortunately the fighting has died down for now. But if it resumes there is a risk that it spreads and becomes much more difficult to end. Forces throughout the country are preparing for war and civilians are fleeing areas where they fear fighting. During the civil war, most of the fighting was confined to the Greater Upper Nile, where the opposition is strong in the far north, but since the August 2015 peace agreement the SPLA-IO has been actively recruiting in other areas particularly in greater Equatoria, in the south, where government forces are stronger. Fighting in the former Upper Nile state could be very intense, while in the Equatorias, fewer weapons and forces means it would likely be on a much smaller scale. The possibility of conflict spreading to different areas remains and is of grave concern.


Casie Copeland is Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for South Sudan. Based in Juba, she researches and produces reports on the continuing conflict in South Sudan. She worked for Amnesty International, Pact Sudan, The Carter Center and the United States Institute for Peace. She also served as a Law Clerk at the High Court of Tanzania. @copelandcasie

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