Another Kind of Surge

How the United States can pull Sudan and South Sudan back from the brink of disaster.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

A little over three years ago, in advance of the referendum for South Sudan’s independence, the great fear of the Sudanese and the broader international community was that the war between the north and south — a war that was perhaps the second-deadliest globally since World War II — might reignite. That crisis was averted because of immense international pressure, which resulted in a peaceful referendum and the birth of the world’s newest country, demonstrating the power of preventive diplomacy when the international community is united, proactive, and engaged. 

Today, however, the biggest threats to the people of Sudan and South Sudan are the raging civil wars within their own countries, where mass atrocities are mounting. Although the headlines for the last two months have been dominated by conflagration in South Sudan, conditions in Sudan’s Darfur region have deteriorated, and the government’s bombing campaigns have intensified in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. The potential for a complete interruption in oil production threatens economies in both countries with implosion and bankruptcy. And with the rainy season fast approaching, humanitarian crises are spiraling out of control in both countries. 

The United States, despite its long history leading international responses to the region, is largely reacting to fast-developing events on the ground. Its primary step, so far, has been to deploy its very capable special envoy, Ambassador Donald Booth, to the region, make occasional official statements, and provide generous amounts of humanitarian aid, which the Khartoum government is increasingly obstructing. Given the escalating crisis faced by the two countries and the threat posed by a regionalization of the wars, there needs to be a much more robust and proactive approach. A broader peace strategy for the two Sudans would, at a minimum, beef up efforts in support of accountability for war crimes and transformative political reform. Most urgently, though, this critical moment calls for a diplomatic surge. 

When the pre-referendum crisis was unfolding in the latter half of 2010, the United States dramatically upgraded its diplomatic strategy. Deep engagement by President Barack Obama, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton was aided by the deployment of as many as three envoys: Gen. Scott Gration, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, and then-Sen. John Kerry. And the diplomatic work paid off: An alliance was forged with China and other countries to pressure Khartoum into allowing the referendum to occur on-time and peacefully, averting a return to deadly conflict. 

Today, the implosions in Sudan and South Sudan demand a similar diplomatic surge. One special envoy falls short of the current diplomatic requirements. The wars in each country are so complex that they require their own envoys, and the interplay between the two conflicts and the broader region demands a deeper political team upon which the two envoys can rely.

One option would be to deploy a second special envoy for the escalating regional crisis, with duties divided between the two envoys. Another would be to supplement the work of the existing envoy with the occasional deployment of a former senior official, such as former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, or Hillary Clinton, to lend gravitas and deliver strong messages. Senior Foreign Service officers, including retired ambassadors, and regional experts, should also be deployed to the region to support their work. The envoys or former senior official could be dispatched to Beijing to initiate high-level engagement to explore what China and the United States could do jointly.

Over and over we’ve learned the lessons of failed peace processes in Sudan, and this time those past mistakes must be avoided. In Sudan, that means no longer accepting the stovepiping of conflict resolution initiatives in Darfur, eastern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile. There needs to be one unified negotiations process for all of Sudan’s conflicts, which includes both armed and unarmed opposition groups, and civil society organizations, to discuss democratic governance and transition issues. Will that be difficult to create? Yes. But anything less ensures continued war.

Regarding South Sudan, it’s important to remember that well over half of the countries that emerge from conflict return to war within the space of a few years. South Sudan has had its explosion, and now has a second chance to reboot. The odds for a sustainable peace in South Sudan increase proportionately with the degree to which the overall peace process is inclusive of political parties, civil society groups, and regional interests. This necessitates a broader peace strategy than has ever been constructed in this region, where deals between the men with the biggest guns that lack transparency and accountability are the norm. National dialogue, party reform, elections, constitution-making, and governance will all be discussed in the peace process — but everything is put at risk if these efforts aren’t inclusive. 

To have any chance of success in Sudan and South Sudan, the United States and the international community must be prepared to develop and deploy incentives and pressures in support of serious negotiations: Creating real penalties, like targeted sanctions, for those who undermine peace prospects and support for those who demonstrate resolve would be an important assist to the mediators, as well as democracy-building processes like constitutional reviews and elections in both countries. In Sudan specifically, the United States should work with interested countries to target the Khartoum government’s economic lifelines. Labeling Sudan’s gold as "conflict-affected," supporting additional sanctions designations by the U.N. Sudan Sanctions Committee, pressing for additional International Criminal Court indictments beyond President Omar al-Bashir, deepening political engagement with the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front alliance, and ensuring that any debt relief is made contingent on an end to the wars inflaming Sudan’s periphery and transformational political reform, would prove that Sudan’s war crimes had consequences. 

Existing international efforts are not affecting the calculations of the parties at the negotiating table in both Sudan and South Sudan. But the United States can, and should, deploy further diplomatic firepower and build its leverage, both politically and economically. Doing so could accelerate efforts towards the elusive peace the people of the two countries are so desperately seeking.

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