Right now two places in the world could get slowly better or rapidly worse. In Syria, the Kofi Annan peace plan brought together all the great powers in the first binding UN Security Council resolution on the year-old Syria crisis (Resolution 2042). The resolution endorses the Annan Plan and authorizes an unarmed UN monitoring force to be the world’s eyes on the ground and represent physically the international community and the Annan Plan. The first six people (of 30) arrived Sunday night, with the plan to expand to 250 monitors if Syria allows it.
The need right now is to get the UN observers in as strongly and quickly as possible. Cease-fires are extremely fragile around the world, and in the past the UN has acted too slowly and war has reignited. That happened in Sierra Leone in 1997 when a cease-fire agreement ended a very brutal civil war. The UN was slow getting to the scene, months dragged on, and the agreement broke down as rebels attacked and army officers staged a coup. It was four years later before a stable peace arrived in Sierra Leone, backed up by a very successful peacekeeping mission.
In 1960, Ralph Bunche was able to assemble 3,500 peacekeepers and have them on the ground in the Congo in four days after a Security Council decision. He felt that speed of arrival was more important than quality or size of the force. The UN’s presence in Syria signals all Syrians that the Annan Plan is the legitimate blueprint for what should happen. The odds are stacked in some ways against the plan’s success, given the Assad regime’s past behavior, but the United States needs to throw its weight fully into using the UN in Syria and thus working with, not against, Russia in solving the Syria problem. A cease-fire is the most important first step, so maintaining and improving it is the top priority. Russia must press Syria hard to stop its use of violence.
The second place to worry about right now is South Sudan. Here the Americans, UN, and international community have been very involved for years in trying to bring about a peaceful separation of South Sudan from Sudan. The effort came to fruition with South Sudan’s indepence last year, but then relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse and have gone further downhill this year.
The first big conflict was about armed opponents of the Sudanese government, who sided with the south in the long civil war but whose communities ended up on the north side of the border in the peace agreement. Sudan harshly suppressed these rebellious areas and the UN was not large or strong enough to do anything. Some cross-border skirmishing resulted. Next South Sudan said that Sudan hadn’t paid for oil from the south that transits the north to get to an export port. The south shut off its oil production, depriving both itself and the north of desperately needed revenue. Meanwhile there is a border town whose status was not quite nailed down in the peace agreement, and where Ethiopian UN peacekeepers are now trying to keep a calm. And on top of that, the area is prone to large-scale cattle raiding among rival tribes, now involving automatic rifles and occasional massacres of hundreds of civilians.
Recently the two regular armies, north and south, have begun fighting directly. The south occupied an oil field just over the border, perhaps just to complete the shutdown of oil through Sudan. The north bombed a strategic bridge in the south. So while the level of fighting is still restricted to skirmishing, it is in imminent danger of escalating to all-out fighting.
On Friday the UN Security Council issued a statement demanding that South Sudan withdraw from the oil town it occupies in the north, and that both sides pull back military forces 5 km from the border. The president of South Sudan says he refused the “order” of the UN secretary-general to withdraw, responding that “I’m not under your command. … I’m head of a state, an independent state…”
Precedent is a cause for worry. After Eritrea split off peacefully from Ethiopia in 1993 (after 32 years of fighting), the two fell into conflict again and ended up fighting a years-long war that killed 50,000. It was artillery-duelling trench warfare over an insignificant disputed piece of territory in the middle of nowhere.
It was also the last time two regular state armies fought a sustained war in that way. In 2003 the U.S. and Iraqi armies fought for a few weeks, and in 2008 the Russian and Georgian armies fought for five days. Since then, the only fighting between regular state armies has consisted of short skirmishes that do not escalate. North Korea sank a South Korean ship, and later shelled civilians on an island. Thailand shelled Cambodian troops near a disputed spot on the border, with sporadic fighting between the two sides lasting for months (now abated after an unusual intervention by the World Court). Israel and the Lebanese army exchanged lethal fire on a very small scale not long ago. But on the great majority of days in recent years, no fighting took place anywhere in the world between the regular armies of the world’s states — a remarkable change from most of history.
Currently the fighting between the north and south in Sudan is ongoing, though still sporadic. Will it deescalate like Thailand and Cambodia, or escalate like Ethiopia and Eritrea? The UN is in South Sudan trying to support the peace agreement, but could use a lot more support. The United States should work to mobilize that support from the international community.
Note: Kofi Annan’s brilliant career at the UN is described in a chapter of my book Winning the War on War. And remember, pronounce it Annan to rhyme with cannon.