The situation on the border of Sudan and South Sudan continues to worsen [Latest articles from NY Times and BBC], now teetering on the brink of an all-out war between two regular state armies, something that hasn’t happened in years and would be quite bloody (also probably indecisive).
In recent days South Sudanese forces have either withdrawn, or been forced out of, the Heglig oil fields just north of the border. That is good, as the UN Security Council had demanded such a pullout. Despite South Sudan’s claims to the territory, the Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled it on Sudan’s side and the international community supports that border. The international community also wants the south to halt military aid to rebels allied to the south but living north of the border. It wants the north to stop air and ground attacks against the south. The north has also waged a brutal campaign against those rebels, reminiscent at times of the genocide in Darfur in western Sudan, for which Sudan’s president remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court.
Last week I speculated that South Sudan might just want to destroy the Heglig fields so that Sudan couldn’t enjoy the oil revenue that South Sudan can’t have (the pipeline from the South through Sudan being shut down in a dispute about pricing). Now, satellite photos show significant damage to the Heglig fields following the South’s visit.
The north meanwhile has bombed a market in a border town in the South, the latest of a string of northern air attacks on the south. One can only assume the South will get its hands on some of the thousands and thousands of portable anti-air missiles looted from Colonel Gaddafi’s stockpiles in Libya last year. That could somewhat restrain the north’s air dominance.
Most worrisome is the massing of ground forces against each other along the border. The tit-for-tat raids and skirmishes — at heart a bloody dispute over oil transit fees — could at any moment tip over into all-out war fueled by religious divisions (north Muslim, south Christian and animist) and by the fresh wounds of decades of civil war before last year’s independence.
The rhetoric out of the Sudanese government in recent days has gone red-hot, with the president calling the southerners “insects” and vowing regime change there by force, while a spokeperson said that it was a mistake to allow the south to become independent. This rhetoric aside, the fact is that the north did not manage to suppress the south by force over several decades of civil war, and will be even less able to do so now that the south is an independent member of the UN. (No member of the UN since its founding has ever been overrun and annexed by a neighbor.)
Folks, this is a terrible war that does not need to happen. The international community needs all hands on deck — the Chinese leaning on the north and the Americans on the south — to get both sides to comply with the recent UN Security Council mandate for a pullback 5 km from the border on each side. There is already a UN mission in South Sudan, but it is relatively small and weak in the circumstances. We should be rushing in more peacekeepers, equipment, and money to get stability back along the border. We should also be setting up a process including arbitration and financial monitoring to support the two sides in reopening the oil pipelines and sharing the revenue. The shared oil infrastructure gives the two countries a strong interest in cooperation, and we can only hope that with international support cooler heads will prevail and both countries can address their desperate poverty and not their threatening neighbor.