The Magazine

Two Sudans Are Better Than One

How to end the civil war and weaken the Islamists.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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The benchmarks have not been met because, first of all, the government in Khartoum, led for the last 20 years by Omar al-Bashir, has lately been busy massacring and ethnically cleansing Sudan's western state of Darfur. This is a complicated and ugly business, reflecting Darfur's tribal and religious sociology, but what is not complicated is Bashir's emulation of the late unlamented Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia. Bashir may be destined for a similarly grim end (Milosevic had a heart attack while awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague; the same court issued a warrant for Bashir's arrest on charges of war crimes in March). However, unlike the Serb strongman, who had some backing from a weakened Russia, Bashir has broad international support from the states of the Arab League and can appeal to Muslims worldwide that he is being pursued because of his religion.

The second reason the benchmarks have not been met is that perhaps the key economic provision of the peace agreement concerns the exploitation of the oil fields that lie, as luck would have it, astride north and south. The agreement calls for these resources to be shared, even now (during the period of southern autonomy), by both the GoS and the GoSS, but the GoSS has not been getting its share. With violence on the rise along a demarcation line between north and south that has yet to be officially agreed upon (another of the benchmarks) because of northern obfuscation, southerners fear the GoS wants to foment enough trouble to justify outright annexation of the oil producing regions.

The south has found it difficult to resist these depredations. Partly to blame for this is the death of John Garang, the charismatic southern leader and a powerful voice for southern unity and peaceful transition toward independence. He was killed in an air crash just after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.

The government in Khartoum views the implementation of the agreement as a serious economic threat and cannot but view the south's leadership difficulties as an opportunity to subvert its own commitments. After years of imposing its will by violence, enforcing fundamentalist versions of Islamic law, supporting terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, and pursuing other enlightened measures, the Bashir regime has little popular support.

Most of Sudan's oil is bought by China, which also has invested heavily in energy resources development in the disputed area. But the Chinese, who have defended Bashir against the attempts by the U.N. to bring him to heel on Darfur, are pragmatists, and they believe that if they could deal all these years with Khartoum, there is no reason why they should not be able to deal henceforth with Juba (the large town in Sudan's extreme south, near Uganda, which serves as the capital of the autonomous south).

In the long term, it would seem Sudan, after a history of suffering, may have found a window toward a brighter future. But in the short run, the situation on the ground is grim. Renewed fighting between north and south is likely; indeed, it has begun already in the form of trouble in oil-producing regions and inter-tribal conflicts in the south, allegedly incited by the Bashir government.

Salva Kiir, South Sudan's president (who under the peace agreement is Sudan's vice president), said recently that such conflicts are, unfortunately, traditional, as clans and villages fight over cattle, grazing rights, and women. What he added, however, was that the level of violence, the methods used by raiding parties, and the weapons available clearly point to outside encouragement, if not outright leadership. This can explode into full-scale renewal of north-south violence, combined with tribal war, if not stopped in its tracks.

Observers point out that on the military side the Bashir regime is not very strong. A raid by a Darfuri rebel group last year reached the outskirts of Khartoum before being thrown back, and early this year Israel destroyed an Iranian convoy of munitions and arms, destined for Hamas in Gaza, as it transited through Sudan. Say what you will about the fact that these two astonishing events were hardly noticed in the United States--Israel made no secret of its strike, wanting to call attention to Iran's export of violence--they speak volumes about the Bashir government's lack of military preparedness.