May 24, 2011

Showdown in Abyei Escalating Rapidly

Before the Arab Spring rearranged the Middle East and Africa’s geopolitical landscape, peacefully splitting Sudan in half was considered vital to regional stability. Although this reality remains unchanged, the Arab Spring has since intensified the pressure to develop a permanent solution to Sudan’s sprawling political conflict.

Now the international community finds itself in a full-blown race against time to July 9th, the day Southern Sudan has set to declare its formal independence. U.S. and E.U. states are expected to back its recognition - until further notice.

Following three days of clashes between the North’s People's Armed Forces and the South’s People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the Sudanese military claimed it had cleared Abyei of southern forces on May 21st. Thousands have fled the fighting in Sudan’s central hotspot after UN units came under attack by both sides. The two forces continue to battle in the territory’s southern confines, however the North remains in decisive control of Abyei.

Demilitarizing the territory remains a potent challenge in itself. Abyei contains oil reserves that the North needs after losing the oil-rich South, and is likely trying to acquire any territory that it can. Much of the Southern leadership hails from Abyei, and they too would like to see the territory remain free of Northern influence. Local tribal disputes based on resources and culture have intertwined themselves in the larger political system.

Abyei’s situation was considered too tense to establish borders before the January referendum, and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) designated a special referendum to be held in 2011. While little could be done to avert the initial delay, this strategy allowed the conflict to fester under the UN’s watch. Amid sporadic clashes, the short-handed organization attempted to supervise a mutual pullout earlier this month. Yet the UN appears to have been played, at least partially, by both sides.

On May 11th a UN unit came under fire near Goli, roughly 15 miles from Abyei town. As the UN condemned the attack and called both sides back to the negotiating table, the North and South accused each other of violating the CPA. Although both sides have repeatedly violated the CPA, each saw the opportunity it had patiently waited for. The fresh crisis in Abyei isn’t a random product of local and national tensions, but rooted in premeditated schemes.

Resolving the crisis will be especially problematic if neither side truly wants to resolve it.

Expecting secession all along, the Northern government has eyed Abyei before it lost Southern Sudan in January. One member of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), Didiry Mohammad Ahmed, accused the SPLA of seizing the territory "over the last six months... As we all know, since December last year, the SPLA has deployed 2,500 troops to Abyei and those troops were deployed in violation of the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement].”

Although he claimed “there’s no intention to start any war,” and that, "we have just had a very limited operation for a very limited military purpose which was accomplished 100 per cent,” Abyei town was later assaulted amid wider operations against the SPLA. Ahmed also foreshadowed remarks from Northern military officials.

"As soon as we are quite sure that there's no vacuum left behind that will enable the SPLA to once again deploy in Abyei, we'll withdraw."
That could be any time - or never.

Over the past 48 hours the North has dug into Abyei without any apparent intention of letting go. The argument goes as follows: the North wants to reach a solution to ensure stability, but must first “establish the conditions” for a new agreement. The North has played the U.S. hypocrisy card on SPLA forces, with Ahmed asking, "why on earth, right now, is the United States denouncing us?" Khartoum’s policy, in theory, seeks to eliminate all Southern military forces operating in Abyei under these pretexts. The North simply allowed the SPLA to operate in Abyei, stoking tensions and biding its time before calling the South out.

Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein told parliament in Khartoum, "The circumstances need, in our opinion, a new agreement to be signed. We are staying in Abyei until we get an order telling us otherwise, and we will not let go of one inch of land.”

He added, "Free citizens, your armed forces will hold all areas which the laws and agreements entrust to it.”

From the South’s point of view, the North has attempted to set it up from the beginning. Fearing the North’s military influence in Abyei, the SPLA believed it had no choice except to operate in the region. The North could not be trusted and the SPLA needed to stick its foot in the door. Realizing that it was walking in the North’s trap, Southern leadership is also prepared to play its own international cards, and has tied Abyei into the north’s wider strategy to provoke a conflict before July 9th. This could partially explain the SPLA’s own activity, which isn’t necessarily saintly.

"What Khartoum is trying to do now is not just occupy Abyei, they want us not to get to 9th of July," said Anne Itto, deputy secretary general of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). "What they want is for us to react and drag the whole of Sudan to war, but we will not give them that joy of taking us back to war.”

Thus each side has baited each other into the volatile territory since pre-referendum.

UN, AU, and Western officials have scrambled to contain last week’s damage, condemning both sides (but mostly the North) for escalating their activity. The North’s potential removal from the U.S. terror list is sinking, while hardline ambassador Susan Rice claimed that the White House “will take the appropriate steps as the situation unfolds." However punitive measures on the North will only reinforce its resolve to control Abyei, and it remains to be seen what measures would create an immediate impact on the ground.

Not much time exists between now and July 9th. The White House also had enough trouble in Sudan without the Arab Spring consuming the bulk of its foreign attention. Sincerely addressing and resolving the roots of conflict in Abyei may not be possible within this time.

Worst of all, escalation between the North and South could jeopardize the CPA’s completion and throw Sudan into a new round of national strife. Leaving conventional forces in Abyei poses risks for either side, as the international community has an easier time regulating government forces. Though notorious, proxies are generally more difficult to observe and control. While both the North and South need troop density to maintain influence in the territory, and may leave their forces for the time being, unconventional forces could become the eventual troop of choice in Abyei.

This strategy would only thicken the fog of war.

“I don’t think that means that they’ll go to general warfare between the two, but any kind of warfare,” warned Princeton Lyman, America’s special envoy to Sudan, “and especially over in area – an issue as emotional and difficult as Abyei, is a very dangerous prospect.”

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