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Diplomats Fear a Collapse of South Sudan’s Latest Peace Deal

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FORIEGNPOLICY 05 MAR 2020

South Sudan’s latest peace deal will likely not stop the country’s bloody conflict, according to more than a dozen officials and experts, raising questions about the seriousness of the international community’s effort to end a brutal cycle of violence in the East African nation. 

Many of these observers say the deal backs effectively the same power-sharing formula to end the country’s civil war that has repeatedly failed before, which they say highlights South Sudan’s tragic arc from an international success story to a chronic diplomatic catastrophe.

“Nothing really has changed,” one senior European diplomat told Foreign Policy.

The Feb. 22 creation of a coalition government between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former deputy-turned rebel leader Riek Machar was meant to end a deadly conflict that began in 2013. But even if the two men adhere to their pledges, their legacy will all but ensure continued violence and corruption, these officials and observers say.

Since civil war broke out, there have been dozens of cease-fires and peace deals between the two men that have successively collapsed.

Despite this, top United Nations officials and Western governments have publicly praised the latest peace deal with tones of cautious optimism.

The deal has “moved the country further along the road to sustainable peace,” top U.N. envoy David Shearer said. “We welcome the fact that the government and opposition parties have made the necessary compromises to allow this important step,” the U.S., British, and Norwegian governments said in a joint statement on Feb. 23.

Privately, other American and Western officials cast doubt on the very foundations of the peace deal and complain that the United States has no strategy to find another path to peace if this one fails.

But privately, other American and Western officials cast doubt on the very foundations of the peace deal and complain that the United States has no strategy to find another path to peace if this one fails.

“There is no reason to suggest that the same power-sharing agreement that has failed so many times will work,” said Payton Knopf, a former head of the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “I am unable to describe what U.S. policy is in South Sudan,” Knopf said.

U.S. officials have discussed a range of options if the deal falls through again, including sanctioning more senior South Sudanese government officials, downgrading diplomatic relations, and even de-recognizing the government of South Sudan as potential options. Some experts in the region worry it’s not enough.

“Before this, we didn’t seem to have a plan beyond, ‘Let’s throw more sanctions at these guys,’” said one U.S. official. “Now that the government has been formed, I also don’t think there’s a plan. What are we pushing for, what are we focused on now? It’s still unclear.”

“We hope that genuine leadership will be shown on all sides and that the peace process will continue moving forward,” a State Department spokesman said when asked for comment. “If progress stalls, however, the United States will use all available tools, including sanctions, to promote accountability for those who deny peace and progress to the South Sudanese people,” he added.

The latest coalition government between the two feuding leaders began last week when Machar returned to the capital of Juba and was appointed one of Kiir’s vice presidents. That came after Pope Francis sponsored a mediation between Kiir and Machar in his private Vatican residence last April, and many analysts say the meeting drove the two leaders to continue talks.

When it first gained independence in 2011, South Sudan was heralded as a major U.S. diplomatic achievement. The East African nation was shepherded into existence by the administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and backed by a coalition of high-profile activists and conservative Christian lawmakers in Congress. (South Sudan’s decadeslong struggle for independence was often viewed from the outside as a fight by the primarily Christian south against a hard-line Islamist government in Khartoum.)

But if U.S. efforts to help South Sudan gain independence marked the high point of Washington’s diplomacy, then its subsequent disengagement from South Sudan is the story of a superpower unable—or unwilling—to stop the monster it helped create.

Two years after independence, South Sudan fell into a bloody civil war largely along ethnic lines. Some 400,000 people have died, and both government and rebel forces are accused by human rights groups of war crimes. The conflict has also fueled famine-like conditions, making the impoverished East African country one of the largest focuses of humanitarian relief in the world.

The story of South Sudan’s latest unstable government begins with the collapse of the last peace deal in 2016. A short-lived unity government between Machar and Kiir ended with an explosion of violence in July of that year. Government soldiers rampaged through the streets of Juba. Rebel forces were battered by tanks and helicopters. Machar fled on foot to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Diplomatic missteps by the U.S. may have compounded the country’s crisis, some current and former State Department officials say.

Diplomatic missteps by the United States may have compounded the country’s crisis, some current and former State Department officials say. One example they cite is from August 2016. During a press conference in Kenya that month, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sidelined Machar as the country’s recognized rebel leader and backed his former deputy, Taban Deng Gai, as the country’s official opposition leader. It meant that Machar, who commanded the rebel army, was no longer part of the country’s peace deal.

The announcement “was essentially the death knell of the transitional government and loudly reinforced our partiality to Kiir,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former State Department official and author of a forthcoming book on South Sudan, The Dissent Channel. “There was nothing other players in the international community could do at that point to walk it back, and it was confirmation to Kiir he could continue a hard-line approach without consequence.”

The incident marked the last sustained diplomatic effort by the Obama administration on South Sudan. Afterward, talks once again broke down, fueling another wave of violence. One million people fled to neighboring Uganda by August 2017 amid U.N. warnings about the risk of ethnic cleansing and famine. 

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