Riek Machar, Fighting in S. Sudan, and the Issue of Responsibility

JUBA (HAN) July 11.2016. Public Diplomacy & Regional Security News. I have received substantial criticism—including from the spokesman for the SPLA-IO—for my web posting of yesterday (“A Coup in the Making in South Sudan-led by Riek Machar” | http://wp.me/p45rOG-1Uu/). Some of this criticism seems guided by the assumption that I have only a single source for my understanding of the current situation in Juba; this is inaccurate. For obvious reasons, other confidential sources of intelligence who are on the ground in Juba or elsewhere in South Sudan cannot be identified or even characterized. But they are several and extremely well placed. I have also kept abreast of news reporting by Sudan Tribune, Radio Tamazuj, Jason Patinkin, Peter Martell, and other reliable journalists on the ground. (For an excellent and recent overview of the current crisis and its history, see Patinkin’s piece in Foreign Policy, July 8, 2016; I say this well aware of the severe criticism of me tweeted by Patinkin).

My claim about Riek Machar’s role in the current—and intensifying—fighting comes from a source who has spent a tremendous amount of time in Juba in recent years and who has been a key interlocutor in negotiations involving the most senior members of the SPLA and SPLA/IO, including Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. That my source was in Addis Ababa rather than Juba at this particular moment is simply circumstance, and in no way diminishes his first-hand understanding of unfolding events in Juba.

Insufficiently noted by my critics was my conclusion, which now seems to me indisputable and indeed has been echoed by a number of commentators and news reports:

Humanitarians from some non-African countries have begun to be evacuated; more are likely to be evacuated in the very near future, and total humanitarian evacuation now seems a possibility.

The stakes for the people of South Sudan could not be higher. The international community must urgently reinforce and re-configure the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to function as a civilian protection force, including protection of all humanitarian workers.

As a great as the present catastrophe in South Sudan is, it has the potential to become much, much worse.

This is what I find of greatest concern, and it is this concern that animated my larger assessment of the military situation.

I certainly am not denying the chaotic nature of a tremendous amount of the violence in and around Juba. The degree to which Riek Machar and Salva Kiir actually control their forces is a legitimate question, and the loss of command-and-control, as well as general control, is undoubtedly substantial. The wisdom of bringing two belligerent military forces, with hostility still raw, to the capital city seems increasingly dubious. The degree to which the SPLA/M, particularly “hard liners” around Salva Kiir, have attempted to marginalize Riek Machar as First Vice President of the Government of South Sudan is also a legitimate question.

Troublingly, we are hearing very little at present from the rest of South Sudan, although reports from Torit (Easter Equatoria) are ominous and violence in Wau (Western Bahr el-Ghazal) has been of deep concern in recent weeks. A headline from “Jane’s Intelligence Weekly” captures a critical issue: “Fighting in Juba likely to trigger retaliatory attacks across South Sudan, intensifying fighting in three-month outlook,” | IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly | 11 July 2016. The ability of a cease-fire negotiated in Juba to halt fighting in areas hard hit by the previous violence would seem to be limited. Forces such as the Nuer “White Army” were never truly under Riek Machar’s control and are even less so in light of what has occurred in Juba, whoever bears greater responsibility.

But the heavy violence reported today in and around Juba marks a significant escalation in the fighting and is consistent with (although not definitive proof of) my assertion yesterday that:

… a full-scale assault by General James Koang Chuol is expected to begin early tomorrow. This will be in addition to the extremely intense fighting that descended upon Juba again today (Sunday, July 10, 2016).

Notably, extremely heavy shelling has been authoritatively reported by several sources this morning near the Juba airport. While there are several possible explanations for this shelling, it is ominous in the extreme, both for efforts to get people out of South Sudan and to bring into South Sudan military forces from African nations called for by the UN:

The Council expressed its support for UNMISS and its readiness to consider enhancing the Mission to better ensure that the UNMISS and the international community can prevent and respond to violence in South Sudan, the [Council] President said.

“The members of the Security Council encouraged States in the region to prepare to provide additional troops in the event the Council so decides. In the interim, [the Council] stressed the need for UNMISS to make full use of its authority to use all necessary means to protect civilians,” he concluded. (UN News Centre, July 10, 2016)

Given the UN record on South Sudan, this is likely to be much too little and much too late. One humanitarian organization with a long and distinguished presence in South Sudan has evacuated all its expatriate relief workers and reports: “Our analysis is that the SPLA/IO will move militarily to attack the Juba airport to stop helicopter operations.” European expatriate relief workers have been evacuated in large numbers, and wholesale evacuation is now a distinct possibility.

IGAD minister are meeting today, representing the countries that might most easily provide military protection for civilians and humanitarians caught up in the violent chaos. If, however, the airport has been shut down by heavy shelling, the delay in any deployment could be very considerable.

[One account from the ground suggests that forces very recently defecting from the SPLA to the SPLA-IO sought to take over the Juba airport; this predictably resulted in a very substantial deployment of SPLA troops. This in turn provides contest for the reports of heavy shelling at the airport.]

My source stands vigorously by his high-level intelligence concerning the motivations behind the military actions of the SPLA-IO. If, however, violence continues to accelerate at the present catastrophic rate, there will be less and less point in assigning responsibility—and ever greater urgency for civilian protection and restoration of rapidly disintegrating humanitarian capacity.

A cease-fire has just been reported to me from Juba (noon EDT); we must fervently hope that it is meaningful and that it holds—and that there is a true stand-down from hostilities by all parties. History is not encouraging. Riek Machar has not been heard from for a number of hours, even as the presidential spokesman for the Government of South Sudan has spoken of opening many checkpoints, resuming commercial air travel, and permitting freedom of movement. What does silence on the part of Riek Machar at this critical moment mean?

To be continued…




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