Is U.S. Without Leverage in Confronting Khartoum Over Atrocity Crimes?

The Obama administration would have us believe, in the words of special presidential envoy Princeton Lyman, that we can do nothing but "encourage talks" between the increasingly militarized Khartoum regime and its countrywide adversaries. Privately, Lyman says the U.S. has no leverage, "no cards to play," no effective way of pressuring Khartoum. Is this true?

By Eric Reeves

November 7, 2011 (SSNA) — In speaking about the ongoing human suffering and destruction in Sudan, Princeton Lyman, the Obama administration’s Sudan policy spokesman, declared in a September interview with Radio Dabanga that the U.S. can do no more than "encourage and facilitate … negotiations" between the parties in Sudan. Privately, Lyman makes explicit what is already implicit in this public declaration, insisting that U.S. has no leverage, no cards to play, no way to apply pressure on Khartoum. Is this true? Is the Obama administration really claiming that we are helpless as humanitarian access is resolutely denied to many hundreds of thousands of newly displaced civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile? These people have consumed all reserve foodstocks and have had their agricultural season profoundly disrupted by Khartoum’s military violence; violence that includes indiscriminate aerial bombardment of villages and fields. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has concluded that the harvest in Blue Nile will fail (see below); the same is almost certainly true of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan.

And yet, without vigorous condemnation or facing any specified consequences, the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime continues to deny all international humanitarian access, despite the vast scale of the crisis. The U.S. has done nothing to secure international support for the creation of humanitarian corridors into these border regions. Nor has the U.S. moved with any evident determination to halt Khartoum’s ongoing bombing of civilians and civilian targets, including agriculture. While offering tepid and sometime disingenuous condemnations of Khartoum’s actions, Lyman continues to profess that the U.S. has no option but to "encouraging negotiations."

Here we should note that the "negotiations" Lyman speaks of necessarily involve a regime in Khartoum that has a long history of reneging on signed agreements, including multiple agreements regarding humanitarian access over the past twenty-two years; in the current crises the regime has simply—repeatedly and categorically—denied all international humanitarian access. Other agreements abrogated by Khartoum include various key terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the South (CPA). This is most conspicuously so in Abyei, where the regime’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) refuse to withdraw, as Khartoum had perviously committed to doing, and thus continue to obstruct the return of some 120,000 Dinka Ngok who fled the SAF invasion of May 20. The only agreement the regime has signed of late—the June 28 framework agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North—was renounced three days later by President Omar al-Bashir. This agreement committed both Khartoum and the SPLM/A-N to: (1) negotiate a political settlement to differences on governance in the regions, (2) negotiate the future of SPLA-N soldiers, and (3) negotiate a cease-fire. It was signed on the regime’s behalf by long-time senior official and presidential advisor, Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e.

But in a clear signal of changes in the power dynamic within the regime, al-Bashir completely renounced the agreement three days later, and re-committed to a brutal military campaign:

"Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said the army would continue its campaign in the flashpoint of South Kordofan, state news agency SUNA said on Friday [July 1], dashing hope of a cease-fire ahead of southern secession. In his first comments since returning from a visit to China, Bashir seemed to contradict comments by a northern official this week that north and south had agreed ‘in principle’ on a cease-fire in the northern oil state."

"’He directed the armed forces to continue their military operations in South Kordofan until a cleansing of the region is over,’ SUNA quoted Bashir as telling worshippers during Friday prayers." (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], July 1, 2011)

There is increasingly broad consensus among Sudan analysts that senior generals in the army, three of them senior Ministers, have increasingly taken control of political power and decision-making in Khartoum. As the International Crisis Group argues:

"The loss of South Sudan has had a profound effect on the National Congress Party, and senior generals led a soft-coup within the party. They have outflanked more pragmatic elements in the NCP who seek a negotiated strategy. Encouraging progress in the post-separation arrangements between North and South was blocked [by these generals and their political allies]." (emphasis added) ("Conflict Risk Alert," September 26, 2011)

What we are seeing, I have argued, is a "creeping military coup," and beginning with the seizure of Abyei in May, the generals seem determined to settle all issues militarily in the new "south Sudan"; this is the name increasingly used for the border regions whose people have long felt closer to what is now the independent South Sudan—politically, militarily, culturally, and ethnically. The generals have directed the NIF/NCP to spurn all negotiations with the SPLA/M-North, and most insistently to deny the presence of any international third party in negotiations with South Sudan, using various civilian spokesmen to make the point, including President (and Army Field Marshal) al-Bashir:

"In his Thursday [October 13] address, Al-Bashir maintained his tough stance towards the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), which is fighting the country’s army in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. ‘There will be no negotiation with the SPLM-N because it was the one that started the war’ he said, adding that ending the state of war in the two states is contingent on the SPLM-N’s acceptance of the elections results in South Kordofan and surrendering its arms to the Sudanese army. ‘There are no more negotiations or protocols, this is our position,’ Al-Bashir declared." (Sudan Tribune, October 13, 2011)

It was, of course, Khartoum that initiated hostilities in both South Kordofan and Blue Nile, following its well-planned military invasion and seizure of the contested Abyei region. Two weeks earlier al-Bashir had made the same point with respect to outstanding issues with Juba, including Abyei, oil revenue-sharing, rights for Southerners who have remained in northern Sudan, as well as border delineation and demarcation:

"Sudan wants to end all conflict with newly-independent South Sudan through dialogue but without any foreign mediation, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Saturday [October 1, 2011] ahead of a visit by his southern counterpart. ‘We need to sort out all issues through dialogue but without any foreign mediation,’ Bashir said." ("Sudan’s Bashir rejects mediation in talks with South"; Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], October 1, 2011)

Agence France-Presse had reported on September 28 from Khartoum:

"Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir claimed on Wednesday [September 28] that the army would soon capture the rebel stronghold of Kurmuk, in Blue Nile state, insisting there would be no UN-supervised negotiations. ‘The armed forces will be saying prayers of thanksgiving soon in Kurmuk,’ he was quoted as saying by the official SUNA news agency, during a speech in eastern Sudan. ‘The rebellion will be put down and the country’s outlaws defeated … Sudan will not repeat the experience of being obliged to negotiate and sign protocols under UN supervision,’ he said."

"Sudan will not repeat the experience of being obliged to negotiate and sign protocols under UN supervision"—the rejection of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile could hardly be clearer, even as the consequences of such conflict have been devastating for civilians, particularly since Khartoum has—it must be emphasized yet again—resolutely denied all humanitarian access to these highly distressed regions.

This rejection clearly extends to the UN, to Thabo Mbeki, representing the "African Union High-Level Panel" (originally commissioned to address the crisis in Darfur, a mission abandoned after a miserably unsuccessful effort), to regional actors (e.g., Ethiopia, which has provided the troops for the UN peacekeeping mission in Abyei)—and most clearly, to the U.S. and its special envoy, Princeton Lyman. For the U.S. special envoy to ignore the new political and negotiating environment in Khartoum, to continue to mouth platitudes about the value of diplomacy and the limitations of U.S negotiating leverage, is not only deeply disingenuous in the present context, but ignores options for securing humanitarian access for the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are so deeply imperiled.

Rather than profess limitations, Lyman and the U.S., as well as the rest of the international community, need to ask what can be done—now—to compel changes in Khartoum’s policies and negotiating posture. Above all, they need to address with appropriate urgency a question that has grown excruciating exigent over four months now: How long are the U.S. and the international community prepared simply to watch as Khartoum denies all humanitarian access to Blue Nile and South Kordofan? How long will the abrogation of the terms of the Abyei interim agreement be allowed to be so flagrantly flouted (the SAF remains in full military control, and prevents nearly all returns by displaced Dinka Ngok)? How long will the condemnation of daily aerial bombing attacks on civilians and humanitarian targets be perfunctory in nature, even as these attacks have done so much to create the vast displacement that has left this year’s harvests in ruins? And will Darfur continue to be a mere parenthesis in U.S. and international response to Sudan’s multiple crises?

These are urgent questions, and it is deeply dismaying that Lyman and the Obama administration will say only that they can do nothing but "encourage negotiations" in which Khartoum quite explicitly refuses to participate—that the U.S. has no "cards to play," no means of pressuring the regime and its newly powerful generals. What this really reflects is an expedient cynicism, not a poverty of options.

Let’s look at several possibilities:

[1] Shut down all talk of debt relief for Khartoum:

It would be difficult to overstate how distressed the economy of northern Sudan is at present. Inflation is over 20 percent; foreign exchange reserves are in extremely short supply; the regime is removing subsidies for sugar and petrol, and has already deeply angered many Sudanese in and near the capital; although the regime has produced "balanced" budget proposals, they make no serious attempt to account for the loss of oil revenues, even as the regime is publicly shameless in declaring what it has endured in the way of lost revenues; the IMF predicts negative growth in the northern economy this year and next, and arguably much longer; the Sudanese pound has experienced massive devaluation this year, and remains in freefall; the demographic of the "Arab Spring"—young, unemployed people under 30 who are frustrated by the lack of job opportunities—is clearly in evidence in what are so far relatively small, but more frequent and more robust demonstrations against economic mismanagement by this corrupt and brutally tyrannical regime.

Perhaps most tellingly, the regime continues to devote inordinate amounts of the national economy to military procurement and salaries. Along with the extensive funding of the intelligence services, these expenses altogether are likely over 50 percent of the total national budget. For in addition to the well-paid and well-equipped National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), the regime is prosecuting expensive wars in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan—and it maintains a significant military presence in Abyei. In Blue Nile, Yasir Arman of the SPLM-N has indicated that the Movement is in possession of evidence that Khartoum is supplementing its forces with Arab mercenaries from Niger and other countries to Sudan’s west (the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the UN/African Union force in Darfur (UNAMID) will not commit to monitoring the transport of these militia fighters). All this represents another very large line item in the budget, as do purchases of extravagantly costly advanced weapons systems.

But what makes the economic situation in the North completely untenable is $38 billion in external debt, which the regime cannot service, let alone repay. The economic future of the North will not improve without debt relief, and here is where the U.S. can make its voice heard in Khartoum. President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should declare publicly, emphatically, and in a stand-alone announcement, that:

"The United States will do all within its political and diplomatic power to ensure that all progress on debt relief for the Republic of Sudan is halted until the following actions are seriously and credibly undertaken:

[a] Immediately open humanitarian corridors to the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Blue Nile and South Kordofan in desperate need of food, primary medical care, shelter, and clean water;

[b] Immediately begin negotiations, under international auspices, with the SPLM-North to bring about an end to hostilities in the regions;

[c] Commit to a political settlement of economic grievances, the future of the SPLA-North military forces, and role of the SPLM-North in the politics of northern Sudan;

[d] Commit to provide reparations for those who have lost land, possessions, and family in the violence of the past five months."

"If these conditions are not met, the U.S. will use all its power within the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) to halt all discussion of debt relief. The U.S. will be equally vigorous in opposing all discussion of debt relief in Paris Club meetings."

President Obama or Secretary Clinton could utter these words today, and they would be heard in Khartoum with sufficient concern that real pressure would be felt, including by the generals.

Some will argue that this threat is already in place, but that’s not the message Khartoum is getting. Most recently Germany is reported by the Sudan Tribune to have sent encouraging signals (October 18, 2011):

"Germany has been engaged in talks with Sudan regarding debt relief, Berlin’s deputy envoy to Khartoum revealed, saying that these communications are expected to yield results by early 2010. The Sudanese privately-owned daily Al-Akhbar newspaper reported on Tuesday [October 18] that Johannes Lehne, deputy head of Germany’s diplomatic mission in Khartoum, said his country had been discussing with the Sudanese government ways of writing off its debt. Lehne said that Germany had offered Sudan to pay its debts in the form of development projects rather than paying them in cash to his country. ‘Sudan actually sent proposals [on development projects] that we are currently considering. Procedures to write off [Sudan’s debt] on the basis of these proposals will begin early next year,’ the German diplomat was quoted [as saying]."

This is outrageously bad timing by the Germans, and gives the regime the sense that despite "difficulties" along the north/south border—and in Darfur—Europe believes it is better to deal with the regime in "positive" terms. This is a reprise of the ghastly foolishness of former U.S. envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, who notoriously declared that he planned to offer the regime "cookies," "gold stars," and "smiley faces" as a means of spurring diplomatic progress on Darfur—this even as genocide proceeded by a grim attrition on the ground throughout the region.

Whether multilaterally or unilaterally, the U.S. has more than enough power within international financial institutions to halt completely further discussion of any broad form of debt relief. For its part, the regime clearly hopes that debt relief will be on the agenda of a conference slated for Istanbul this December 1 – 2 (sponsored by Turkey and Norway); the U.S. representative should use the occasion to reiterate the firm opposition of the U.S. to any form of debt relief for the regime.

What makes Khartoum’s pleas for debt relief particularly outrageous are the shameless claims that the international community is somehow obliged to help the regime-governed economy, even as the regime’s military ambitions are costing the international community many billions of dollars for current UN peacekeeping missions (which face worldwide budgetary squeezes), and regime violence over the past twenty-two years has created the need for more than fifteen billion dollars in humanitarian relief:

"The Sudanese economy faces collapse unless the international community steps in to provide assistance in the area of debt relief, [Khartoum’s] foreign minister Ali Karti said on Thursday [September 29]. ‘We are working also on debt relief with France and others, because debt servicing incurs more than $1 billion annually,’ Karti told reporters in Paris following a meeting with his French counterpart Alain Juppe. He said that the world could not simply stand back and watch the economy collapse, describing the economy’s woes as ‘really serious.’ Karti’s grim economic warning marks a departure from his peers in the government who sought to downplay the magnitude of Sudan’s troubled finances." (Sudan Tribune, September 30, 2011)

Of course what is "really serious" is the fate of the people of Abyei, Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that Khartoum’s wars on civilians have created. Given the evident French reception of Ali Karti, a U.S. announcement on halting further discussion of debt relief becomes all the more important. Here we should recall that even as some of the worst human rights abuses in the world have been committed in Sudan over the past two decades under the NIF/NCP, German and French companies have been eager participants in commercial projects funded by the regime’s oil wealth, most coming from oil extracted at great human cost in South Sudan. It would be useful to know precisely what these two European powerhouse nations hold in the way of Sudanese debt.

Even were the proposed U.S. conditions met, there should be further pressure on the regime to engage in fundamental economic reform, particularly in appropriations for the military and security sectors. The IMF has done a spectacularly poor job of reporting on such expenditures over the past decade and more, and this has created an almost total lack of transparency, preventing any clear understanding of the real military and security budget, as opposed to the one made public and available to the IMF. Any future debt relief should carefully monitor military expenditures, and ensure that they do not exceed what is necessary for self-defense.

De-militarizing the regime will be extremely difficult in its present configuration, and regime change has long been the only real means of reforming northern Sudanese political culture. The NIF/NCP, however, will not go quietly.

Other measures by which the U.S. can change Khartoum’s thinking:

[2] Declare that the actions by the SAF and its militia allies in Blue Nile and South Kordofan are acts of terrorism, and that the clock won’t start ticking for removal from the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations until these actions are halted (it is a statutory requirement for such removal that the State Department certify that no acts of terrorism have been committed or supported by a regime on the list for the six prior months). All aerial bombardment of civilians, including in Darfur, should also be considered acts of terrorism for the purposes of potential removal from the State Department list.

[3] Make public U.S. satellite reconnaissance showing military actions against civilians: using appropriate satellite resources, the U.S. should publicize the scale and nature of Khartoum’s military ambitions and their consequences for civilians. Unlike the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), the U.S. intelligence community has no limit on resolution (pixels per square centimeter) in its photographs, or weather constraints on its surveillance capabilities. So far, however, the Obama administration has been inert in responding to or augmenting the critical findings of SSP. If even some of the prodigious power of U.S intelligence were dedicated to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the heretofore unique work of SSP could be quickly and effectively supplemented.

[4] Move to convene an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to press for humanitarian corridors into Blue Nile and South Kordofan: these are essential for the survival of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The U.S. should declare further that the denial of humanitarian access by Khartoum is a clear threat to "international peace and security," thus coming within the ambit of the most important mandate of the Security Council. The U.S. and other Council members should introduce a resolution authorizing, under Chapter 7 auspices, the creation of such corridors "by all means necessary." The U.S. should be prepared to assist in the protection of such corridors, in coordination with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The present UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) should deploy substantial forces to the border regions between South Sudan and Blue Nile, and be prepared to escort the tens of thousands of refugees who have now fled from the Nuba Mountains; these people will continue to flee as the dry season begins and Khartoum ramps up military ground actions. Sections of Unity State bordering South Kordofan are particularly at risk.

China is of course very likely to veto such a resolution, but it is important that it be made to do so, and thereby reveal to the world—and especially to the countries of Africa—just how cynical Beijing is when it comes to the people of Africa, as opposed to the continent’s extractable resources. The U.S. should continue to introduce such a resolution so long as the vast and growing humanitarian crises persist in these border regions. To date, the U.S. has introduced at the Security Council no resolution of consequence concerning either Blue Nile or South Kordofan.

[5] Accelerate defensive arms deliveries to South Sudan, particularly anti-aircraft weaponry, as well as surveillance and communications equipment. The UN has recently declared that refugees from South Kordofan are at risk of aerial bombardment even when they reach South Sudan (see below). At the same time, the U.S. should share with the Government of South Sudan satellite reconnaissance intelligence bearing on the location, size, and armaments of the Khartoum-sponsored rebel groups that continue to ravage the South, especially in Unity and Jonglei states. That Khartoum is supporting these groups has long been evident, and recent analyses by the Small Arms Survey—of weapons captured from these groups by Southern military forces (the SPLA)—make clear that this brand-new, Chinese-manufactured weaponry could only have come from Khartoum in the quantities seized.

In fact, many months ago a helicopter from Khartoum, carrying senior officers loyal to rebel leader George Athor, was seized by the SPLA when it accidentally landed in the wrong location, and much incriminating evidence was found aboard. Nor is it an accident that these rebel leaders are often found in Khartoum, or in bases just across the border in northern Sudan. More recently the senior intelligence officer in the SPLA declared the South had "credible evidence" that Khartoum’s "Sudan Airways" is providing "logistical and financial support to the various militia rebels" in South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, November 1, 2011).

[6] Use military force to deter the bombing of civilians: There has been for months a plea from military and political leaders in Blue Nile and South Kordofan—and most urgently from civilians—for the imposition of a "No-Fly Zone." This has typically entailed no clear understanding of what is required for such an operation, and officials in the Obama administration have been eager to assert that it is completely impracticable, given the locations to be protected. But what the people of Blue Nile and South Kordofan want is not a particular military operation. Rather, what they desperately wish for is an end to the daily assaults by Antonov "bombers," retrofitted Russian cargo planes that drop their typically crude, shrapnel-laden barrel bombs out the rear cargo bays—at high altitudes and without benefit of bomb-sighting devises. These planes are far too inaccurate for real military purposes; they are designed to hit large, "soft" targets such as villages, hospitals, water supplies, cattle, and fields. These they can hit, and thus they are terrifyingly effective in compelling civilian movement and displacement. These deliberate, widespread, and completely indiscriminate attacks are all war crimes—and in aggregate they constitute "crimes against humanity."

From Blue Nile, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (October 12, 2011) provides a grim account of what happens when civilians are targeted. Dr. Evan Atar, highlighted in the report below, is one of those in Blue Nile calling for concerted international pressure on Khartoum to end the bombing:

"Kurmuk hospital in Sudan’s southern crisis-hit Blue Nile State is struggling to cope with an influx of war wounded, according to hospital doctor Evan Atar. So far he has treated 626 people for shrapnel injuries since clashes began last month …. A man on the operating table cries out in pain, but Atar says the hospital has no more anaesthetics to give him. Cotton, gauze and saline solution will run out this week if aid does not arrive, he says, adding that six months of supplies have been used up in the past six weeks. ‘The problem is that there is no way we can get the drugs in here now because of the Antonovs bombing the area, making it very dangerous to fly supplies in from Kenya.’ Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir will not allow foreign aid agencies inside Blue Nile or the neighbouring state of South Kordofan … Atar is the only doctor in Kurmuk, which has the only hospital between state capital Damazin and neighbouring Ethiopia." [Kurmuk fell to the SAF on November 3]

In response to such barbarous attacks, the U.S., and whatever allies will join in the effort, should make clear to Khartoum that every time an Antonov—or any other military aircraft—attacks civilians or humanitarians, the U.S. will destroy one such aircraft on the ground at el-Obeid (the major air base from which Antonov and other military aircraft have attacked Blue Nile and South Kordofan). It is doubtful that the generals in Khartoum would watch for long as their air force was destroyed, seriatim, before them; aerial military attacks on civilians would almost certainly stop.

This is not an "Iraq-style NFZ"; on the contrary, there would be no patrolling by fuel-consumptive combat aircraft, no need for refueling aircraft or AWACS, no need to secure over-flight permission from Sudan’s nervous or ambivalent neighbors—the decision to act would be on the basis of a confirmed attack, and there are many means of such confirmation, including satellite reconnaissance follow-up on the reports of daily bombing attacks:

[There are many news reports and accounts from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile that speak of "daily" or "near daily" attacks; a few examples, with datelines from within Sudan, include the New York Times, Inter Press Service, UN Integrated Region Information Networks, as well as the leaked UN human rights report on events during the initial fighting in June.]

Destroying aircraft on the ground—for example, with cruise missiles—would minimize the possibility of collateral damage; and relentless, sequential destruction would steadily ratchet up the pressure on Khartoum to halt these war crimes. To be sure, this would, as Lyman has said baldly in explaining why he is opposed to any such action, "take us into a confrontational situation in Sudan." But military "confrontation" is path that Khartoum has chosen, and from which it appears determined not to deviate, even as many hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk; and while it sounds diplomatic for Lyman to say further that "our efforts are concentrated in getting the parties back to the negotiation table," one of these parties has made clear it has no intention of negotiating, and certainly not with U.S. auspices (see above).

Notably, the regime recently turned down an invitation to join a broad discussion in Washington, organized by Lyman and his office, to discuss Darfur, where the failed peace agreement promulgated in Doha (Qatar) this past July all too clearly leaves much work to be done. Khartoum for its part is determined to do nothing that might give the appearance of re-opening negotiations, and refuses to make even an appearance.

Indeed, on Darfur al-Bashir recently made clear his robust views of UN Security Council Resolution (2003), which authorizes for another year the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, and which in Khartoum’s view sought to extend incrementally the mandate of the mission:

"Sudan’s president Omer Al-Bashir has bragged about his country’s ability to emulate Israel in breaking resolutions of the UN Security Council (UNSC), vowing to expel those who attempt to implement the latest UNSC’s resolutions on Darfur’s peacekeeping mission. Al-Bashir, who was addressing a conference of the youth sector of his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) on Thursday [October 13], said that Sudan had successfully defied the UNSC’s Resolution 2003 to amend the mandate of the UN-AU Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) as well as Resolution 1706 to expand the mandate of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to include deployment in Darfur. ‘They can shove the new resolutions’ Al-Bashir said, reiterating his threats to expel whoever is tempted to implement the Resolution 2003." (emphasis added) (Sudan Tribune, October 13, 2011)

Most recently (November 4, 2011) Khartoum rejected out of hand a U.S. proposal for ending conflict in South Kordofan. This is not, as Lyman implies, the attitude of a regime that can be coaxed back to the negotiating table; it is the attitude of an almost fully militarized security cabal in Khartoum, and to ignore this reality is both disingenuous and cynical.

How urgent are the humanitarian crises in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur?

Ominously, it must be said first that we don’t really know: Khartoum’s refusal to grant access to humanitarians of course extends to journalists and human right monitors (this despite weak pleas for an "independent and credible international investigation" of atrocity crimes from Lyman, U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and various UN officials). But the evidence at hand—from refugees in Ethiopia and South Sudan, from intrepid journalists who’ve made their way into both Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and from the reports of Sudanese themselves, by means of a range of communications and intermediaries—is overwhelming. And this evidence aggregated, seen in light of conditions prior to the outbreak of fighting (e.g., dwindling food reserves), makes abundantly clear that many people are either now dying from malnutrition and disease, or soon will be. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) "235,000 people [are] on the brink of starvation in Sudan’s embattled southern border region because of fighting in Blue Nile and South Kordofan" (October 10, 2011). But this is not so much because of fighting per se as it is because Khartoum’s aerial violence relentlessly targets civilians; and this in turn has created such a staggering figure for people in acute distress. Violence now deeply threatens the agricultural season and the (already compromised) harvest in both regions.


The effects of continual aerial bombardment are likely to be the major military instrument of death, having so profoundly disrupted the agricultural cycles in both South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Agence France-Presse reports:

"The fighting has disrupted the major crop season in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan—two of Sudan’s main sorghum producing areas, according to the Rome-based agency. In South Kordofan, people fled at the start of the planting season and were unable to sow seeds, while in Blue Nile, fighting erupted later in the season so seeds were planted but people were forced to abandon their crops. ‘The latest fighting coupled with erratic rainfall means next month’s harvest is expected to generally fail,’ it stated. The shortage of food stocks has already led to a doubling of prices, which are expected to continue to rise steeply. The agency also pointed out that seasonal livestock migration has been disrupted in both states causing large herds to be concentrated in small areas along the border. ‘This is causing overcrowding and could lead to outbreaks of livestock disease,’ said Cristina Amaral, Chief of FAO’s Emergency Operations Service. ‘Tensions between farmers and nomadic herders over water and land access may also be exacerbated.’ All international aid agencies have been barred from Blue Nile …. " (emphasis added) (Agence France-Presse [dateline: Kurmuk], October 10, 2011)

The UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks reports from Kurmuk (October 17, 2011):

"Khidir Abusita, the chief of Maiyas village, in Sudan’s crisis-hit Blue Nile state, points to a bomb and the shrapnel that ripped through two ‘tukuls’ (conical mud and thatch huts) on 2 October. That day, the Sudan Armed Forces’ Antonov bomber planes literally broke apart two families and left the village terrorized by their almost daily appearance. Abusita spoke to IRIN about the damage caused to his village: ‘The Antonov came here at around midday [on 2 October]; it bombed the place, killing six people, including one child. Among the people who died were two pregnant women.’"

The extended narrative continues:

"’In one of the affected families, three people died and three are remaining, so we took these three behind the mountain to hide. In this other family, two died and three are remaining. Another man who was just passing by to visit his neighbours was killed too. They were just farmers. His leg was cut and we tried to take him to hospital but he died. The other injured man is lying at Kurmuk hospital after the [bomb] cut his feet and stomach. Yesterday [1 October] there were two Antonovs around the area. They just circled overhead for one hour, so we are very scared.’"

"’Most of the people have stayed here, but behind the mountains. We sleep near the river during the day and come back to the village at night. We just eat from these small, small farms; we just [grow food] near our houses because this year we haven’t been able to go to our farms in the valley to cultivate. Few bits of food remain, mostly only sorghum. We don’t have sugar, we don’t have tea, we don’t have coffee. Also there is no medicine, people are just depending on the traditional medicine.’"

On the basis of such reports and what has been observed of the crops, and the time prior to harvesting, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted in October that "next month’s harvest is expected to generally fail." And yet the NIF/NCP regime denies access to the UN’s World Food Program, as well as all other UN agencies and international relief organizations.

Denial of humanitarian access

To date Khartoum has shown no inclination whatsoever to relent on this virtually total embargo on international humanitarian aid and assistance. Instead, the regime has made preposterous claims about its own provision of relief, especially in Blue Nile, where Khartoum insists that it controls 90 percent of the territory and "is providing services to 95 percent of its residents" (Reuters [dateline: Kurmuk], October 13, 2011). With the fall of Kurmuk, this claim will perhaps have some plausibility for the uninformed; but the statement, from a regime that lies constantly and shamelessly, tells us nothing about realities on the ground, and what it means to be displaced and without humanitarian resources in a region where the coming harvest will "generally fail," and where all food reserves have now been exhausted.

The international community, including the U.S., has not done nearly enough to raise the alarm about what is impending without Khartoum’s immediate reversal of its unspeakably callous decision. Certainly there has been no willingness on the part of the UN to fulfill its explicit "responsibility to protect" civilians endangered in ways that are conspicuous in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (paragraphs 138 and 139 of the unanimously approved UN World Summit "Outcome Document," September 2005)


Bombing attacks, those that Princeton Lyman declares the U.S. is not prepared to halt except by "encouraging negotiations," have also done most to generate the large and growing number of refugees in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Tens of thousands have already fled the two regions, and many more are in flight now; civilian flight could become wholesale if humanitarian access continues to be denied, and this may well be a deliberate "demographic reorganization" of both Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan by Khartoum. Many of those fleeing will never return to their homes, and the many who die will also contribute to a changed demography (here we should recall the genocidal jihad that this same regime directed against the Nuba people in the 1990s, and which came perilously close to annihilation). "Change the demography" was the notorious exhortation by Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal in a memo that was widely circulated among Khartoum’s security services during the early phase of the Darfur genocide:

"You are informed that directives have been issued … to change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes ‘through burning, looting, and killing’ of intellectuals and youths who may join the rebels in fighting.’"

Now a "change in demography" is proceeding in Blue Nile:

" … aerial bombings in Sudan’s Blue Nile state were driving a new wave of refugees into Ethiopia, with nearly 2,000 arriving in the last four days alone. According to UNHCR, ‘The new arrivals at the border area of Kurmuk, one of several refugee entry points into Ethiopia and considered to be the busiest, are mostly women, children and the elderly. ‘They tell us they fled bombings and fear of bombings by Antonov planes in areas including Bau, Sali and Dinduro, all located between Kurmuk and the Blue Nile capital, Damazine,’ UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said in a statement." (AfricaOnline, October 31, 2011)

The New York Times reports (October 31, 2011, Nairobi) on a journalist, Peter Muller, who made it into the war zone to file his observations:

"[Muller] found that the civilian population had almost entirely fled the Blue Nile area in face of attacks from the forces of the Bashir government. Many fled into Ethiopia and others crossed the border into South Sudan. ‘There was a lot of concern over food shortages and the continuing bombing campaigns,’ Mr. Muller said. ‘The hospitals are running out of supplies and they can’t replenish those stocks.’"

Other reports have come out steadily, certainly before the fall of Kurmuk (November 3). There can be no claim that we haven’t known exactly why these people have fled to Ethiopia:

"In another hospital bed [in Kurmuk], 65-year-old Altom Osman is recovering from a deep shrapnel wound in his back and one in his arm after a bomb hit the village of Sali an hour north of Kurmuk. ‘I was taking some sorghum flour to my wife. We were passing our farm and then the Antonov came immediately and bombed,’ Osman whispered."

"Two hours further north, in Maiyas, village chief Khidir Abusita points to a hole a bomb from an Antonov made that he said killed six people, including 55-year-old Hakuma Yousif and her 20-year-old daughter Soura in their hut. ‘Yesterday there were two Antonovs and they were circling for an hour. We are very scared … We sleep by the river during the day and come back at night,’ Abusita said." (Agence France-Presse [dateline: Kurmuk], October 10, 2011)

Many refugees in South Sudan have ended up in remote and almost inaccessible areas, given UN security restrictions on movement and the inability of UNMISS to secure humanitarian corridors for food delivery. Yida is the site of many of the thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains that have made it to Unity State—but they have run out of food, according to a highly reliable source on the ground, and the UN’s World Food Program is not responding with either urgency or effectiveness. And even in South Sudan, refugees remain at risk of aerial bombardment, a matter that should be of urgent concern to the Security Council, since these are now attacks across an international border:

" … refugees in South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity state are in danger of aerial bombardment after fleeing fighting across the border from Sudan, the United Nations said. At least 1,000 people arrived in Unity state in the past week, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said today in a report. ‘These individuals remain in an insecure location at the border with Sudan which is close to areas where regular aerial bombardments have taken place,’ OCHA said." (Bloomberg, October 26, 2011)

Yet the refugees continue to flee, fearing the relentless aerial bombardment and having lost their lands in the violence. The UN High Commission for Refugees recently declared that:

"’Humanitarian partners are concerned that the number of people arriving to Unity might double before the end of the year if fighting continues in Southern Kordufan. In anticipation of a continued influx, other locations are being assessed as potential alternative sites as well,’ [UNHCR] said." (PANA [dateline: Khartoum], November 3, 2011)

In late September the UN estimated that 25,000 civilians were refugees from Blue Nile who had crossed the border into Ethiopia; this figure was increased to 27,500 less than a week later. Four weeks later still, given the reported rates of entry into Ethiopia, the figure may well exceed 40,000. One humanitarian organization reports 22,000 refugees have made the arduous trek from the Nuba Mountains and elsewhere to Unity State in independent South Sudan. Here also there have been extremely high rates reported for daily and weekly increases in the number of refugees. And there is no sign that the exodus is slowing down; indeed, in the absence of humanitarian relief, this flow will become a flood of humanity.

Military assaults on civilians

We have known for many months now—certainly since the leaking of a UN human rights report at the beginning of July—that Khartoum has chosen to wage war in the most brutal fashion possible, both as a means of terrorizing civilians into fleeing and as a means of stoking ethnic and racial tensions. The UN human rights report on South Kordofan, prepared before Khartoum expelled all monitors from Kadugli, South Kordofan, was explicit on what could be observed or reported from this extraordinary vantage during the first three weeks of fighting in June:

"Interviews with witnesses and victims reveal that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and security forces have a list of Nubans wanted for being sympathetic to the SPLM/A, which supports the allegation that people in Southern Kordofan were targeted based on ethnicity. Witnesses also mentioned that persons of Nuban descent and ‘other dark skinned people’ were being targeted by SAF and Arab militias.” (§49)

"With the reinforcement of SAF, Central Reserve Police and militia elements, the security situation deteriorated on 7 June, with indiscriminate shelling of Kadugli town apparently targeting densely civilian-inhabited areas. This led to the secondary displacement of thousands of IDPs who had taken refuge in churches and hospitals to the UNMIS compound where they were sheltered in an area adjacent to the compound that was set up specifically to receive IDPs and provide them security and humanitarian assistance (Protective Perimeter)." (§9)

Some 7,000 Nuba sought protection in this UN "Protective Perimeter"; but on June 20 they were forcibly removed from international custody by regime security agents disguised as Red Crescent workers. To this day, the U.N. has not been able to give an account of where these people were taken, though the mass gravesites revealed in Satellite Sentinel Project reports suggest a grim possibility.

But again, the greatest human destruction will certainly proceed from relentless aerial bombardment, also reported by the UN human rights investigators:

"Since the eruption of the conflict, the SAF has carried out daily aerial bombardments into the Nuba Mountains and in several towns and villages populated by Nubans. The consequences of these bombardments on the Nuban people and in particular civilians, including women and children, are devastating. They have resulted in significant loss of life, destruction of properties, and massive displacement. UNMIS Human Rights has received photographs of mangled and mutilated bodies of civilians, some cut into halves, including women and children." (emphasis added) (§39)

The Enough Project has recently published a "field dispatch," reporting on interviews with refugees along the border between Blue Nile and Ethiopia:

"’Soldiers with small arms were chasing the civilians. They were supported by the Fellata [an ethnic group in Blue Nile], who captured some of the civilians and slaughtered people,’ said Asma, who witnessed the outbreak of conflict in the town of Um Darfa. She said the militias and government forces did not spare children and pregnant women. ‘It’s all because we are black,’ she said. When asked whether the militias or soldiers said anything to the civilians in their pursuit, Asma said the militias were shouting directions at each other, saying, ‘Grab the slaves.’"

"Her account was corroborated by Kasmero who, when fleeing from the state capital of Damazine, ran through Um Darfa when fighting began. He said after the SAF attacked the town with helicopter gunships and Antonovs, the ‘janjaweed’ and Fellata began to indiscriminately kill civilians. ‘I saw bodies all the way from Damazine to Ethiopia,’ he said. ‘There is no discrimination, the common theme is you are black.’ Two towns he passed while fleeing, Ardaiba and Kambelle, were also burned to the ground, Kasmero said."

"Aziz, who fled from Baw town, told Enough that government militias—who were sent to bring back those who had fled to the mountains nearby—kidnapped and detained some of the displaced women and young girls in a school. ‘At night they had visitors and they did whatever they wanted with them,’ he said, referring to SAF soldiers and government militias. Two young girls were killed as a result of being raped by around 30 men, said Ali, who also fled from Baw and spoke to Enough with Aziz." (Herkoles Refugee Camp, Ethiopia, November 1, 2011)

Ryan Boyette, an American aid worker who has married a Nuba woman, reports from his own first-hand experience that in addition to observing an "extremely low" food supply, he "interviewed eyewitnesses who have ‘described very clearly seeing soldiers enter houses, pulling people out and killing them, in front of their families, killing them in front of their community’" (Voice of America, October 21, 2011).

And the Blue Nile Association of North America reports that in the lead-up to the capture of Kurmuk, the SAF "used aerial bombardment, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships targeting the city of Kurmuk and the surrounding areas destroying water storage tanks, churches, schools and civilians’ homes leaving tens of thousands of indigenous people dead, injured and many more fled to the Ethiopian border" (statement of November 6, 2011).

The View from South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Abyei

What must these people think of those with the power, the means to assist them? A reliable source reports that the perception among residents of the two regions is increasingly that the U.S. feels no further commitment to either Blue Nile or South Kordofan—and that this extends to the US Agency for International Development. And who could blame these people for holding such a view? What has Lyman or other Obama officials said that offers them hope of international action or help of any sort?

The need is—as it has long been—for a comprehensive view of the perverse dynamic by which Khartoum is able to divide international attention, to play one crisis off another (as it did for years with Darfur and the quest for a North/South peace agreement). The threat of all-out war continues to loom closer, and certainly if Khartoum provokes South Sudan to join the fighting, what is already widespread conflict will become truly national in scope. In September the International Crisis Group recently warned that,

" … hardliners within Mr Al Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party wanted a military solution rather than negotiations. ‘This, however, is pushing Sudan’s disparate rebel movements and opposition forces together and could trigger a civil war for control of the country,’ the [ICG report found]." (September 26, 2011, "Conflict Risk Alert: Stopping the Spread of Sudan’s New Civil War")

In a speech following Khartoum’s capture of Kurmuk, al-Bashir offered his most bellicose remarks since the secession of South Sudan on July 9, warning that his regime—

" … was running out of patience in the face of ‘continued provocations’ by South Sudan, saying that Khartoum is ready to return to war …. Addressing a rally on Sunday in Al-Damazin town, the state capital of the Blue Nile State, president Al-Bashir declared that Khartoum was ready to go to war with the south should the latter fire the first shot. The Sudanese president also claimed that his country was in possession of evidences indicating that the south was preparing to launch a war against the Sudanese Army (SAF), threatening that his country would respond in kind. He further said that Khartoum had observed ‘too much patience and self-restraint’ in the face of ‘continued provocations’ by the southern army in Abyei and elsewhere."

(Sudan Tribune, November 7, 2011)

This is clearly the language of the generals, and the instancing of Abyei highlights not only the mendacity of the regime, but its determination to achieve its goals militarily: it was the Sudan Armed Forces and its Misseriya militia allies that invaded and seized Abyei on May 20, after months of clearly visible preparation that the international community chose to ignore; it is the SAF that retains control of Abyei and refuses to withdraw, despite the agreement with South Sudan that brought Ethiopians troops to the region under UN auspices; and of course it was the regime that denied Abyei the self-determination referendum promised by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The specious justification for this denial, which entailed repudiating the "final and binding" ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague), strongly suggests that there was never any intention to allow a self-determination referendum. And at the insistence of the generals, the military invasion has created a fait accompli on the ground in Abyei.

These are the "provocations" al-Bashir ignores, even as "patience and restraint" on the part of the Government of South has been extraordinary. Al-Bashir’s absurd but dangerous comments are a hallmark of what one close observer in Khartoum has called "the hour of the soldiers."

It must be emphasized, as Julie Flint has recently done in her superb account of the crisis in the Nuba Mountains, that "the risks of doing nothing are enormous," whether in Abyei, Blue Nile, South Kordofan, or Darfur. In South Kordofan the risk is—

" … most immediate for Nuba civilians, who fear a counter-insurgency campaign similar to the one seen in Darfur, especially if the SPLM-N seeks to re-ignite conflicts in Darfur and eastern Sudan. Such an intensification of the war would risk escalating into a wider north-south war, and hardening international positions against Sudan." ("Return to War in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains," US Institute of Peace, November 2, 2011)

As Flint clearly recognizes, the Khartoum regime would—

" … would prefer a partial solution based on the particularities of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. That solution would likely be supported by internationals who are still focused on north-south issues, including Abyei, and reluctant to alienate Khartoum by challenging it on the big issues of democratization and governance. This would be a mistake."

For as Flint also rightly observes (and this is largely true for Blue Nile as well):

"The rank and file of the Nuba SPLA seeks rapid progress toward transformation of politics at the center. Failing that, we can expect new emphasis on the fall-back agenda—the right of self-determination. This would not generate international backing. But the Nuba, feeling betrayed by previous international-mediated agreements, might not be in a mood to take heed. The war in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile needs to be mediated before the parties’ positions become even more polarized and any reasonable settlement slips away."

And as Flint emphasizes, there is economic leverage that can be used to modify the regime’s military and negotiating positions, and thus encourage the "new South" to participate in negotiations, despite the betrayals to date:

"With the government of Sudan facing a crippling financial crisis as a result of a 75 percent drop in oil revenues after partition in July, there is enormous international leverage over Khartoum on economic issues. The decision to risk war in Southern Kordofan by disarming the Nuba SPLA was a decision taken at the national level, against the advice of senior National Congress Party figures in the state and some army commanders. The international community must therefore put pressure on the national government to negotiate, and on the leadership of Sudan Armed Forces to seek a process of reform and rebuilding, with international partnership, to reduce risk in conflict areas." (emphasis added)

This is a tall order, and indeed is unlikely without regime change. But international pressures will surely strengthen the hand of those who are most likely to help Sudan make the extraordinarily difficult transition from a long tradition of authoritarian governance to something like democracy. The regime will never open up political space on its own; and the international community can’t create that space within Sudan. But a range of international actors can create the conditions that make regime change possible and ultimately a fundamental change in the political culture of northern Sudan.

The limited and short-sighted commitment of the U.S. and other nations, including the perverse failure to exert pressure on Khartoum, seems to ensure "an intensification of the war," and that "civil war for control of the country" is increasingly likely. Those such as Lyman who claim limited means, inadequate tools, or insufficient leverage should ask themselves whether they are prepared to accept such bloody and destructive conflict as appears in the offing—and the inevitably vast attendant humanitarian crises. This is especially true of the U.S., which gives many signs of allowing Khartoum’s provision of "counter-terrorism intelligence" to trump the extraordinarily great human needs of millions of human beings throughout Sudan.

[See my lengthy analysis of this skewed administration priority: "What Really Animates the Obama Administration’s Sudan Policy?" Sudan Tribune, October 11, 2011]

Certainly without a much greater commitment of diplomatic, economic, and potentially military resources, there will be no credibility for those who plead that "they did all they could" to stop the renewed outbreak of war in Sudan, war that now appears increasingly likely. This will be a lie, and the evidence is all too conspicuously before us now.

[A follow-up analysis will focus on the consequences for Darfur of international attention that seems, disastrously, unable to respond to more than one Sudan crisis at a time.]

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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