Darfur diplomacy: sidelined by Somalia?
The defeat of Islamists in Somalia may lessen the pressure on the Sudanese president to accept a large UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.
Just as a flurry of diplomatic activity raised hopes of imminent action on an expanded peacekeeping force for Darfur, a new crisis in the Horn of Africa threatens to divert international attention.Skip to next paragraph
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Ethiopia's recent incursion into Somalia may have returned a stable government to the conflict-torn country for the first time in more than 15 years. But by routing Islamist rebels, Ethiopia's action also holds geopolitical implications for the war on terror. And in the midst of these developments, the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir could find the pressure off for accepting a robust United Nations-mandated security force for Darfur, experts say.
After months of stalling, Mr. Bashir last week announced his readiness to accept an expanded international security presence in Darfur, the vast southern region where more than 200,000 people have died and millions more have been displaced. The fighting pits the region's black Christian population against forces aligned with the majority Arab and Muslim government.
Sudan says it will allow the first of more than 175 UN advisers and peacekeeping staff officers to deploy in Darfur within days. UN diplomats hoped this would be the foot in the door for a much larger peacekeeping force to fortify the 7,000 African Union security soldiers already there.
But Sudanese officials continue to offer conflicting statements on the size and makeup of any force, although some say it is no longer a question of the 20,000-strong force of blue helmets the Security Council approved for Darfur in August. The ambiguity and backtracking by the Sudanese government is leading some observers to speculate that Bashir may be finding Somalia's crisis a convenient cover for further procrastination.
"The international interest in Darfur is not going away. But at a broader level, Bashir must realize that there's only so much time in a day and so much energy that diplomats can put into one region," says Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "If a roiling crisis in the Horn of Africa puts Darfur and Sudan into the back pages and becomes a major preoccupation in the Security Council for a couple of months, it may be just what Bashir needs to drag things out."
After Somalia's provisional government retook the capital of Mogadishu from the rebels of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) last week, diplomats have been trying to arrange an African peacekeeping force for the country. The diplomats want peacekeepers to replace forces from Ethiopia, a majority Christian country held in disregard by Muslim Somalians. So far, a few African countries appear to have offered forces.
Still, with overtones of the US war on terror in both Somalia and Sudan, some observers worry that US action in the globally strategic region will be driven even more by security interests than by humanitarian concerns.