It used to be that the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan could be painted in black-and-white moral terms: Arab militias, allegedly backed by the government, killing and raping defenseless black civilians, causing some 70,000 deaths. This story line sparked international outrage, including US accusations of genocide and three UN Security Council resolutions asking Sudan's government to rein in the Janjaweed militias.
But these days the drama is more complicated. One reason: Rebel groups have stepped up attacks on government forces, which is hampering international relief efforts. In fact, increased fighting between the two sides, experts say, risks turning the conflict into a garden-variety African civil war - the sort in which Western powers are loath to intervene. Ironically, say analysts, this evolution may play right into the Sudanese government's hands by sapping international will to act.
What's clear is that Janjaweed attacks haven't stopped. And 2.3 million people in Darfur need aid, according to a new UN report. That's roughly twice the number just six months ago, when the world began paying attention to the conflict.
"Attacks against civilians are increasing, humanitarian space is decreasing, and the Sudanese government's strategy ... has succeeded in muddying the waters as the conflict gets more complex," says John Prendergast with the nonprofit International Crisis Group.
After being briefed at the UN this week, John Danforth, US ambassador to the UN, said in frustration: "We're getting nowhere."
Indeed, prospects for forceful global action may be fading. The Security Council is deadlocked about sanctions, and two key architects of US action - Ambassador Danforth and Secretary of State Colin Powell - will be leaving the Bush administration soon.
Then there's the fading moral clarity. Darfur rebels began their rebellion in 2003, citing economic and ethnic discrimination by the central government. It usually consisted of low-level fighting. But recently they've stepped up attacks and have even looted international aid convoys. This violence adds to the instability - and to aid groups' growing inability to help the displaced millions. "Both sides, the rebels and government ... are complicit in the disaster," said Danforth, summarizing this week's report.
But the new attacks may have been sparked by the UN's unwillingness to act in the first place, says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. The most recent Security Council resolution - passed Nov. 19 in Kenya - was entirely toothless, he explains. It sent a message to Darfur's rebels: "The world is not going to help you" and that they would to have to fend for themselves, he says.
In a further irony, rebels' new attacks may be helping the government. The attacks are creating a false impression in the wider world of a "moral equivalence" between the government and rebels, explained Eric Reeves, a researcher at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in a recent report. He says the reality is that rebels have caused some violence, but it's the government that's responsible for genocide. He further accused diplomats of using the "moral equivalence" argument to cover up their own unwillingness to send in international troops or slap sanctions on Sudan.
Meanwhile the African Union, which the outside world had been looking to as a potential savior, hasn't come through. The AU, a kind of UN of Africa, has pledged to put more than 3,000 troops in Darfur. So far just 800 are in place. In a sign of how much the US is counting on the AU, Danforth this week urged it to speed up deployment and perhaps enlarge its ultimate force size. The US Congress also passed a bill this week that pledges $200 million for Darfur, including money to help with AU logistics. It further provides $100 million as a carrot for Sudan's government to sign a final peace deal in its other war, a north-south conflict. Such a deal could help smooth the way for peace in Darfur, in the country's west. The government promised to conclude those talks by the end of 2003, but few observers expect the deal to be struck that soon.
Meanwhile, negotiations between Sudan's government and the two Darfur rebel groups are slated to resume in Nigeria Friday, although few observers hold out hope of serious progress.
Also, in a sign that humanitarian groups see Darfur deteriorating over the coming year, the International Committee for the Red Cross boosted its 2005 budget for Africa by 27 percent, to about $338 million. One third would be used in Sudan, which is the ICRC's biggest operation. By contrast, it actually decreased next year's proposed budget for Iraq by 30 percent.
One thing that could spark renewed international resolve is the coming report by the UN Commission of Inquiry about whether genocide has occurred in Darfur. It's expected early in 2005.
• Material from the wire services was used in this report.