Fearing a new surge of violence in Sudan, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts played diplomat once again this week by flying out to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for the second time in just two weeks.
Senator Kerry brought with him a message from President Obama: If President Omar al-Bashir lets Sudan’s oil-rich southern region secede peacefully in an upcoming referendum in January, the US will remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror as early as the middle of next year. The State Department designation is shared by only 3 other countries: Cuba, Iran, and Syria.
But will the offer work?
Semiautonomous South Sudan heads to the polls in Jan. 9 for a referendum on secession, and independence mania here is in full swing. A digital clock counting down to the date has been erected in main roundabout of the capital, Juba. The edifice shows a picture of two fists breaking out of shackles.
Yet southerners – and the international community – remain unconvinced Bashir is ready to let the south go, despite the fact he agreed to the plebiscite under a 2005 US-brokered peace deal. South Sudan is home to 80 percent of the nation’s oil production, vast tracts of arable land, and most of Sudan’s above-ground water.
The US is hoping to use its diplomatic weight to try to persuade Sudan to abide by its own rules. But Obama’s options are limited. Short of military action, the US has little to threaten Sudan with, so heavily was the nation put under sanctions during Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s presidencies.
So instead of “sticks,” the Obama administration is trying a different track: incentives, or “carrots.” Kerry’s new proposal sweetens a previous offer from the Obama administration by speeding up the timeframe the administration can expect the terror label to be lifted, and by making it independent of developments in Darfur, where conflict continues.
Publicly, Bashir’s National Congress Party claims it is fully committed to implementing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and will accept the result of the southern referendum, so it is difficult to judge how the offer has been received.
“This proposal from [Kerry] does not matter,” NCP communication officer Rabi Abdel-Atti told the Monitor. “The two sides are already engaged in continuous discussions, and the negotiations are proceeding. We don’t understand what outside proposals have to do with anything.”
Will it strengthen pragmatists?
The Obama administration’s hope is that this offer will strengthen pragmatists around Bashir who believe the regime can not afford another war and should instead strike a deal with a seceding Southern Sudan to share oil revenues.
The US offer did, though, leave much off the table. US officials have so far made clear to the regime that full US sanctions will not be lifted as long as the ongoing conflict in Darfur remains unresolved.
Because of this, the new proposal offers little economic benefit to Khartoum, especially in relation to the vast southern resources it is being pressured to surrender, according to Bayless Parsley, an Africa analyst for Austin-based global intelligence company STRATFOR.
“In the Sudanese government's eyes, what Kerry brought to Khartoum asks far too much for far too little in return,” says Mr. Parsley.
Bashir has plenty of internal disincentives toward allowing the peace deal to crumble, including a de-moralized army, rising discontent in other regions of Sudan, and the need to keep oil revenues safely pumping.
Those pushing for an increased US role in trying to prevent more conflict here say that while America’s involvement might not make all the difference, the extra muscle certainly cannot hurt.