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Violence once again has flared up between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces in an oil-rich region on their disputed border. Jon Temin, director of USIP's Sudan programs, discusses what's behind the renewed fighting and what is at stake for the region and international community.

Updated April 17, 2012

Violence once again has flared up between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces in an oil-rich region on their disputed border. Jon Temin, director of USIP's Sudan programs, discusses what's behind the renewed fighting and what is at stake for the region and international community. 

Are Sudan and South Sudan teetering on the brink of war?

The two countries are closer to war now than at any point since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011.  In some ways they are already fighting a war along key parts of the shared border, with clashes on either side.  Much of the fighting is in remote areas, so it is difficult to get verified, independent information.  Instability along the border is nothing new, but the current level of hostilities represents a dangerous escalation. 

The key variable to watch now is whether the fighting expands beyond the border areas deeper into either country’s territory (it would be easier for Sudan to attack beyond the border areas due to their superior air power).  An expanded and prolonged war would be disastrous for both countries, especially economically, as oil revenues would stop flowing to both capitals.  Such a war is often envisioned as a "war of attrition" – the problem is that both sides may think they can outlast the other.

What's behind the increased hostilities?

This is the latest in a series of escalating confrontations between Sudan and South Sudan in recent weeks, and the most serious of them so far.  The area that South Sudan is said to now occupy, called Heglig, is a major oil-producing area.  While Heglig is generally regarded as being in Sudan, South Sudan disputes that claim.  South Sudan says their military action was in response to provocations (especially bombings) by Sudan, though the State Department has characterized South Sudan's response as “beyond self defense.”

These moves are closely related to negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan on a range of lingering issues related to the secession of South Sudan, most notably oil sector management.   Both Sudan and South Sudan are maneuvering for advantages in those negotiations, and each sees progress on the battlefield as advantageous at the negotiating table.  Unfortunately the latest hostilities seem to be an obstacle to resuming those negotiations soon, though it is likely that they will resume at some point – few negotiations in Sudan ever really end, and even agreements reached are constantly renegotiated when implemented.

What is at stake?

Of course access to key oil reserves and infrastructure is front and center.  Each country is highly dependent on oil for its revenue, and the recent voluntary shutdown in oil production by South Sudan has hurt both economies (though more so South Sudan).  Also at stake are international reputations – Sudan is already viewed as a pariah in some quarters, but if South Sudan is perceived to be overly aggressive, their status – and their standing as the “good guys” relative to Sudan – could suffer.  And, caught in the middle are countless civilians, as some areas near the Sudan-South Sudan border are heavily populated.

How is the international community trying to alleviate tensions?

The African Union continues to take a lead role in trying to defuse Sudan's seemingly endless crises.  The African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, is at the forefront of these efforts.  The AUHIP has been facilitating the prolonged negotiations on secession-related issues, but there has been little progress of late, leading to increased frustration on all sides. 

The U.S. has been a strong supporter of the AUHIP's efforts – that coordination is critical, since the AUHIP, on its own, doesn't have much leverage to bring to the negotiations.  South Sudan has grown increasingly disillusioned with the AUHIP's efforts, though, and recently suggested that the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African regional body that mediated the negotiations which led to Sudan's 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, should get more directly involved.  This could be helpful, but also risks complicating mediation efforts.  There are also often suggestions that China can play a more robust role in efforts to forge agreements between Sudan and South Sudan given China's substantial involvement in the oil industry and deep pockets.  But there is little in China's diplomatic history to suggest that they are comfortable playing that role.

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