The five-year-old civil war in South Sudan is an unparalleled humanitarian and security crisis, causing the largest exodus of refugees on the African continent since the Rwandan genocide and leaving over a third of the population displaced and two-thirds severely food insecure. Beyond the human toll on South Sudan’s long-suffering citizens, the country’s unraveling underscores the shifting political and security fault lines in the Horn of Africa. This Special Report surveys the region’s various interstate hostilities and intrastate conflicts and suggests ways the United States can reassert its influence to begin contributing meaningfully to the resolution of South Sudan’s civil war and conflicts in the greater Red Sea region.

Summary

  • The regional political and security dynamics that surround South Sudan’s ongoing civil war and its dissolution as a state have underscored the shifting political and security fault lines in the Horn of Africa, their overlooked impact on US interests, and their consequences for US efforts to address armed conflict in the broader Red Sea region.
  • The competition for influence among the states of the Horn of Africa; the contest over the use of the Nile among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia; and the implications for the Horn of Africa of the rift between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt on the one hand and Qatar and Turkey on the other all exacerbate the armed conflicts afflicting the region, including South Sudan’s.
  • As the United States’ role as the dominant external actor in the Horn of Africa is increasingly challenged, the jostling for influence among other states has led to the militarization of the Red Sea region and has further fractured an already fragmented political and security landscape.
  • Despite the nascent but historic rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending South Sudan’s civil war and mitigating the region’s other interstate hostilities and intrastate conflicts will require the United States to break out of the geographic and thematic silos that currently constrain its strategic vision and action, to recognize how its influence is best applied at the regional level, and to reinvigorate its diplomatic efforts in the region.

About the Report

This report examines how the political and security dynamics surrounding South Sudan’s civil war underscore the shifting political and security fault lines in the Horn of Africa, their impact on US interests, and their consequences for US efforts to address armed conflict in the broader Red Sea region. This report, supported by the Middle East and Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace, is part of the Institute’s ongoing effort to understand and explain the conflict trends in the region.

About the Author

Payton Knopf is an advisor to the Africa program at USIP. He is a former US diplomat who, in addition to overseas assignments in the Middle East and East Africa, served as an advisor to US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell and several presidential envoys for Sudan and South Sudan, as well as a spokesman for then US ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice. Knopf was an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and, from 2015 to 2017, the coordinator of the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan.

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