What might South Sudan’s Invasion of Heglig Indicate about its Negotiation Tactics?

It’s been a few days since South Sudan withdrew its troops from Heglig…or was expelled from the area, depending on which side you favor in the ongoing tit-for-tat between Sudan and South Sudan. Yet, there have been no signs of either country backing away from the precipice of war. In a nutshell, the causes of this round of conflict are the disagreement over oil transit fees (plus South Sudan’s subsequent shutdown of oil production and the breakdown of African Union-sponsored negotiations) and the yet-to-be-demarcated North-South border, which has several disputed areas.

I decided, a few weeks after the fact, to try and think through what South Sudan’s invasion and brief occupation of Heglig might tell us about South Sudan’s evolving negotiation tactics. Here’s what I came up with:

  • South Sudan intended the incursion to demonstrate that it was capable of disrupting a vital part of Sudan’s economy, and to establish parity with Sudan at the negotiating table. The logic to this point is that Juba has demonstrated that it can respond to Khartoum’s intransigence or outright aggression with military action, and should be considered a serious adversary in any potential conflict or future negotiations.
  • In spite of statements to the contrary, I don’t think South Sudan intended to hold Heglig. Considering the massive Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) presence in South Kordofan to fight the Southern People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLM-N), it would not have been rational for the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to believe that it could hold Heglig and defend it against massive SAF retaliation. Furthermore, the rainy season is imminent, which would have made sending reinforcements and resupplying troops in a region with limited transportation infrastructure very challenging – especially for a military that already has limited ground mobility. Therefore, having made the point that it could invade Heglig, the SPLA withdrew after 10 days in order to avoid a full-scale war and/or a humiliating expulsion from Heglig.
  • In spite of possibly violating international law during its Heglig incursion, Juba has tried to remain the “good guy” as the situation along the border deteriorates. South Sudan couched its invasion of Heglig in terms of self-defense, claiming that it invaded Heglig because it was being used as a staging ground for attacks on Unity state. Moreover, it disputed Sudan’s interpretation of the 2009 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that Heglig was not part of Abyei, but was part of South Kordofan state (Sudan) and not part of Unity state (in future South Sudan). (See the PCA’s award map of Abyei.) After rejecting appeals by the international community to withdraw from Heglig, South Sudan agreed to withdraw its forces if the United Nations would deploy a neutral international force to ensure that the area would not be used to launch attacks on South Sudan. That said, although referring the case to the UN allows Juba to remain in the right, it would be illogical for Juba to expect that such a force would be particularly effective, considering the inability, to date, of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) to secure the withdrawal of SAF troops from the disputed area of Abyei.
  • South Sudan’s status as a darling of the international community may be catalyzing its brinkmanship with Sudan. As the victim of “northern aggression” for over half a century, and a product of a lengthy and internationally mediated peace process, South Sudan has many supporters in the international community – particularly in the West. Many countries and international organizations hope for the best for the new country, and may be biased in their efforts to persuade Sudan and South Sudan to avoid war. In both rhetoric and action, both Sudans are responsible for contributing to the escalation of violence. If there is still a chance to mediate between the two Sudans, then both sides need to be held equally accountable for the actions they take that could derail any cessation of hostilities.

It’s entirely possible that South Sudan’s actions vis-à-vis Sudan are meant to increase their leverage if and when negotiations resume. However, the situation has continued to spiral out of control as both sides continue to try and outmaneuver the other. I would argue that South Sudan’s invasion of Heglig changed the nature of a potential conflict between Sudan and South Sudan from one in which they could continue to wage war through proxies to one in which both sides could be in a state of all-out war. Let’s hope we can stick with low-intensity conflict – or better yet, no conflict at all.

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