UPDATE as of 9am EST: Sudan Tribune reports that SPLM-IO has claimed to have recaptured Bentiu, while the government of South Sudan claims the SPLA is defending their positions in the town from rebel fighter.
In case you missed it, Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment released some new briefs last week on the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. In light of today’s reports that the city of Bentiu, capital of (formerly) oil-producing Unity State has once again changed hands, I would direct your attention to The SPLM-in-Opposition and The Conflict in Unity.
Today’s developments mark the fourth time since the outset of conflict in December 2013 that Bentiu has changed hands between the government and the rebel forces, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO). The SPLM-IO first seized the town the week the conflict broke out around 20-21 December and held it until it was retaken by the government on 10 January. Bentiu again fell to the opposition on 15 April, but was retaken by the government on 4 May. Both times the SPLM-IO has taken Bentiu, they have only been able to hold it for a maximum of 3 weeks. Why has that been the case?
For the answers to that question, I turn to the aforementioned Sudan HSBA briefs, which were on the money about the relative weakness of the rebellion in Unity, when compared with its relative strength in Upper Nile State to the east. One reason it’s been difficult for the SPLM-IO to hold Bentiu is that Unity State is exposed to President Salva Kiir’s homeland region on Bahr el Ghazal, from which the SPLA 3rd Division (Northern Bahr el Ghazal) and SPLA 5th Division (Western Bahr el Ghazal) can reinforce the SPLA in Unity. Second, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), a mainly Nuer former rebel group which had accepted the government’s amnesty prior to the outbreak of conflict and had been awaiting integration into the SPLA, sided with the government, which not only provided the government with additional manpower, but also forced the Nuer soldiers in Unity to decide between remaining with the government and the SSLA or defecting to the SPLM-IO.
Despite the signing of the cessation of hostilities in January, which was never honored and, quite frankly, isn’t worth the paper it was printed on, we will continue to see the government of South Sudan and the SPLM-IO strengthen their positions before the imminent onset of rainy season and before peace talks gain any real traction. Meanwhile, Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan estimated via Twitter that approximately 6 million people (2/3 the population of South Sudan) will be at severe risk of starvation or will have fled their homes by the end of 2014.