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Sudan oil-war spiral could split world powers

Published time: April 19, 2012 11:51
Edited time: April 19, 2012 18:26

A SPLA (South Sudan People's Liberation Army) soldier sits next to a machine gun on a vehicle outside a SAF compound in Heglig, on April 17, 2012 (AFP Photo / Adriane O'Hanesian)

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Sudan's president has threatened to topple the government to his south to “liberate” the South Sudanese. As a bloody battle over a disputed oil field heads towards full-scale war, it threatens to provoke conflict between the US and Russia-China.

Wednesday, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir accused authorities in the Southern capital, Juba, of trying to topple his government and vowed to retaliate.

“This situation makes it imperative for Sudan to confront the challenge of the State of South Sudan to topple the government in Khartoum by working to liberate the Southern nationals,” al-Bashir said.

South Sudan broke away from its northern neighbor last July after decades of on-off civil war. But the two never agreed on how to share the oil wealth found in the region between the countries, and the border was never fully demarcated.

The fighting is taking place along the shared border around the oil town of Heglig, which South Sudanese troops captured last week.

The northern state’s parliament was quick to brand its southern neighbor an “enemy” and called for the swift recapture of the region.

The Heglig field is vital to Sudan’s economy as it accounted for half the 115,000 barrels per day output that remained in its control when South Sudan seceded in July and Khartoum lost 75 per cent of the country’s oil production.

In its turn, the landlocked South lost its 350,000 barrels per day output after failing to agree on how much it should pay to export via Sudan’s pipelines, a Red Sea port and other facilities.

Fighting over oil transit payments and disputed territory has already withered the combined crude output of both countries, which are highly dependent on oil. Any protracted fighting would severely damage their economies and may disrupt the surrounding region.

Fueling an arms race

The international community is calling to stop the bloodshed, but the two sides seem determined to resolve the issue by force.

Meanwhile, their “border war” threatens to provoke a conflict among the permanent members of UN Security Council. South Sudan is an ally of the US, while Khartoum has close ties with Russia and China.

“If the conflict escalates, we are likely to see a stalemate at the UNSC with China and Russia opposing any proposals that may be politically costly to Sudan,” political author and columnist Reason Wafawarova told RT. “The US, with its allies France and the UK, is likely to push for proposals politically favorable to South Sudan, while opposing any proposals they may see as benefiting Sudan.”

Wafawarova says Sudan is seen as militarily superior to its southern neighbor. The US is unlikely to allow Juba’s capitulation, increasing its military support.

Some reports allege that the West is already providing arms to South Sudan through its Middle Eastern partners. For instance, Sudan’s Al-Intibaha newspaper writes that Israel might be supplying weapons to Juba.

South talking tough too

Another indicator that Juba has some serious allies in the West is the tough stance of South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir.

When the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called him and asked to stop the attack on Heglig, he received a surprisingly defiant answer: “I am not a slave to fulfill your orders!”

Experts say the behavior of President Kiir may be explained by the fact that he was confident of the unshakable support of the United States. Previously the US helped the southerners in their fight against the “dictatorial regime in Khartoum.”

The reason, Wafawarova says, is that it is no secret the United States militarily supported South Sudan in its campaign for secession from the North.

The US reportedly provided $100 million-a-year in military assistance to the SPLA. The information about the nature of this assistance has been scarce, but in December 2009 WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable that refers to a US “training program for the SPLA, including combat arms soldier training.”

On the other side are Russia and China, who have traditionally supported close ties with Khartoum, selling weapons to Sudan right up to the 2005 UN arms embargo on the Sudanese government because of the war in Darfur.

However, in 2008 a BBC news report claimed to have found evidence of China-Sudan trade in violation of the embargo.

Currently, China is Sudan’s largest trading partner, importing oil and exporting low-cost goods.

Wafawarova believes that the permanent USNC council members’ standoff in the region may lead to an arms race between the two Sudans. US will be “expanding the military strength of South Sudan, while China and Russia will keep arming Khartoum,” he said.

There are also persistent rumors that the US plans to set up a military base in South Sudan – the largest in Africa.

“The US has failed to set up its AFRICOM base in Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya and other proposed countries in the past,” says Wafawarova. “It would not be surprising if the US is trying to capitalize on the vulnerability of South Sudan in its efforts to establish the AFRICOM base somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.”

However, Wafawarova stressed that any efforts to set up AFRICOM in South Sudan are likely to face stiff opposition from Russia and China, as well as from the African Union and most African countries at individual levels.

Shifting the blame

While all involved in the conflict are pursuing their own interests, there always has to be someone to blame. It seems that Russia and China might again become the punching bag of the West for this purpose.

One of the indicators that that this might be the case is Amnesty International’s shift of attitude towards the parties involved. In July 2011, the organization accused China, Russia, and the USA of fueling conflict in the region.

The organization condemned the countries “for providing weapons or military training to the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the official army of South Sudan.”

However, in February 2012, only China and Russia were accused of supplying arms to the volatile region, with no traces of US involvement whatsoever.

“China, Russia, and Belarus continue to supply weapons and munitions to Sudan despite compelling evidence that the arms will be used against civilians in Darfur,” the new Amnesty International statement reads.

Tuesday, Security Council members promised to discuss the crisis urgently, including the possibility of sanctions.

“Calls from the UNSC for a ceasefire are hypocritical and of no strength for as long as China, the US and Russia are pursuing their own political and economic interests in Sudan,” believes Reason Wafawarova. “And the fact that Heglig is, in reality, a conflict over oil makes the prospect of an amicable solution bleak.”

­Elena Ostroumova, RT