The Middle East Channel

Crafting Peace in South Sudan

South Sudan, the world's newest country, has come perilously close to civil war. More than 1,000 people have been killed in interethnic clashes and political violence in South Sudan since mid-December. The toll includes United Nations peacekeepers who had been in the country to help it rebuild from its last war. More than 100,000 displaced people have sought refuge in U.N. compounds. Embassies have evacuated staff. U.S. helicopters and soldiers came under fire during a failed attempt to rescue U.S. citizens -- an image that may cast some minds back to Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. And despite talk of a cease-fire, young men loyal to armed factions continue to fight each other around the country.

The violence in South Sudan is neither new nor unexpected given the young country's turbulent past. The current situation grew out of a legacy of rule by two outside masters -- first the British during the first half of the 20th century, then the northern Sudanese until South Sudan's 2011 independence. 

British colonialism in Sudan (1898 to 1956) helped to give rise to inequality between northern and southern Sudan. The British saw educated northern Muslims as their heirs, and so they trained their successors in the capital of Khartoum in the functions of colonial government. The British largely ignored southern Sudan, leaving it to fester under European Christian missionaries seeking to "civilize" the local population.

After Sudan's 1956 colonial independence, successive Khartoum-based governments -- democratic and otherwise -- ignored or downplayed southern Sudanese interests, which fueled mutinies by southern military officers and, ultimately, catastrophic civil wars. The most recent civil war lasted a generation (1983 to 2005) and its effects will last many more. Nearly a quarter of the population was either killed or displaced, ultimately leading to South Sudan's 2011 vote for secession from Sudan. South Sudan's birth out of a war zone left it dependent for survival on a risky combination of natural resources (oil, which continues to spark conflict along the border with Sudan) and donor funding.

Since South Sudan's independence, education, medical care, and employment have been in short supply. However, weapons and young men who have few skills beyond fighting are abundant. The recent eruption of violence among groups of these armed men recalls the same pressures that led to Sudan's civil wars, including inadequate representation of minority interests in government.

South Sudanese I met even prior to the country's independence shared privately the concern that the new government, alongside U.N. agencies and donor countries supporting it, seemed to be favoring certain political and ethnic groups. A perception has grown among minorities that a new master -- under President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group -- is replacing northern Sudanese rule. Moreover, South Sudan's ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity, less salient during the battle against a common enemy in the north, has sharpened into ethnic divisiveness and a call to arms since independence.

Given South Sudan's wretched past and its dysfunctional present, what can aid groups and the country's allies do to help curtail the violence and craft a lasting peace in South Sudan?

First, focus on the church. Missionaries long ago were part of the problem, but today they may be part of the solution. While the number of Christians in South Sudan is unclear, the 2011 secession came about after intense lobbying by church leaders unwilling to live under Islamic law. During Sudan's civil war, churches fought for human rights by providing assembly spaces in times of curfew, by discreetly disseminating to foreign audiences information about human rights abuses and slavery, and by dissenting from laws that interfered with the religious mission of social justice. Church congregations, along with the umbrella organization South Sudan Council of Churches, represent the country's range of ethnic and linguistic groupings. Put simply, the church may be the most trusted name in South Sudan.

Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, have issued a joint statement on behalf of the Catholic and Anglican churches, widely acknowledged as South Sudan's two largest faith communities. Bringing these religious leaders to the region will demonstrate their commitment to peace and stability and affirm statements they have already made to support the world's poorest people.

Second, focus on civic leaders, particularly women's rights activists. These leaders were branded as outlaws by Sudan's government during the war. They quickly became low-ranking office workers at the United Nations or aid groups that arrived to help the country rebuild. Some of them have been pacified by air-conditioned offices and have spent more time building Excel spreadsheets on laptops than building peace on the ground between rival factions. Activists at heart, however, they are South Sudan's most likely pioneers in the country's first collective "spring" against violence.

Third, focus on former combatants. As early as 2007 in Juba, South Sudan's capital, I witnessed young men celebrating their looming freedom with a dangerous combination of guns and alcohol, both widely available for the first time (for decades South Sudan had been under Sudanese law forbidding alcohol consumption). A lack of meaningful employment and inadequate social services for disaffected warriors can lead them back into the battlefield -- a terrible lesson South Sudan learned since December. Aid groups and human rights advocates are well positioned to intensify their efforts focused on this struggling demographic.

Looking ahead to January 9, the third anniversary of South Sudan's sweeping secession vote, and to the remaining months of the new year, a global commitment to return this young country to its path of peace will involve bringing together these three unlikely grassroots allies: church officials, civic activists, and former combatants.

Mark Fathi Massoud is a Sudanese-American author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His book, Law's Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan (Cambridge University Press, 2013) is based on fieldwork in Sudan and South Sudan.

SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Car Bombing in Southern Beirut Kills Five People

A car bomb in southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, killed at least five people Thursday and wounded an estimated 77 others. The blast was the latest in a series of deadly attacks to hit Lebanon, coming less than a week after a car bomb killed eight people, including former Finance Minister Mohamad B. Chatah. Thursday's attack appears to have been carried out by a suicide bomber, and Lebanese authorities are investigating a 19-year-old man whose identification was left at the scene. Some analysts and Lebanese leaders, directly and indirectly, blamed Hezbollah for the violence because of its military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's deputy Sheikh Naim Qassem called for the "quick formation of a national unity cabinet" in Lebanon, which has had a caretaker government since the prime minister resigned in March. Clashes broke out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli following the bombing between residents of the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods fueled by tensions over Syria.


Norwegian and Danish ships are expected to set sail again from Cyprus to collect a portion of Syria's chemical arsenal. The original attempt failed mainly due to poor weather conditions, security concerns, and bureaucratic issues. The removal of most of Syria's chemical weapons is part of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia aimed at eliminating the Syrian regime's stockpile by mid-2014. The chemicals are intended to be neutralized aboard the U.S. ship Cape Ray, which has been readied for the mission but currently remains in port in Virginia. Meanwhile, Israeli national security analyst Ron Bergman has claimed Hezbollah has been moving long-range missiles from Syria to Lebanon. The missiles include Scud D missiles, which have the range to hit deep into Israel. Bergman said that despite Israel's undeclared campaign of airstrikes in Syria aimed at halting the missile deliveries, Hezbollah has disassembled and transported to Lebanon most of the long-range surface-to-surface missiles provided by Iran and Syria. Additionally, U.S. officials believe Hezbollah is smuggling Russian anti-ship guided missile systems into Lebanon from Syria.


  • Iraqi security forces are targeting al Qaeda linked militants who maintain control over portions of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province. 
  • The hospital treating Ariel Sharon said, "there is a slow and gradual deterioration" in the former Israeli prime minister's condition.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinian Authority of incitement upon meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is pushing for a framework for a peace agreement.
  • Libyan military troops reportedly detained two U.S. basketball players in the eastern city of Benghazi Thursday, however it is not clear why they are being held.
  • Tunisia's national assembly began voting on a new constitution Friday, which must be adopted by January 14. 

Arguments and Analysis

'How al-Qaeda Changed the Syrian War' (Sarah Birke, New York Review of Books)

"In fact, while ISIS and Nusra share many aims, and both are well funded and trained, there are significant differences between the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra stresses the fight against Assad, while ISIS tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory. Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. And while Nusra, despite its large contingent of foreign fighters, is seen as a home-grown problem, Syrians at the border frequently described Da'ash as foreign 'occupiers' in their country.

In its active online media presence ISIS, like some other groups, portrays itself as a social movement with an armed wing rather than a mere rebel group. 'They are there for a political reason: to lay the groundwork for a caliphate,' Charles Lister, an analyst of Syria's rebels, told me. In recent weeks ISIS's attacks in Iraq have increased, making it the bloodiest period since 2008. Much of its activity has focused on the western provinces adjacent to eastern Syria, a stronghold for the group.

ISIS's vision is phenomenally popular with hardline jihadists and their supporters -- more so than Jabhat al-Nusra's -- which helps explain why the conflict has managed to attract so many foreign fighters. Fundraising campaigns on Twitter by such figures as the Kuwaiti Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajmi indicate that significant money is coming to ISIS from private donors in the Gulf. And on every trip I have made to the Turkish towns along the border with Syria in the last two years, I have come across foreign fighters heading to fight. Many of them in recent months are coming to join ISIS."

'The Jewish State in Question' (Bernard Avishai, New Yorker)

"For the phrase 'Jewish state' also has a third meaning, with legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); laws that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion's rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago; laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy.

This is not the place to go into all of them. Suffice it to say that this Jewish state allocates public land (over ninety per cent of it) almost exclusively to certified Jews, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the well-being of certified Jews, lacks civil marriage and appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, founded an Orthodox educational system to produce certified Jews (more than half of Jewish first-graders in Jerusalem attend these), assumes custodianship of a sacred capital for the world's certified Jews -- indeed, this Jewish state presumes to certify Jews in the first place. We are not now talking about a state that recognizes the Passover holiday or provides refuge for victims of anti-Semitic persecution (as the U.S. and many other Western democracies do, by the way). In Israel, having J-positive blood is a serious material advantage.

Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin, and thus are materially, legally disadvantaged by birth: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this state. But then, it is anathema also to Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts, irrespective of how Palestinians feel about it."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber