Darfur: total strategic meltdown

The Cable reports tensions – and maybe personnel changes – in Washington:

President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, could be on his way to a new job in Kenya as the White House prepares a new approach to Sudan ahead of a January referendum that analysts fear could split the country into two separate nations — or even spark a new civil war.

The news comes in the wake of a contentious principals-level meeting at the White House last week, in which Gration clashed openly with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice over the direction of Sudan policy. At the meeting, Rice was said to be “furious” when Gration proposed a plan that makes the January referendum a priority, deemphasizes the ongoing crisis in Darfur, and is devoid of any additional pressures on the government in Khartoum.

According to multiple sources briefed on the meeting, Gration’s plan was endorsed by almost all the other participants, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and will now go the president for his approval.

As the Cable’s Josh Rogin notes, Gration was basically restating his existing strategy of cooperation with Khartoum – and this was not the first time Susan Rice had objected.  Does his softly-softly approach work? Check out the current Economist:

Late last month fighting broke out in Kalma, a vast camp for internally displaced people near the town of Nyala in south Darfur. It is home to more than 100,000 angry residents, many of them previously victims of the deadly government-supported militias known as the janjaweed. The recent violence flared between supporters of two different rebel groups, a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), led by Abdul Wahid al-Nur, and the Liberty and Justice Movement (LJM). The SLA is boycotting the current round of Darfur peace talks being chaired by the Qataris in their capital, Doha, while LJM, a coalition of several minor rebel movements, is the only rebel group attending the talks with representatives from the Sudanese government.

Several people were killed in the clashes, a direct result of the SLA’s anger at the rival group’s participation in the negotiations. Five male tribal leaders and a woman, all believed to be members of the SLA, sought protection from UNAMID [the UN Darfur peacekeeping force]. Sudan’s government in Khartoum is insisting that they be turned over to the police, as it believes they were responsible for the violence in the camp. President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, has personally asked for the men to be handed over.

UNAMID is in a bind. If the peacekeepers hand them over, their avowed mission to protect civilians could be fatally compromised. There is little chance of a fair trial for the six, and the ruthless Sudanese authorities may well torture them. But if the peacekeepers say no to Mr Bashir, he could make life very tough for them. “I tell my brothers the governors of Darfur that anyone who exceeds these boundaries or their mandate can be expelled the same day,” he says.

Could Sudan really boot the UN out? Absolutely, says Darfur expert Eric Reeves:

The threat by al-Bashir to expel UNAMID is real, and there is a good deal of evidence that we’ve been moving toward this moment of confrontation for many months. As a well-informed UN official told me in June, it’s a question of when, not if, UNAMID is either expelled or confronted with intolerable operating conditions.  UNAMID has been ever more aggressively denied the right to travel where it wishes . . . Tactical (combat) helicopters that arrived in February have not been allowed to carry out missions, or to fly with normal armaments.

Scott Gration’s strategy isn’t working – and that’s been obvious for a while. It’s tempting to argue that we have to sideline Darfur to maximize the chances for a peaceful outcome to next year’s referendum in South Sudan.  But if the UN either caves in to the Sudanese in Darfur or gets chucked out, the signal to the various southern Sudanese factions will be clear: the government of Khartoum is out of control and can play outsiders for fools.  So why put any trust in peaceful solutions?

It’s essential that the U.S. finds ways to use its leverage over Sudan more effectively.  That won’t be easy.  But if Scott Gration is moving on, it will at least be a bit easier.