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South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx
Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx
Report 217 / Africa

South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name

Refocusing international engagement as well as the peace negotiations is essential to stop South Sudan’s raging civil war from claiming ever more lives.

Executive Summary

On 15 December 2013 the world’s newest state descended into civil war. Continuing fighting has displaced more than 1,000,000 and killed over 10,000 while a humanitarian crisis threatens many more. Both South Sudanese and the international community were ill-prepared to prevent or halt the conflict: the nation’s closest allies did little to mediate leadership divisions within the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM and its army (SPLA) quickly split along divisions largely unaddressed from the independence war, resulting in the formation of the SPLA in Opposition. Were it not for the intervention of Uganda and allied rebel and militia groups, the SPLA would likely not have been able to hold Juba or recapture lost territory. The war risks tearing the country further apart and is pulling in regional states. Resolving the conflict requires not a quick fix but sustained domestic and international commitment. Governance, including SPLM and SPLA reform and communal relations, must be on the table. Religious and community leaders, civil society and women are critical to this process and must not be excluded.

Although the dispute within the SPLM that led to the conflict was primarily political, ethnic targeting, communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals. Dinka elements of the Presidential Guard and other security organs engaged in systematic violence against Nuer in Juba in the early days. Armed actors, including the Nuer White Army, responded by targeting Dinka and other civilians in more than a dozen locations. Other communities are being drawn into the conflict and there is an increasing possibility of more significant foreign intervention.

The regional organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), responded quickly. Three envoys, Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin (Ethiopia), General Lazarus Sumbeiywo (Kenya) and General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dhabi (Sudan) shuttled between Juba, Addis Ababa, where peace talks have been held, and opposition-controlled territory and, after weeks of pressure and negotiation, obtained a cessation of hostilities. However, this was violated almost immediately, and fighting continues, as a monitoring and verification mission struggles to establish itself on the ground.

Neighbouring Uganda (also an IGAD member), as well as forces associated with Sudanese armed opposition groups, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), intervened early in support of the South Sudanese government. That in turn may yet trigger Sudan government support to the SPLA in Opposition. Announced plans for an IGAD-led force, about which there are critical mandate, composition and funding questions, raises the prospect of even greater regional involvement in the civil war.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is hosting almost 70,000 civilians fleeing ethnic reprisals, but its badly outgunned peacekeepers are no match for the thousands of heavily armed forces and militias. It has already come under attack, including a fatal one in Jonglei, while protecting civilians. In at least five locations, South Sudanese seeking protection have been targeted and killed by armed actors in or around UNMISS bases. Increasingly hostile rhetoric from government officials and some opposition commanders and limitations on its freedom of movement are additional challenges. The reprioritisation of its mandated tasks has essentially divided the country in two for the beleaguered UNMISS: it remains impartial in one part, while supporting the government in another. This decision will do little to clarify its role for South Sudanese and should be reviewed before the mandate is renewed.

As peace talks stall, the civil war rages on. To prevent further catastrophe, the country’s leaders and its international partners need to consider a radical restructuring of the state. Propping up the government in Juba and polishing its legitimacy with a dose of political dialogue and a dash of power sharing will not end the conflict. New constituencies have to be admitted to a national dialogue and their perspectives respected, including armed groups and disaffected communities that go beyond the contending forces within the SPLM/A, as well as women and civil society more generally. These constituencies are critical to rebuilding the SPLM, increasing democratic space within and beyond the party, drafting a national constitution and preparing for credible national elections. If these processes are to be viable, they will not be able to proceed according to the pre-war timeline. Political commitments must match the new realities. The country needs fundamental reworking of the governance agreement between and within elites and communities if a negotiated settlement is to lead to a sustainable peace.

Crowds of Syrian refugees wait to enter Lebanon at a border point in eastern Bekaa. 22 January 2013. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx

Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, more refugees per capita than anywhere in the world. International support is needed to keep this fragile country from reaching the breaking point.

Lebanon, a small country whose population hovered around four million, has gained an astounding million and a half more residents in under four years, mostly refugees from neighbouring Syria. By contrast, the U.S. government proudly announced that it reached its target this year of granting asylum to 10,000 Syrians – to be settled in a population of more than 320 million – in the face of opposition from citizens worried about a flood of refugees and migrants. 

Any serious attempt to deal with the global refugee crisis should acknowledge these startling disparities. The UN and U.S. are hosting back-to-back summit meetings on the refugee emergency on 19-20 September in New York, but advocates are pessimistic that the discussions will result in more equitable resettlement among the world's richest countries or adequate support to front-line states.
To frame an international response commensurate with the Syrian catastrophe, it is vital to understand what is happening in a front-line state like Lebanon. As the Syrian war escalated, Syrians began fleeing primarily to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon, in particular, received the swiftest and largest refugee influx in its history. Around one million are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while an additional 500,000 unregistered refugees, migrant workers and wealthier Syrians have melted into the local population. 

Such a sudden influx would pose a big challenge to any country, but Lebanon is without an effective government or significant resources, and has historically been unstable. Its resilience so far in the face of this shockwave is therefore remarkable. Yet the inflow has exposed a series of worrying fault lines. 

The state’s endemic dysfunction is glaring: Syrian refugees arrived in a country sunk in a deep malaise. In recent years, Lebanese politicians have been unable to agree on electing a president or holding parliamentary elections, or even on a policy to collect garbage from city streets, whose pungent smell wafted through the capital last year. In view of such a dismal state of affairs, seeing the government implement a policy to address the refugee crisis would have been nothing less than a miracle. 

Beirut’s default response of inaction has had serious consequences. In the absence of official camps established specifically for refugees, the majority of Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon’s most deprived areas. This has put new strains on places that already lacked infrastructure and whose population was already struggling. Gradually, and not surprisingly, host communities have become resentful toward the refugees. In turn, many Lebanese officials have used the refugee issue to deflect criticism for the state’s failings, further feeding tensions. 

Changing demographic realities are another source of concern. The arrival of refugees who are, for the most part Sunni Muslims, has alarmed Christians, Shias and Druze eager to preserve a delicate sectarian balance in a multiconfessional political system. Even Lebanese Sunnis, however, share their compatriots’ concerns about an enduring refugee presence. The refugee crisis has produced an uncommon consensus among Lebanon’s communities: everyone blames the Syrians for the country’s many ills. 

Add to this Lebanon’s history with Palestinian refugees, estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 and mostly living in camps created after 1948. What was envisioned as short-term refuge turned into a seemingly permanent exile for these Palestinians, whose militarisation became a major trigger for the civil war a generation ago. As the Syrian war continues without an immediate end in sight, there are concerns that Syrian refugees may likewise become a long-term presence.

The spectre of renewed conflict has led the Lebanese authorities to adopt a heavy-handed security approach toward the refugees. They have repeatedly raided whatever encampments exist and arrested hundreds of men. Moreover, they have allowed local councils to impose discriminatory measures, such as night-time curfews, on Syrians. 

Lebanon needs help to cope with the refugee crisis, both to aid Syrian refugees and to preserve the unity of the state. What refugees need most immediately is an easing of visa requirements to regularise their status. The international community should focus on long-term development projects that would benefit both Syrians and deprived host communities. Moreover, it should condition any security assistance to the army and police – the only functioning parts of the state – on the conduct of these forces toward the refugees in a manner consistent with international law and human rights standards.

If the world stands by as Lebanon dissolves under the extraordinary burden it has shouldered with remarkable magnanimity, we may be confronted with a much greater international refugee crisis – as well as new rounds of violence, which in turn will generate more refugees.