March 2008 marked the fifth anniversary of two unresolved Middle Eastern tragedies. The US invasion of Iraq has claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, destroyed the little infrastructure that still remained in 2003 and created immense groundswell of Arab disgust at the manner the US has projected its military power into Iraq. The moral position of the US today in the Middle East is probably at its lowest ebb since the end of World War 2. Much has been written about Iraq and the US since 2003.
However, at the other end of the Middle East another humanitarian crisis unfolded in early 2003 when the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir launched a major counter-insurgency campaign against rebel groups which has devastated the region and destroyed the homes and livlihoods of much of the population of central and western Darfur. Also, as with the Iraq crisis, hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions have been left homeless and without hope. The Darfur crisis remains unresolved as rebels and the government fail to agree on terms that would end the conflict, each side insisting that the international community is prolonging the conflict by the ambiguity of its position.
The Sudanese government claims that as long as the rebels believe that the UN will intervene then they will continue to hold out, resisting pressure to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. The rebels maintain the opposite, that unless the Sudanese government is faced with a robust international response, including the deployment of the promised 26,000 troops, then the government will have no interest in seeking an agreement with the rebels. The unfortunate aspect of this, from the perspective of the Darfuri, is that both the rebels and the Sudanese government have accurately assessed the situation.
Furthermore, the ineffective and uncommitted sabre-rattling of the US and UN has only served to consolidate the Bashir regimes hold on power in Khartoum. It has no effect on the levels of violence in Darfur, or any positive role in alleviating the suffering of the Darfuri. The threat of UN intervention has only incensed some sections of the Sudanese population who feel that UN involvement in Sudan is further evidence that there exists a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam, with the Islamist Sudan the next target.
The rhetoric of Bashir and his ministers is evidence that this is a potent political card for Islamic governments today in the wake of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the increased belligerency of the US/Israel towards the Palestinians. “Our press” santitizes the images of death, destruction and destitution in Gaza and the West Bank very effectively to ensure that western populations do not become overly incensed at the brutality of the destruction of lives and livelihood by the Israeli military and government. The Arab press does the reverse. Daily, images of dead children and “martyrs” are shown on the televisions and appear in the newspapers creating anger and resentment at the events in Palestine. Iraq, too has a similar effect on people in the Middle East including Sudan. The UN, and the US, are easily transformed into anti-Muslim crusaders by the likes of Bashir who is employing such anti-Western rhetoric to forestall a power-sharing and wealth-sharing deal with the province of Darfur, as the Sudanese Liberation Army of Darfur are demanding.
Anyone who denies the relationship between events in Palestine and the increased negativity of the Muslim and Arab world to the US, and the “west” more widely is ignoring the vast amount of documentary evidence and anecdotal evidence of the frustration and anger exhibited by “radical” and moderate elements alike across the vast Middle East. Resolving the Palestinian injustice would reduce much of the antagonism and sense of betrayal that the Middle East feels towards the US and UN, and would provide a solid foundation for a more constructive relationship between the principal international body and the Middle East. The moral authority acquired by the UN would permit a stronger response to the atrocities committed in Darfur. The response would be far more likely to be supported by the “Arab masses” without the cynicism the UN currently receives whenever it attempts to intervene in humanitarian crises.
On one level the UN, and the US, have been reluctant to take stern action against Sudan because of the fear of a further backlash from Muslim governments and the Muslim masses. The lack of concern for fellow Muslims of Darfur, who are either dying slowly from malnutrition and disease or brutally from military violence conducted by the Sudanese government and its local proxies, from the Arab and Muslim world is disconcerting and disappointing. Much has been made of Darfur as the test of the African Unions resolve to deal with humanitarian crisis but little scrutiny of the various Arab and Muslim organisations has been forthcoming. Bashir, only last week, made a trip to Saudi Arabia to discuss the paralysis of Lebanese politics and took it upon himself to contact the various parties in a bid to seek a resolution. The very fact that Bashir has retained any right to meet heads of state and act as a mediator in Middle East matters is a sign of the disinterest from Muslim and Arab heads of state regarding the atrocities occurring in Darfur. This is very different from what I have perceived to be the concern from the “Muslim” masses to the brutal counter-insurgency occurring in Darfur. The distance between Middle Eastern government indifference and mass concern is symbolic of the huge gulf between governments and people that now exists in mostly unpopular authoritarian regimes from Saudi Arabia to Algeria.
The lack of genuine US government interventionism in Darfur also reveals the distance between US government foreign interests and popular foreign policy expectations. The groundswell of support for US intervention in Sudan makes the US government position difficult to explain, especially in an election year. But, in terms of US foreign policy interests in the post-September 11 period there is a very straight-forward set of reasons for US unwillingness to promote a robust and inflexible UN position towards Sudan.
The first reason for the “soft” approach by the US towards Sudan has been spoken about at some length in the press and by analysts of Sudan is that of the tenuousness of the 2005 peace deal between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebel group the SPLM/A which brought to an end two decades of horrific bloodshed in the southern Sudan. Pressure on the Sudanese government, it has been stated, would lead to the government’s revocation of the deal and the possibility of a resumption to the war, an event no one in the world wants. This assumes the Sudanese government wants a renewal of conflict in the southern Sudan and that it is able to conduct a war on two fronts simultaneously. Oil revenues are driving the Sudanese economy, and the military effort in Darfur, and the government is unlikely to threaten its access to oil, and the revenues, by consciously provoking the SPLM/A back to war. However, the fear of renewed bloodshed in southern Sudan has been stated as a reason for taking a more diplomatic and cautious position towards Sudan over Darfur.
A second reason also put forward for a lack of commitment by the US government to the “problem” of Darfur is the over-extension of the US military since the debacle of Iraq and the increasingly difficult position of the UN forces in Afghanistan has created a state of ongoing war in the Middle East. The US military faces a huge task, greater than Vietnam where conscription (intensely unpopular) provided recruits for military service in greater numbers than possible in times of volunteer only recruitment. The lack of support for the war effort and the growing sense of illegitimacy of the Bush administrations rationale for the invasion of Iraq has had a negative effect on the US military machine. What has been neglected in the discussions relating to the US position towards Sudan is the relationship that the Darfur conflict has with the “war on terror”.
The Darfuri conflict is not as uncomplicated as many of the depictions would have people believe. Without any doubt, the government actions have targeted civilians and the repression which has accompanied the “counter-insurgency” has led to the death of tens, even hundreds of thousands of Darfuri civilians from government violence. The reason for the uncompromising response from the Sudanese government is less obvious. There has certainly been a tradition of brutality by the Bashir government when faced with dissent and popular opposition, in Nuba in 1992 and in Dar Masalit from 1996 to 1999 are just two examples. The long southern war is another.
However, there is more to this than just the habit of a government to react brutally to any domestic opposition. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) which operate in Darfur are an Islamist movement. It is reported that they have close links to the ousted former Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi. Turabi and Bashir clashed over in 1999 with Bashir winning out and taking control of the government while Turabi was placed under arrest. Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the JEM, was a close associate of Turabi in the 1990s and a member of the ruling Islamist government. Many in Sudan believe Turabi is behind the JEM and for the Sudanese government. Thus, the danger that the JEM poses to the Bashir government goes well beyond the regional aspirations held by many other rebel groups. Darfur is considered the stronghold of the Islamist movement in Sudan and the events over the past five years suggests that the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir recognises the high level of threat to its existence emanating from Darfur. The Islamist threat from Darfur can also account for the lack of US fortitude in dealing with the human rights crisis in Darfur.
In some way the Sudanese government is fighting the same “war on terror” as the US government and this common antagonism towards Islamists like the JEM allows for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur to go unchecked. The Sudan has become an important front in the war on terror and, in the same way that Gaddafi has been re-invited back into the international community, the Sudanese government of al-Bashir receives some dispensation from the US for its “enthusiasm” in fighting international Islamic anti-US terrorism, even if it employs “terrorism” on a much larger scale itself to achieve this outcome.
Whether a UN intervention force is the answer to Darfur’s problems or not is debatable. However, what is very clear is the ambivalence and double-talking of the major international actors is prolonging the problem, by on the one hand, promising the Darfuri rebels the hope of intervention, and on the other hand, sending messages to the Sudanese government that its can continue to act with impunity. Answers to internal state crises such as that in Darfur are located in the reform of the politics of Sudan and not with an ineffective international arbiter directed by the ambitions of a failed superpower with very limited international responsibility. The end of the conflict in Darfur ultimately rests with the Sudanese, and in particular with the government of Omar al-Bashir, but the mixed messages from the US and the UN are delaying resolution of the crisis, a delay that is exacting a very heavy price from the people of Darfur.