Sudan truce offers some hope for peaceful change

Thursday, February 25, 2010

RAVAGED BY war and genocide, ruled by a dictator who has been indicted for war crimes, Sudan is a prime candidate to become a crisis for the Obama administration. But there is also a small chance for peace and groundbreaking change in the next year. A hint of that came on Tuesday, when President Omar Hassan al-Bashir signed a truce with the biggest rebel group from the region of Darfur. A full peace accord remains to be worked out, and previous truces have fallen through. But this deal -- brokered by a U.N. and African Union team, with help from the government of Qatar -- looks somewhat more promising, and it comes at an auspicious moment.

The war in Darfur, which is estimated to have caused more than 300,000 deaths and prompted a global campaign to defend its 2 million refugees, may have ended. The head of the international peacekeeping force declared it over last summer. There has been little fighting in recent months, though most of the refugees remain in their camps. Mr. Bashir, who has been dodging an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for nearly a year, may be ready to make peace. He agreed this month on a separate truce with the president of Chad, which has helped to sponsor rebels in Darfur and has been plagued by Sudanese-backed insurgents in return.

Mr. Bashir's peacemaking is partly driven by his desire to free himself from the war crimes charges and sanctions against his government. But he also has two major political hurdles ahead of him. One is a national election scheduled for April 11, the first in 26 years, in which he is running for president against 11 other candidates. That vote, in turn, will set the stage for a referendum in January in which southern Sudan will decide whether to become an independent country. Most likely it will do so -- which means its government and that of Khartoum would be faced with trying to negotiate the terms of separation.

The potential for violence in all this is enormous. Fighting along tribal lines is growing in the south, along with accusations that the fighting is being fueled by Mr. Bashir's government. If war returns to the south, where 2 million people were killed before a 2005 peace accord, the fighting in Darfur could quickly resume as well. Though the Khartoum regime would like to prevent southern independence, it would be hard to do so by force -- especially since the southern army now deploys tanks and other heavy weapons.

So Mr. Bashir has an incentive to negotiate with representatives of Darfur and southern Sudan -- and the Obama administration, in turn, has reason to encourage him. The nuanced policy for Sudan that Mr. Obama adopted in October, a mix of incentives and possible punishments, provides some latitude; the administration's special envoy, Scott Gration, was in Doha, Qatar, when Tuesday's truce was signed. While it's hard to imagine that the restoration of normal relations between the United States and a government headed by Mr. Bashir could ever be justified, stranger things have happened: Ask Libya's Moammar Gaddafi. For now it makes sense for the administration to encourage completion of the Darfur peace talks and peaceful staging of the April elections. Preventing another explosion of violence will count as a success.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company