The end of the rainy season in South Sudan makes it possible for the war against Riek Machar’s SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) to restart in earnest, and despite the most recent in a long line of Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) sponsored ceasefires being signed on 9 November, an end to the war seems unlikely. Too much still remains undecided for the agreement to have any credibility as an roadmap to a longer-term peace. In particular, any credible scenario in which Machar is allowed back into power. It seems more likely that the purpose of any ceasefire has more to do with providing breathing room for another round of fighting than any serious commitment to peace, now that the roads will be dry enough to allow armour to travel out from the capital towards rebel held areas in the north east.
The question then, if a return to war seems all but inevitable, is for how long, and with what plausible outcome? There are a number of constraints to how the conflict could conceivably proceed from here that, taken together, suggest that the fighting will not be over soon.
Machar does not have infinite funds
While Machar had amassed a considerable war chest out of siphoned state revenue before fighting broke out in December last year, and added to this in the effective plundering of conquered towns in early 2014, his ability to continue paying for a war against the government is finite. The key economic prize – the oil fields near Bentiu – are not under SPLA-IO control, and are unlikely to ever be. China’s recent participation in UNMISS has been interpreted by many Sudanese as a symbolic indication that the country will not allow rebels to close down, control or disrupt the oil operations in Unity state. Which leaves precious few options for Machar if the war should last long enough.
A proper power-sharing agreement is likely impossible
Kiir has signaled a number of times that any resolution to the crisis that involves ceding the presidency would be unacceptable. And Machar would be unlikely to leave a position of security for any power-sharing option that would bring him into the capital without substantial security guarantees. More importantly, however, the original events that resulted in the violence of December 2013 appear have their genesis in Kiir’s effective sidelining of Machar within the SPLM, and with that a fatal undermining of any credible hope that Machar could have of his own run at the presidency at the ballot box, given the advantages enjoyed by whoever controls the SPLM (currently Kiir) at any future election.
So Kiir will not leave, is not particularly keen to share substantial powers, and Machar cannot credibly win back a leading position in the SPLM – all of which make a negotiated end to the conflict seems a remote possibility.
The SPLA-IO appears to be an incoherent force
Despite any rhetoric of a united opposition, the reality is that Machar appears to control very little of the combined non-government forces in the Unity, Jonglei or Upper Nile states. It’s not clear, for example, that the Nuer White Army which ransacked much of Bor and Malakal actually answers to Machar in any strategically useful fashion. Equally, the division of former SPLA soldiers that defected in Unity state under the command of General Peter Gadet, and which has been one of the most coherent fighting forces in the overall war – appears to also be operating largely outside of Machar’s explicit control. The group was responsible for shooting down a UN helicopter earlier in the year, and while Gen. Gadet appears to have operational control of most of his troops, there has been no clear indication that he has been willing to use this force in support of Machar’s broader goals.
So now what?
The impossibility of a negotiated solution means that Machar appears to have no real short-term option but to buy time. Ugandan intervention in thwarting his earlier March on the capital back in December, and the continued presence of the country’s forces make any attempt to actually conquer the capital impossible, notwithstanding that the political costs of any serious attempt would likely destroy SPLA-IO’s legitimacy at the IGAD talks, and provide legitimate grounds for a strong government response.
Further, the lack of coherence within SPLA-IO risks breaking down into internal fighting, as elements from the White Army, Gadet’s forces and semi-loyal factions of the former SPLA in various regions look to pursue their own particular objectives. This could provide the government with room to negotiate with elements of the SPLA-IO piecemeal, bringing them back into the fold over time, should Machar’s position continue to look weak. While a deal with Machar is infeasible, deals with other, individual commanders may be entirely plausible, and a possible route to further marginalising Machar’s forces.
It’s possible, of course, that Machar has some grand plan yet. But with the rains over, and government forces better equipped and coordinated than they were in the aftermath of December’s chaos, his window for regaining the initiative in the conflict is closing quickly.