Enough Forum: The Military Dynamics of South Sudan’s Civil War

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After seven months of war and several failed attempts at peace, South Sudan’s civil war shows few signs of letting up. The negotiations, which concluded with an agreement to end the conflict on May 9, followed several difficult rounds of public and private diplomacy. Reports subsequently emerged, however, of continued military operations and fighting in Upper Nile and Unity states. President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar denounced each other for not respecting the May 9 agreement. With international sanctions not perceived as deterring violence, with a credible commitment lacking on both sides, and with well-founded skepticism surrounding a lull in violence, it makes sense to examine the appeal of a military solution for both sides to the conflict and consider the military dynamics that could inform the peace process.

This paper takes stock of the evolving nature of the conflict in recent months. It examines ground-level campaigns and focuses on the numerous forms of violence and actors that have emerged. It describes the structure of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the opposition military groups. It explores command and control issues within the two major warring sides, their use of proxy forces, and specific battlefield dynamics like defections, the conflict’s protracted nature, and the financial costs associated with the war.

This paper finds loosely aligned forces on both sides of the conflict, with leaders relying on local and foreign proxy groups to bolster their fighting power. Each side faces difficulties controlling and commanding its forces. In this protracted conflict, both sides have engaged on multiple fronts simultaneously and also been unable to fully gauge the costs and duration of war, yet each remains committed to winning a military victory and inflicting punishing costs on its opponent. This paper finds both sides have used disproportionate violence against military opponents and civilians. Both sides have mobilized actors with records of human rights abuses who have gone on to commit further abuses. Prospects for peace are complicated by ethnic polarization in the armed sides and violence marked by hate speech and driven by acts of revenge and retribution. The involvement of non-South Sudanese fighters, including the Darfuri rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Sudan and the Ugandan army, exacerbates the existing communal and national conflict, threatens to further regionalize the war, and complicates the efforts to forge peace and promote reconciliation.

Because of the rapidly changing nature of the civil war this paper provides only a snapshot of the current situation as of July 2014.

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