On May 10, one of Darfur’s key rebel factions, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), struck military targets within Omdurman, the twin city of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Although rumored for days, the long-distance rebel attack seemed to catch the ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) regime by surprise. This was an extraordinary military event, one without precedent under the regime, and its leaders have been badly rattled–perhaps the primary ambition of an assault that had no chance for sustainable military success.
But satisfying as the attack may have been for JEM, it is likely to prove extremely bad news for the people of Darfur. There have already been multiple reports from human rights groups and the Sudanese diaspora that Darfuris are being beaten, arrested, and in some cases, summarily executed. Most have been Zaghawa, the Darfur tribal group dominant in JEM and its leadership.
Currently, JEM has the strongest military among the Darfuri rebel factions, and it’s the most willing to act alone–but it’s also the least representative of the people of Darfur as a whole. Its leader, Khalil Ibrahim, has had deep political connections with Hassan al-Turabi, who did much to chart the Islamist agenda that has governed Sudan for the past 18 years. JEM’s military has been assisted by the regime of embattled President Idriss Dby of Chad, also a Zaghawa, who is fighting a dangerous proxy war with Khartoum. And, finally, JEM’s political concerns are perceived by most Darfuris as having an excessively national, as opposed to regional character–a consequence, according to many, of Khalil’s personal ambitions.
None of these details mattered to the U.N. Security Council when it handed Khartoum an imbalanced and excessively accommodating statement on May 13. “The Security Council strongly condemns the attacks of 10 May perpetrated by the … JEM against the Sudanese government in Omdurman and urges all parties to cease violence immediately,” read the Presidential Statement. Nothing here about the years of human rights violations committed by Khartoum in Darfur. Reflecting on this language, Khartoum’s especially thuggish ambassador to the U.N., Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, declared, “This is exactly what we wanted the Council to do.”
In the balance for the U.N. was a politically consequential, but militarily doomed, rebel effort to depose a genocidal regime on the one hand–and, on the other, a willingness by this same regime to pursue its aims in Darfur through a grim “genocide by attrition.” Given these moral inequities, the one-sided U.N. statement implicitly signals to Khartoum that there will be few real consequences for future military actions, whether directed at JEM or not.
Recently, these actions have included a brutal series of bombings in North Darfur, one killing a number of civilians, including six schoolchildren. This follows the savage campaign that took place north of el-Geneina (West Darfur) in February, where hundreds of civilians of were killed, tens of thousands displaced, and more than 150,000 cut off from aid.
JEM’s strategy and actions are misbegotten, its increasing military unilateralism deplorable. But we must not lose sight of the enormous frustration within the African Darfuri populations and rebel groups as they continue to confront what’s essentially become international tolerance for crimes against humanity–their humanity. As a consequence, according to sources in Darfur, other rebel factions are likely to conclude they have been left to their own military devices. They see the increasing likelihood that UNAMID will not deploy significant additional protection forces for many months. They also believe–correctly, it seems–that Khartoum has little incentive or feels any significant pressure to engage in a good-faith cease-fire, let alone a just and sustainable peace process. Fighting is likely to intensify.
A regime guided by the most ruthless of calculations throughout the Darfur genocide has now been given further reason by the U.N. to believe that it can get away with its crimes. The prospects for peace in this tortured land have dimmed further.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]
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