Sudan's Breakup: Can Obama Help Avert a War?

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

People from Southern Sudan's Dinka tribe demonstrate outside the U.N.'s Khartoum headquarters, Sept. 23, 2010, calling for a referendum commission on the Abyei oil-producing region claimed by the north and the south

On Friday, President Barack Obama joins fellow world leaders on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly for an emergency summit. The topic of the special meeting might be a surprise: it's not Iran, the Middle East or world poverty — it's Sudan.

Actually, the sudden urgency of the situation in Sudan should not come as a surprise. Sudan is set to split into two next year and the breakup — which has been coming for some time — is not mutual. Southern Sudan, the nation's undeveloped hinterland of swamp and bush populated by non-Muslims, will use a January referendum to secede and form a new state. And it plans to take its 80% portion of Sudan's oil reserves with it. That prospect does not thrill north Sudan's Arab elite, a minority who have controlled Africa's largest nation since its inception.

Technically, north Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his government have little choice in the matter. Southerners were promised the secession referendum under the 2005 peace deal that ended the last civil war. But an uncooperative north could make the process very messy and bloody. Obama and other world leaders — including Southern Sudan's President Salva Kiir and the north's Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha, representing al-Bashir, who can't travel to the U.S. due to the International Criminal Court arrest warrant out on him — are meeting Friday in the hopes of making the divorce as amicable as possible. And it's a tall order.

Preparations are far behind schedule, hindered chiefly by stalling tactics from the north. Kiir warned leaders in Washington last week that the Jan. 9 date for the independence vote is "sacrosanct" and attempts to tamper with it would risk "a return to violence on a massive scale." Any delay could force the south's hand to declare independence unilaterally through its legislature, a move that could provoke immediate conflict along the border and prove the dawn of a long period of mixed support for the new state, which Khartoum and its allies could refuse to recognize.

The rulers of north Sudan might be tempted to go that route, except that the regime probably wouldn't survive its aftermath. The north has used the cease-fire to upgrade its arms, but the south is no longer the guerrilla movement it once was, having stocked up on its first aircraft and an array of antiaircraft weapons. The two sides have begun talks on sharing oil revenue if the south breaks away; but if the divorce is contested, al-Bashir's regime could collapse if it fails to capture and hold the oil fields. There is strong anecdotal evidence that the north is already fomenting miniuprisings in the south. If relations break down completely, the south would waste no time returning the favor in Darfur, Sudan's east and other marginalized communities in the north.

The humanitarian consequences could be grave. In the past 21-year war between north and south, an estimated 2 million people died. In February, then U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress that Southern Sudan was the most likely place for "a new mass killing or genocide" within the next five years.

An imploding Sudan could also threaten the stability of the entire region, one of growing strategic importance to the U.S. Nine countries border Sudan, all of which could be pulled into a new conflict. And nearby Somalia is teeming with al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab insurgents who want to establish a Taliban-style rule there. The U.S. is relying on regional allies Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to help contain the burgeoning threat. All three share a long border with Southern Sudan, and none can afford an influx of Sudanese refugees or any of the many other pressures of regional instability.

Obama has been banking on the hope that offering incentives and direct engagement with north Sudan's regime, led by an indicted war criminal, will decrease the chances of a worst-case scenario. But his decision to personally attend the New York City meeting could signal the Administration's increasing concern that if the situation does turn violent, the U.S. might find itself being blamed. A small but vocal group of Americans, originally organized under the antigenocide campaign sparked by the Darfur crisis, care deeply about the situation in Sudan — and they are not happy with the Administration's Sudan policy so far. The vitriol up to now has been directed chiefly at Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, a Swahili-speaking former Air Force general. He has taken heat for his tireless engagement with Khartoum — to his critics, his approach is too soft and accommodating. "It is taking a lot of time for Gration to understand the issue of Sudan," says Yien Matthew Chol, spokesman for Southern Sudan's ruling SPLM party. Richard S. Williamson, Gration's predecessor as special envoy under President George W. Bush, is especially critical of how the Obama Administration has been handling Sudan. "Khartoum is stronger. [Southern Sudanese capital] Juba is weaker. The Darfuris feel forgotten," he tells TIME. "It's an utter shock to everyone who follows this [issue]."

Gration has had to spend much of his energy trying to put out fires back in the U.S., where he faces steady calls from advocacy groups to resign. It has clearly left him undermined and less effective on the ground. But, some say, Sudan may in the end not need a chest-thumping savior. "While the stakes are very high for both leading parties and both have exhibited aggressive military postures," says Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, "I think both recognize that a return to war is not in their interest."

But few want to take that chance. Since Gration's appointment 18 months ago, the U.S. President and his envoy have eschewed the tough talk, seeming to hope instead that north Sudan can be cooed into listening. But on Friday, Obama is expected to deliver a hard message to al-Bashir in hopes of avoiding a potentially bloody crisis.