Arming South Sudan With Surface-To-Air Missiles Could Endanger Humanitarian Efforts In Sudan

Our guest blogger, Lauren Jenkins, works on post-conflict peacebuilding issues and writes about national security at her blog International Development Without Pity.

As July 9 and South Sudan’s independence from northern Sudan draws nearer, violent attacks by the North on the South and its border areas are increasing in frequency and intensity. In Abyei, a disputed border region, upwards of 113,000 people have fled clashes between the northern and southern armies.

Yesterday, President Obama met with Princeton Lyman, his Special Envoy to Sudan, and the readout from the White House was one of cautious condemnation:

The President expressed deep concern over the violence and the lack of humanitarian access, and he underscored the urgent need to get back to cooperative negotiations to enable full and timely implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The President is “following the situation closely” while Ambassador Lyman works to achieve “a cessation of hostilities across the region and to support the emergence of two viable states at peace.”

Indeed, a peaceful conclusion to twenty years of civil war was the goal of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and should be still. That’s why suggestions by Representative Donald Payne (D-NJ) to arm South Sudan made at a subcommittee hearing on Thursday are so worrisome. Specifically, he referred to revisiting a 2008 decision by President Bush to provide air defense systems to South Sudan. That request was never fulfilled because, according to Bush administration officials, the Southern Sudanese army was not trained and equipped to use and maintain the systems.

Arming South Sudan with air defense systems would put them into deeper conflict with the North, not bring the two closer to peace. Further, South Sudan’s army still doesn’t have the requisite training to use and maintain an air defense system. That poses a distinct problem when it comes to distinguishing friendly aircraft from the North’s attack aircraft. In 2007, a UN panel of experts sent a report to the Security Council documenting the North’s use of attack aircraft painted to look like UN aircraft in bombing raids of Darfuri villages. Were the North to use this tactic in the South, it could put UN aircraft at risk.

If UN aircraft are at risk, more than just their aircrews’ lives hang in the balance. When the international community floated the idea of a No-Fly Zone over Darfur in 2007, Sudan expert Julie Flint noted humanitarian agencies were “quietly but unanimously appalled by the prospect” and even if northern Sudan didn’t forcibly ground humanitarian flights in retaliation, “the United Nations most likely would, for fear of sending its planes into a potential combat zone.”

An ill-trained South Sudanese army firing surface-to-air missiles at planes that look like UN aircraft could easily ground UN flights in South Sudan and the border regions. Without access to life-saving humanitarian assistance, the 113,000 people already displaced in Abyei would suffer. Air defense systems might curtail northern Sudan’s onslaught of aerial bombardments, but they would not stop its ground forces or artillery batteries from launching equally deadly attacks against the South. In the end, arming South Sudan could endanger already vulnerable civilians, not protecting them.