President Bashir has played a blinder. He has said he will allow an international force of peacekeepers on to Sudanese soil. He has been to see the Pope and promised him a ceasefire in time for peace talks due to start in the Libyan city of Sirte on Saturday. And all the while Sudan’s Antonov bombers and Chinese-built Fantan fighters have been flying over Darfur.
The international community has been left dazed and confused. We have had to witness the indignity of Ban ki-Moon hailing Sudan’s decision to allow in the hybrid force as a breakthrough, even though his predecessor as UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, thought he had secured exactly the same thing about eight months earlier. America’s Plan B to force concessions from Sudan (whatever that was) has been quietly forgotten.
And what has the mish mash of forces that constitute the rebel movement been up to? Last month they attracted international opprobrium for their attack on an African Union base in Haskanita that left 10 peacekeepers and ceasefire monitors dead. One of their key leaders appears unwilling to leave his Paris mansion to go to Libya and talk peace. Yesterday the Justice and Equality movement announced it was holding two foreign oil workers hostage. And now the UN says it will impose sanctions on the six rebel groupings planning to boycott the talks.
Bashir’s mob can turn up to Sirte happy in the knowledge that they’ve done their bit. They can chat to the assorted community groups and handful of rebel leaders knowing that any deal they strike is meaningless without the opposition big guns present. Or, even better, they can simply walk away claiming the talks have been sabotaged by rebel intransigence. They came to talk peace, they will say, but had no-one to talk to.
It didn’t have to be like this. When the rest of the world was focusing on forcing Sudan to accept the hybrid force, one or two canny analysts were warning of the danger of forgetting about the importance of peace talks. Oxfam was one of the few organisations that went on the record to say that the peacekeepers were not the be-all-and-end-all: Peace talks would hold the key. Meanwhile UN officials privately expressed their frustration that the vocal Save Darfur Coalition had driven the debate into a corner, focusing public opinion in the US and UK solely on an intervention force.
So now Bashir has released the pressure on Sudan by allowing in an AU-UN hybrid force (which he has already weakened from the proposed pure-bred UN mission and he can weaken further with delays and vetoes over key elements) and switched the focus on to the rebels. The peace talks are dead in the water. Brilliant. Quite simply brilliant.