This story has been updated.
The Obama administration is diving headlong into the deepening crisis in South Sudan to try to find a way of salvaging the future of Africa's youngest nation -- a country Washington helped create but that now stands on the brink of famine and possible genocide.
The country's deterioration began in December 2013, when South Sudan's former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, took up arms against President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, in a bloody power struggle that has riven the country along ethnic lines.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry landed in the South Sudan's capital of Juba, where he announced that he had secured a commitment from Kiir to participate in talks with Machar in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as early as next week. Following a closed door meeting with the South Sudanese, Kerry said that Kiir had pledged to begin talks on a transitional government, and to implement a previously ignored cease fire agreement.
The remarks followed a Thursday meeting Kerry held with African foreign ministers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, aimed at restarting peace talks between the warring leaders. Following the meeting, Kerry placed Washington's imprimatur on an East African peacekeeping initiative that could result in thousands of Burundian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan troops being deployed to South Sudan.Before his arrival, Kerry told South Sudan's warring leaders that the United States and its allies were "actively considering sanctions against those who commit human rights abuses and obstruct humanitarian assistance" and plans to seek United Nations Security Council approval for a revamped peacekeeping mission. Kerry said today that he believed some 2,500 peacekeepers could be dispatched to South Sudan in the coming weeks, and that Washington would press for the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing their deployment "We do need to secure an additional United Nations Security Council mandate," he said, according to the New York Times. "I hope it can be done quickly."
The crisis presents a critical test of Washington's influence over a country that has depended heavily on American support for its very survival but now appears increasingly unresponsive to U.S. calls for restraint. It's far from clear whether the South Sudanese government will allow well-armed peacekeepers into its country.
For the time being, South Sudan's people are relying on a beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission that is being treated as an enemy by the very government that the U.S. and U.N. helped shepherd into power. A U.S.-led Security Council initiative in December to reinforce the 7,700-strong mission with 5,500 additional blue helmets has stalled, with only a third of the new troops materializing. The U.N. has opened its compounds throughout South Sudan to tens of thousands of terrified civilians seeking refuge from armed groups, but the world body has struggled to protect them from attack. The situation is so precarious that even the U.N. mission's leadership, including special representative Hilde Johnson, have been forced to move from their residences into an armed U.N. compound in Juba.
Asked if South Sudan was teetering on the verge of genocide, Kerry said Thursday "there are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic tribal targeted nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions, and were they to continue in the way they have been going could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide. It is our hope that that can be avoided."
Observers say Kerry's diplomatic foray in South Sudan provides a welcome sign that the country hasn't been forgotten despite the high-profile crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. Still, several warned that it may have come too late.
"If we wanted to use U.S. diplomatic leverage and personal diplomacy we should have done it in January, when we stood a better chance of putting the genie back into the bottle, instead of waiting till May," said Cameron Hudson, a former advisor to several U.S. envoys to Sudan who now serves as the acting director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide. "We could have tried to avoid these really brutal massacres that we are seeing now. I could be wrong but I think the battle lines are so entrenched that just parachuting in there for one day -- I don't see what that is going to change."
Hudson said that the United States still holds more sway over the South Sudanese government than any other country in the world. But he said many of Washington's closest contacts were forced out of government by Kiir during a political purge that helped fuel that latest round of fighting. Kiir is largely surrounded by a coterie of more radical Dinka officials that don't have strong personal relations with American officials.
"We've run out of people to call," Hudson said. "We have been trying to rebuild those relationships, but it's hard to build those relations at the same time you are engaging in punitive diplomacy and threatening sanctions. It's going to be a tough balancing act."
In Washington and New York, American diplomats are developing a plan to revamp the U.N. mission to focus more on ensuring respect for human rights, protecting civilians from attack, and delivering humanitarian assistance. U.S., U.N. and African officials have been converging on a plan to integrate thousands of East African peacekeepers into the existing U.N. mission in South Sudan and to focus their attention more sharply on protecting civilians than on their existing mandate, which seeks to help build South Sudan's national institutions.
But there are many unresolved questions over the mission's new mandate. Would the enlarged mission, for instance, be commanded by a U.N. general or an African officer loyal to African governments? Would the U.S. Congress, which has refused to fully fund U.N. peacekeeping missions, approve hundreds of millions of dollars of additional money? And how deeply involved is the Obama administration -- which is already providing training to East African military planners -- willing to be in supporting the mission?
Senior U.N. peacekeeping officials have urged the United States to consider installing a handpicked American official at the head of the mission when Johnson, whose contract expires this summer, steps down, sending a clear message that any attack on the mission is akin to an attack on the United States. Several names have been floated by U.N. officials, including Jordan Ryan, a top American official at the U.N. Development Program; Gayle Smith, a senior official in the National Security Council; and Tori Holt, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. But the U.S. has not agreed. Some U.N. officials said that Washington seems reluctant to be seen leading the effort.
"Some in D.C. believe it's a good idea and some believe it's not a good idea," said one senior U.N.-based official, noting that many in the United States want to promote African leadership. "The United States believes...that they should be supporting the Africans."
Speaking to reporters Wednesday in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, delivered an extraordinary rebuke to Kiir and Machar, saying they were neglecting the interests of their people in the pursuit of personal power. She stressed that the country was at risk of widespread famine.
"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings that has developed relentlessly over the past four and a half months seems to be reaching boiling point and I have been increasingly concerned that neither South Sudan's political leaders nor the international community at large seem to perceive quite how dangerous the situation now is," she said. "Unfortunately virtually everything I have seen or heard on this mission has reinforced the view that the country's leaders, instead of seeing their chance to steer their impoverished and war-battered young nation to stability and greater prosperity, have instead embarked on a personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe."
ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images