The Washington Diplomat / September 2007
By Larry Luxner
After four years of violence and suffering, Sudan's war-torn Darfur region is on the verge of a political settlement that could finally bring relief to Darfur's estimated two million refugees.
So says Andrew S. Natsios, President Bush's special envoy to Sudan.
In an Aug. 8 conference call, Natsios briefed reporters from a dozen media outlets — including the Washington Diplomat— on his latest trip to Sudan. He said he was strongly encouraged by the UN Security Council's decision the week before to authorize a 26,000-member hybrid peacekeeping force in Darfur jointly operated by the United Nations and the African Union.
"The whole world's eyes are on Sudan and on Darfur," he said. "That will be the biggest constraint on any backsliding. President Bush has said that if there is any attempt to renegotiate, we will support sanctions at the UN. But I don't think that's going to happen. Sudan has run out of options and I think they're going to cooperate."
Natsios estimated it would cost $2 billion a year to maintain the peacekeepers in Darfur, with the United States picking up 26% of that tab. In the past, Sudan has strongly resisted the idea of a peacekeeping force, and this would be the largest force of its kind in UN history once it's fully operational in early 2008.
But he nixed any possibility that the Bush administration would send American soldiers to the war-torn region.
"We will provide logistics support to move the African troops [to Darfur], but I don't see us sending U.S. combat troops to Darfur," he said. "One reason is that we are not perceived as a neutral force by both sides, and the UN is supposed to be there as a neutral force. No. 2, the United States typically doesn't participate in peacekeeping forces. We just don't do that.
"And third, the Sudanese government fears that there's a hidden agenda, that the purpose of all this is to send U.S. troops into parts of occupied Sudan. So if we send troops there, it would simply feed that fear and undermine the political process, not facilitate it."
That process is closer than ever to bearing fruit, said Natsios, now that eight rebel factions agreed at an early August summit in Arusha, Tanzania, to set aside their differences and pursue a common negotiating platform with the Sudanese government.
"The Arusha meeting was a re-energizing of the political process, and will now begin a formal sequence of events that will lead to a political settlement," said Natsios, former chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who was named to his current post by President Bush last September. "From my perspective, the way to get public support in Darfur for this settlement is to involve civil society, the traditional chiefs, sheikhs and leaders of the internal displacement camps. The meeting of rebel commanders and leaders affirmed the importance of getting civil society involved, beause without public support, there isn't going to be any peace settlement."
Natsios said the rebels meeting at Arusha agreed that a final conference between their leaders and the Sudanese government "would take place no sooner than two months from now, and no later than three months, which places it in October. I'm hoping a lot of issues can be resolved prior to that conference being held. But it's clear the Sudanese government wants a settlement."
Peace won't come a moment too soon for Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 people have died in four years of fighting between the Khartoum government and its Arab militia allies on one side, and the largely black African population of Darfur on the other.
"There must be a ceasefire. The rebels and government forces need to stop fighting, and all bombing must stop," Natsios insisted. "The question is whether everybody will exercise the discipline necessary to simply stop fighting."
Natsios, who's been traveling to Darfur since 1990, says the situation in this vast area of western Sudan the size of France is "very fluid" and changing rapidly.
"There's now a concerted effort by commanders who say we should be focused on ideas, not factions or individual leaders," he told reporters. "There's a sense I did not see in previous visits that the [refugee] camps are emerging as a political movement in their own right. People are increasingly worried that there needs to be a political settlement, that they will lose their land if there isn't one."
In the meantime, he says, the United States continues to press the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Darfur, though Natsios says this isn't the time to threaten further sanctions against Khartoum.
"I think imposing sanctions without any benchmarks doesn't make any sense. Only if the Sudanese government blocks the realization of any of these benchmarks would it be time to put sanctions in place," he said. "What's critical is how they're tied to specific actions on the ground. We're not at the point yet where the Sudanese have said they're going to stonewall the negotiations. I'm hoping the Chinese can play a role here."
Grass-roots pressure in the United States has been building for action to be taken against China, which reportedly buys 71% of Sudan's global exports and is Sudan's largest foreign investor. Sudan alone accounts for 13% of Beijing's total trade with Africa, while China's National Petroleum Co. is the largest single shareholder in Sudan's No. 1 energy consortium, the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co.
Meanwhile, don't expect any sudden improvement in relations between Washington and Khartoum.
"I think the only way [it'll happen] is after we resolve Darfur, and after we have full implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement between the north and the south," he said. "Those two issues are pre-eminent in our relationship. Without a resolution of these issues, it'll be very difficult politically in the U.S. to support any measures that will improve our relationship. I've told the Sudanese that privately and am reiterating it in public now."