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Days before South Sudan becomes the newest state in the world, it is being born into a virtual state of war with the part of Sudan it is leaving behind. The war, however, remains unrecognized, undeclared and fought by proxy. If its escalation is not prevented, it will become the world’s deadliest.

The previous North-South war between 1983 and 2005 claimed over two million lives. The Khartoum regime’s tactics included aerial bombing, helicopter gunship attacks, localized ethnic cleansing, support for Southern Sudanese militias, occasional military occupation of strategic towns, denial of humanitarian aid and draconian repression of civil society.

Sudan today faces all that and more. Today’s list must be expanded to Darfur, where government attacks and aid denials have recently increased. The militias the regime supports in the South, border areas and Darfur all resemble Frankenstein monsters, created to wreak havoc but with little control exercised by their creators in Khartoum. Rape is more of a signature tool of war than previously. And the North is embargoing commercial traffic to the South in advance of the latter’s independence.

Why would the regime in Khartoum decide to escalate right before the South’s independence? There are tactical and strategic reasons. Tactically, the regime is bullying for a better negotiating position on where borders will be drawn and how oil revenues will be shared, with billions of dollars at stake. Regime officials are probing, attempting to ascertain whether deploying a total strategy aimed at setting the South, border areas, and Darfur on fire will draw any reaction beyond rhetorical concern from the international community.

Strategically, the regime is doing what it does best: ruling by arson. Setting fires in a dozen different places creates deep local divisions and causes massive ethnic-based displacement, making for a textbook case of divide and conquer. Khartoum’s leaders are crushing internal opposition as effectively as Syria, North Korea and Iran, and preparing to comprehensively undermine the new state of South Sudan, with no international consequence.

U.S. policy has focused on incentivizing the path to peace between North and South and in Darfur. The Obama administration and many other governments around the world placed a bet that the carrots were sufficient to positively alter the calculations of the regime in Khartoum.

The bet was wrong.

An urgent re-think is needed to end this cycle of crisis. Consequences need to accompany carrots if there is to be any chance of diplomatic success. There are diplomatic, financial and military sticks that can be exercised consistent with the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. These should be deployed as leverage in support of a sustained diplomatic surge that aims to secure the grand bargains necessary to end the North/South and Darfur wars.

Diplomatically, the U.S. and its allies must end the policy of equivalency. In Syria, Egypt and Libya, the Obama administration strongly condemned regime attacks and built international coalitions to isolate abusive leaders. Strangely, in Sudan U.S. statements are all carefully vetted to ensure equal culpability. Further, the U.S. should make a high-level push with China to work together to secure peace deals. China has significant economic interests in both North and South Sudan, so an intensified war would obstruct their planned expansion. We should be working together for peace, regardless of motivation.

Financially, the U.S. and others should suspend talks about debt relief, something Khartoum craves desperately. Rather, the U.S. and allies should go after the assets of high level regime officials, their businesses, and the banks that support the military-industrial complex that keeps them in power, starting with President Bashir and his closest advisor, Nafie ali Nafie.

Militarily, a pledge made by President Bush should finally be honored: to provide air defense capabilities to Southern Sudanese forces to counter the aerial bombing and attack helicopters that do so much damage to civilian populations. This would level the playing field between North and South and act as a deterrent to further conflict. Increased conditional support to the South’s army would help defend vulnerable populations and give us increased leverage to improve the human rights performance of Southern forces.

It’s time again for presidential leadership. Without President Obama’s personal involvement, Mubarak would still be in power in Egypt, Benghazi and eastern Libya would have been overrun and turned into a killing field by Gadhafi and the independence referendum would never have been held in Southern Sudan.

President Obama’s imperative is to deploy immediate consequences for Khartoum’s escalation, and to provide support to those in a position to protect targeted populations since the international community won’t do it directly. It’s time to see a regime for what it really is and how many people it is prepared to kill to stay in power.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of John Prendergast. 

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