After more than four years of brutal fighting and worsening humanitarian conditions, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar signed an agreement on June 27 taking a tentative step towards ending the country’s civil war. But about six hours after the agreement’s “permanent” ceasefire went into effect, fighting resumed. Despite this inauspicious start, negotiations between Kiir and Machar continue, as both men try to complete a new peace agreement that would supplant the failed 2015 peace deal. Given past ceasefire violations and the gulf of mistrust that exists between the warring parties, a generous dose of skepticism regarding the success of these peace talks is warranted. Nonetheless, there is also room for some very cautious optimism that this time really could be different as U.S. officials, the UN Security Council, and East African political leaders appear engaged in this crisis in a way that they have not been since July 2016, when violent conflict broke out in the capitol city of Juba claiming more than 300 lives and forcing Machar to flee the country.

The Khartoum Declaration of Agreement

On June 25, Kiir and Machar met in Khartoum alongside Sudan President Omar al-Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. News that Kiir and Machar reached an agreement to end South Sudan’s civil war quickly spread, but the parties did not release the text of the agreement until June 27. Published in Sudanese media, the Khartoum Declaration of Agreement committed the parties to a ceasefire within 72 hours, including disengagement, separation of forces within close proximity, and withdrawal of allied forces. The parties also agreed to open humanitarian corridors and release prisoners of war and political detainees. Although brief, the agreement lists five critical areas that will form the basis for a comprehensive peace agreement. These areas are a permanent ceasefire, security sector reforms, repairing oil wells and increasing oil production, improving infrastructure and livelihoods, and inviting regional countries to supervise the ceasefire. It would also (temporarily) establish three capital cities (Juba, Wau, and Malakal) and install three vice presidents.

Although certainty a positive development, whether this agreement will last is by no means assured. Kiir and Machar signed a compressive peace agreement in 2015, but subsequent violent conflict rendered that agreement nearly obsolete. Since then, armed groups have proliferated as the conflict fractured and spread throughout the country. Analysts also worry that this agreement will end up being little more than a pact among the same political elites that led the country into conflict. As Brian Adeba of the Enough Project notes, “One of the things that we have to really gird against is the danger of an agreement that becomes some elite pact that fails to address the structural problems that are at the route of this conflict.” Nonetheless, regional leaders, the Troika (the U.S., United Kingdom, and Norway), and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed this agreement.

This agreement marks a considerable shift for Kiir, who previously had refused to allow Machar to participate in South Sudan’s peace process or rejoin the government. And while many analysts remain skeptical of a peace agreement that effectively relies on the goodwill of the belligerents for meaningful implementation, there is a change in tenor between the conflict’s protagonists and a sense of possible improvement that has not been present since the outbreak of violence in 2016. Nor is this agreement the end of the process, as further discussions continued at the African Union (AU) Summit and in regional capitols. For now, there is a guarded hope that the conflict could actually come to end. As Kiir stated, “I am committed to respect the whole document that I have signed and will abide by all the agreements that will follow.”

AU Summit and U.S. Engagement

By design, the Khartoum meeting preceded the African Union’s annual summit, held on July 1 and 2. Resolving the South Sudan crisis was at the forefront of the summit, although it is not entirely clear how the AU plans to address the crisis. AU Commission Chairperson Faki Mahamat called for unified and tough measures against Kiir and Machar, both for the ceasefire violations and for their reluctance to end the conflict, stating, “We are used to them not respecting their commitments,” and that it was necessary to send both a clear message that this intransigence was no longer acceptable. Despite this strong rhetoric, such warnings have come and gone before, and until the AU Peace and Security Council shows that it is willing to sanction Kiir and Machar or take other coercive measures, the effect of such statements will be minimal.

How this agreement will affect U.S. engagement towards South Sudan is uncertain. On June 5, Kiir received the credentials of new U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Thomas Hushek, who replaces Ambassador Molly McPhee. In addition, Tibor Nagy was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs on June 28. Nagy came to the U.S. as a Hungarian refugee in 1957 before joining the U.S. Foreign Service in 1978 and serving as U.S. Ambassador to Guinea in 1996 and Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002. He recently described South Sudan as “the most tragic case of repression in Africa.” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has shown a strong interest in South Sudan, as has USAID Administrator Mark Green. Nagy’s confirmation and Hushek beginning his post may lead to an even greater U.S. focus on resolving this crisis.

From a policy perspective, both the Obama and Trump administrations grew increasingly impatient with South Sudanese leaders for failing to end the conflict, but the Trump administration has shown less reluctance to act, as demonstrated by the imposition of an arms embargo in February and its consideration to cut all foreign assistance to South Sudan in May. More recently, the administration has pushed for additional U.N. sanctions targeting six individuals for prolonging the conflict and obstructing humanitarian assistance.

Obstacles to Peace

The parties now have until July 10 to reach a comprehensive peace agreement from the points agreed upon in the Khartoum Declaration. However, there are several reasons why the parties may not reach an agreement by this deadline. The biggest reason is the lack of trust between Kiir’s government and Machar’s opposition group: the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO). The South Sudan government has also secured a number of military victories in the past year, which may lead government officials to assume that a military solution is possible, if not probable. As such, the government would have little incentive to share power with its opposition. But, as South Sudan expert Aly Verjee notes, even though the government has a dominant military position, the SPLM-IO is not so weak that it must accept the peace agreement at any cost. This dynamic suggests a continued stalemate, rather than a breakthrough.

In addition to the demonstrated mistrust between Kiir and Machar, the increased complexity of the conflict, particularly the numerous local armed groups that have emerged since the 2016 violence, also make a peace deal more difficult to achieve and sustain. Indeed, what was mainly a two-sided conflict in 2016 is now a highly localized and fragmented conflict with various armed opposition groups, sometimes working together and sometimes working independently. More than 10 armed opposition groups participated in the last regional peace talks in May, bringing various perspectives and priorities into an already strained negotiation process.

These groups have their own grievances and local constituencies that support them, adding another layer of complexity to the peace negotiations. Susan Stigant, Director of Africa Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, notes this problem, stating that an agreement between Kiir and Machar may not satisfy the other political parties, other armed opposition groups, or most importantly, the South Sudanese people. For example, a group of opposition parties that have taken up arms against the government initially declined to sign the Khartoum Declaration, but then decided to do so. In addition, excluded political leaders from the government, such as Taban Deng, could act as spoilers, according to Meressa Dessu, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa.

The process also needs to be more inclusive, as noted by the UN and others. Since the release of the agreement, South Sudanese civil society and women’s groups have joined the peace talks and a consortium of civil society groups released their own statement for supporting the peace process on July 1. Likewise, following the AU summit, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed joined an AU delegation in Juba to meet with Kiir to emphasize women participation in the peace process. Such measures are important, but more efforts to include civilian perspectives are necessary.

There is also the issue of elections. Slated for later this July, the UN and others have urged Kiir not to hold elections until a revitalized peace deal is complete. Until recently, however, his government has remained steadfast that it would hold the elections as scheduled, even though few would accept the results as legitimate. Last week, South Sudan’s parliament began deliberation on a bill that would extend Kiir’s term and the parliament until 2021. The SPLM-IO quickly rejected this proposal as “definitely illegal” and “anti-peace.” The U.S. State Department also condemned this proposal for undermining civil society and the ongoing peace talks.

Finally, regional interests both can help and hinder the likelihood of peace. Sudan President Bashir has the most to gain from this agreement, as the increase in oil production will help Sudan’s ailing economy. More accurately, it will help generate revenue for Sudan’s ruling elite and further solidify Bashir’s authoritarian government. Indeed, that media reports announced the resumption of oil production only one day after the peace agreement is revealing of where Bashir’s true interests lie. In addition to an economic opportunity, the Khartoum meetings and declaration allow Bashir to portray himself as a peacemaker. Bashir will use this opportunity to push for normalized relations with the U.S. and to argue that Sudan should be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and eventually be made eligible for debt relief and other economic assistance.

Uganda also has a strong incentive for the conflict to end, as it currently hosts more than 1 million South Sudanese refugees. Likewise, Ugandan President Museveni wants to maintain a balance of power with Bashir, given the long and often strained relationship between these two leaders. And, with the possible exception of Sudan, since the conflict began no regional country has lost more in trade and economic activity with South Sudan than Uganda.

Fighting Continues, Famine Looms

While the outcome of these peace negotiations remains unknown, what is certain is that the status quo is unacceptable. As the conflict inches towards year five, few areas of the country have been spared. At least 50,000 people have died and more than 4 million have been displaced. Already the largest refugee crisis in Africa since the Rwandan genocide, with one in three South Sudanese forcibly displaced, conditions are worsening.

Most critically, severe food insecurity looms as the country’s hunger season begins. Last year was South Sudan’s worst harvest since it gained independence in 2011. South Sudanese farmers produced only a fraction of the country’s needs, making foreign aid necessary for meeting even basic nutrition requirements. The ongoing fighting only exacerbates an already bleak situation, as many areas are isolated from aid due to the fighting. Rural populations are desperate, but even within Juba, rampant inflation had made purchasing enough food impossible for many families. In short, humanitarian organizations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council have concluded, “More civilians are without food in more places than ever before in the history of South Sudan.”

In addition to hunger, sexual violence is endemic. Plan International recently published a report finding that one in four adolescent girls in South Sudan have considered suicide due to trauma arising from physical and sexual violence. And, while thousands of South Sudanese women have reported rape and other sexual violence, the number of victims is almost certainly much higher due to considerable underreporting. Sexual violence stemming from this conflict should fall under the purview of the Hybrid Court, but the South Sudanese government has continued to delay creating the court, despite being bound to do so by the 2015 Peace Agreement and a 2017 Memorandum of Understanding and Statute for establishing the court.

Next Steps

On July 12, the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss South Sudan and to renew the mandate for the Panel of Experts (PoE) and the existing sanctions regime, both of which expire on July 15. Security Council observers expect a renewal of the PoE mandate and the sanctions regime to be noncontroversial. However, efforts to add additional sanctions would face strong opposition from some members of the Security Council. Although the U.S. would like to pursue additional targeted sanctions, it is unclear whether it would garner the eight additional votes necessary for a vote and, even if it did, whether the vote would survive a veto from China, or especially Russia.

The last Security Council resolution to address the crisis decided that if the parties to the conflict do not find a “viable political agreement,” the Council “shall consider” applying targeted sanctions and/or a comprehensive arms embargo. However, there is considerable policy and political disagreement as to whether either option would move the parties towards peace or change the dynamics of the conflict. As Ohio University Professor Mathew LeRichie notes, thus far sanctions have been applied in a punitive and non-strategic manner, causing the parties to entrench their positions rather than to change their behavior or seek political compromise. Likewise, Ethiopia strongly opposed additional targeted sanctions at the last Security Council meeting discussing this matter, calling them “manifestly harmful to the peace process.” Similarly, some analysts and advocacy groups argue that a multilateral arms embargo could help end the conflict, but the country is already awash in small arms and Russia has been unwilling to consider this possibility in the past.

And this is where the peace process currently stands. Better, but not by much. Still, less than a month ago, Machar remained exiled in South Africa and the peace process showed no viable path forward. There are still more reasons for this peace effort to fail than to succeed and there is little doubt that the country would be best served by most of its political leaders simply stepping aside. But, strong regional leadership from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan—even if self-serving—could exert the pressure necessary for the government and the opposition to begin to resolve their differences through dialogue instead of violence.

This could still be the best outcome to what remains a terrible situation.

AP Photo/Stephen Wandera: Former Vice President of South Sudan Riek Machar, left, greets South Sudan President Salva Kiir as Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, center, looks on as they meet July 7 for a security meeting to find a lasting solution to insecurity in South Sudan.