April 12, 2013 (KHARTOUM) – Rebel fighters from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) appear to have made significant gains in the first year of renewed fighting in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, according to a new report.
- South Kordofan State in red (Disputed Abyei Area in pink)
The working paper, ‘New War, Old Enemies: Conflict Dynamics in South Kordofan’,
examines the first year of the conflict from June 2011–July 2012, finding that some 30,000 of its troops and allied forces had captured a large part of the Nuba Mountains area, despite being unable to match the superior fire power of the Sudanese army (SAF).
The report, which was carried out by the Small Arms Survey as part of its Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan project, focuses on the dynamics of the conflict and the cross-border implications for both Sudans.
Although rebels failed to hold onto major towns and lowland areas, the report found that the SPLM-N still held the military balance of power in the Nuba Mountains a year after war erupted in the region.
“Many observers say the rebels know the territory better, are highly motivated, and have better training than the SAF-affiliated militias,” the report said.
“Although the rebel fighters’ weapons are inferior, especially given SAF’s ability to resupply troops and their uncontested airpower, the SPLM-N has been successful in capturing SAF equipment and vehicles”, it added.
WEAPONS SUPPLY CHAIN
Conflict erupted in South Kordofan in June 2011, just prior to the South seceding from the north in July. Within a few months the conflict had also spread to neighbouring Blue Nile state.
Southern aligned fighters fought alongside South Sudan in their struggle for independence, but were left north of the border after partition.
Sudan has repeatedly accused Juba of backing its former allies operating in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
However, researchers found that post-independence there was little evidence to support claims the South Sudanese government was supplying weapons to the SPLM-N, though some political and logistical support is evident.
Rather, weapons and vehicles seized from the SAF in the period between June 2011 and April 2012 had inadvertently provided the SPLM-N with their most valuable military resources.
These included significant quantities of small calibre ammunition, mortar bombs, anti-tank rockets and shells, as well as weapons, including grenade launchers, mortars, canons, and T-55 tanks.
“The rebels were able to regularly reinforce their military means, using SAF as an effective, although unwilling, supplier”, researchers said.
According to the report, the SPLM-N became increasingly radical in its push for regime change in the first year of conflict, with the deteriorating relationship between the Sudans and the subsequent shutdown in oil production last January leading to an unprecedented economic crisis, proving particularly favourable for the rebel movement.
“The supply of weapons lies at the heart of these renewed and more radical ambitions: the ‘new war’ is between old enemies but these old rivals are now better equipped and, ironically, both benefit from the Sudanese government’s supply chain”, the report said.
It also noted that a small contingent of fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of several rebel groups fighting a decade-long war against Khartoum in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, had been crucial to SPLM-N gains in the region.
“Although numerically far inferior to the SPLM-N, JEM has provided crucial support to rebels in South Kordofan and its involvement has proved decisive in key battles,” the report said.
It added Kordofan forces, comprising largely of Missiriya and Nuba elements, typically operate as a kind of cavalry, employing the same mobile fighting tactics the movement has used in Darfur.
CONTROL OF THE SKIES
The report found that SAF superiority in South Kordofan is limited to its control of the skies and that widespread bombing campaigns had succeeded only in terrorising and displacing the local population, rather than any significant military gains.
There is strong evidence that SAF has employed cluster bombs and incendiary weapons in South Kordofan, with the report noting that “the use of such weapons, in particular against civilian populations, may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.
The Small Arms Survey heard several statements about the possible use of chemical weapons on both sides of the Sudan–South Sudan border, but was unable to verify these reports.
However, several SPLM-N and South Sudan army soldiers who took part in direct confrontations against SAF in April 2012 reported cases of poisoning, sometimes leading to death, resulting from the inhalation of fumes released from SAF-fired artillery bombs.
Medical personnel who treated more than 40 soldiers injured in battles in the Tolodi and Heglig areas confirmed the nature of these symptoms, saying they were likely caused by organo-phosphate poisoning, although comprehensive tests were not available.
Researchers said the resumption of fighting has had a devastating impact on civilians, with SPLM-N-linked sources estimating that by mid-December 2012 some 736,000 “vulnerable” people within the Nuba Mountains’ so-called liberated areas were in urgent need of relief, while around 436,000 of these had been displaced within rebel-held areas. The government, which has no real access to rebel areas, put the number of displaced at 42,150. The SPLM-N sources say the entire population of SPLM-N-controlled areas in South Kordofan, estimated at 995,000 people, have been affected by the conflict.
The report notes that solving the north-South conflict will not alone be sufficient to end the problems in South Kordofan.
It says Khartoum’s assertions that northern rebels are merely proxies of South Sudan is simplistic, adding that despite the important links between them, the SPLM-N has a distinct political and military agenda from that of the Southern army (SPLA).
The report describes the ongoing conflict in South Kordofan as “largely, a continuation of the previous civil war”, saying “the new war involves old enemies, who know and distrust each other more than ever, making both sides more radical and less susceptible to pressure for a serious peace process”.
Ongoing conflict in the region, it continues, will continue to have serious ramifications on the security of both Sudan and South Sudan.
“The conflict in South Kordofan is, in the first place, an internal Sudanese issue rather than a mere ramification of north-South tensions. Even if South Sudan further severs its links to the SPLM-N, the war, with an increasingly national agenda, will continue to threaten both national and regional stability,” it said.