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Chemical Weapons in Syria – A Potential Turning Point

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Believe it or not, the bloody conflict now known as the Syrian Civil War started out in 2011 with a glimmer of hope.  It was originally viewed as an expansion of the Arab Spring protests and had the laudable goal of wresting power from autocratic Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Unfortunately, Assad’s government responded with violence, refusing to acquiesce to the demands of the rebels, and rebel groups have been fighting government-led forces ever since.  The resulting violence has led to a estimated death toll of over 100,000.  Even in the face of this devastating statistic, world leaders have still been hesitant to support the rebels, largely due to the influence of al-Qaeda among certain rebel factions.  While the rebels have received some assistance over the course of the two year conflict, it has been extremely limited.

Although Assad has been able to count on minimal interference from Western nations in Syria’s conflict in the past, the situation is changing rapidly, and he may have pushed his luck too far.  Evidence has been stacking up that Assad’s government not only has been using chemical weapons, but also that these weapons have been used against innocent civilians.  These actions are grievous violations of international law.  With these new revelations about Assad’s likely war crimes, rhetoric against Assad’s government has been increasing.  President Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a red line and trigger foreign intervention.  It is unclear exactly what that foreign intervention will be, although the fear of becoming entangled in yet another drawn out conflict in the Middle East will likely pressure the U.S. to favor strategies like missile strikes over more direct military combat.

This backlash against Assad’s regime goes beyond the borders of the U.S., and international support seems to be lining up for military intervention.  One country, however, is withholding support for any intervention.  Russia, which has been vociferously arguing for Western powers to stay away from the Syrian conflict over the past two years, still has yet to change its position.  Increased tensions with Russia will have to be a risk factored into any intervention plan in Syria, but it does appear that the vast majority of Western nations, including the permanent U.N. Security Council members France, the U.K. and the U.S., are advocates of some form of intervention.

Even if a limited missile strike is the ultimate intervention these allies (among other nations) decide on, extreme caution still needs to be exercised.  Assad’s government may be committing grievous atrocities, but that doesn’t mean the rebels are saints.  Western nations are sure to fear creating a power vacuum that could allow al-Qaeda affiliated groups to seize more power in the midst of the destruction the war has caused.  Syria is currently a breeding ground for terrorism and, as we all now know, also has chemical weapons.  These weapons are bad enough in the hands of Assad, but they could be even worse in the hands of extremists.

Syria is an extremely delicate situation, but many world leaders have finally decided a line has been crossed that calls for intervention.  Let’s all hope that whatever intervention actually occurs is a success.  Thousands of lives, and stability in an increasingly unstable Middle East, depend on it.

Update: World leaders have avoided a direct military strike on Syria in favor of a deal that allows chemical weapons to be confiscated and taken out of Assad’s control.  Follow this link for more information.

Filed under International
Aug 27, 2013

What’s going on in Syria?

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In the early months of 2011, the middle eastern nation of Syria experienced anti-government protests as a result of the growing Arab Spring movement.  But back then, almost no one expected that those protests would morph into a more than two year long, extremely bloody civil war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths nationwide.  While this gloomy scenario was unexpected, it has transformed into an unfortunate reality for not just Syria, but also the entire world.

How did this remarkable transition from clustered protests to widespread civil war occur?  One explanation lies in the fact that while leaders of many other nations affected by the Arab Spring were hesitant to respond with excessive violence, Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad quickly resorted to violent means to quell protests.  Not willing to allow a totalitarian crackdown against descent, rebels responded with violence as well.  As both sides stepped up their tactics, the conflict quickly devolved into an all-out war that has included the targeting of civilians.

Unfortunately, the conflict does not appear to be approaching any satisfactory conclusion.  Recent attempts at peace negotiations have been met with extreme skepticism from all parties, as Syria seems to be too entrenched in conflict to find an easy resolution.  Worse, recent evidence shows that chemical weapons may have been used in the conflict.  The use of chemical weapons demonstrates that the war is escalating, exacerbating the conflict in the face of international hopes to stop the fighting.

But even though the majority of the international community has attempted to curb the fighting, these attempts have been extremely limited in their effectiveness.  A major factor for this limited success has been the overwhelming influence of Russia, a nation that not only has veto power on the United Nations Security Council but also has been supplying arms to Assad.  The United States government has deliberated on whether or not the U.S. should intervene more directly than Russia has allowed the U.N. to do, but so far, the rebels are only receiving limited support from western governments.

Russia is not the only reason the U.S. is hesitant to offer more assistance to the rebels, however.  Al-Qaeda influence has spread into many rebel groups, forcing the United States to question whether they are willing to help defeat Assad if doing so might hand the country over to terrorists.  Basically, the U.S. has found its foreign policy stuck between a rock and a hard place, and while it may be uncomfortable with the status quo of civil war, it doesn’t want to commit itself to either the rebels or Assad.

The idea of a status quo works well for Syria right now, as little action seems to be occurring that could transition the country towards peace.  However, we must remember that the status quo so many nations seem comfortable with has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.  While an easy path to stability and peace in Syria seems unlikely, that doesn’t mean the international community should give up on Syria.

Filed under International
May 22, 2013

From Afghanistan to Africa, a Quick Pace for the Spread of Terrorism

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Whack-A-Mole is a classic arcade game that is played exactly like it sounds.  Moles pop up from several different holes on the playing surface, and it is your job to whack them back down.  But as soon as you whack one mole back into its hole, another mole pops up somewhere else.

There’s a defining characteristic of those darn moles: no matter how assiduous the attacker, they never give up, and a new one will always surface from a new hole.  Unfortunately, a scary truth lies in the fact that the Western world’s counter-terrorism policy for the last few decades has ended up like a poorly thought out game of Whack-A-Mole.  We first tried to whack the terrorists out of countries like Afghanistan, but after that mole was knocked down, pockets of Islamic extremism were simply able to move location.  For this reason, the Western world has witnessed the spread of Islamic extremism to new areas.  From Syria to Yemen to Mali, the moles keep on popping up.

There’s a common thread between the new nations these rebels have moved to – lack of political stability.  Syria and Yemen have both faced a loss of central authority in the wake of the Arab Spring, Mali has faced years of political turmoil and a weak central government.  But while Syria and Yemen still represent the spread of terrorism, no al-Qaeda influence in these nations has been quite as shocking as what we’ve seen in Mali.

In one of the most under-reported news events of last year, extremist rebels that were part of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic Maghreb group captured the northern half of Mali, declaring themselves an independent state.  While the presence of this group is nothing new in the region, the Islamic Maghreb previously could not lay claim to any territory.  The Malian government was unable to provide a successful counter to the rebels, and the rebels were able to expand and start imposing strict sharia law on the towns they captured.  Soon, rebels were able to approach the capital of Bamako, threatening millions.  Clearly, intervention was necessary.

An intervention came in the form of military assistance from the French, who have been working on driving out rebels from the northern half of the country.  But here is where the unfortunate Whack-A-Mole game continues.  Just as the French were battling rebels in Mali, there was a retaliation in Mali’s northern neighbor of Algeria.  Islamist militants in Algeria seized an oil field, capturing its Western workers and killing many.  Just targeting one area does not solve the problem of a widely dispersed extremist base.

These recent events in Mali and Algeria highlight the fast speed that extremist violence can travel at.  Unfortunately, most of our Western counter-terrorism policies function like a man-to-man defense.  We pick one extremist group in one area and try to destroy its influence.  But if al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups are as capable of moving this quickly in the future, we must exercise more caution in combating terror abroad.  Western interventions can no longer afford to treat individual terrorist cells like they are isolated. Worse, terrorism is also increasingly spread out, and no longer confined to specific countries or regions.  We must rethink our methods of fighting terror, and work to contain the spreading influence of Islamic extremism.  Just focusing on one group at a time is not enough, Westerners should instead look at the bigger picture.  Otherwise, we will just be whacking more moles without actually solving the issue.

Filed under International
Jan 20, 2013

The Dark Side of the Arab Spring

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Cairo, seen here, was one of the starting points for the wave of protests that have swept up across the Middle East.
Source: CIA World Factbook

On Septemeber 11th, protests in Egypt resulted in a storming of the American Embassy in Cairo.  That same day, an attack was made on U.S. officials in Libya, killing the American ambassador.  These acts of violence were reportedly instigated by an anti-Islam video posted online.

Of course, the exact justification for the events that have unfolded remains to be clear.  While an inflammatory video is certainly capable of sparking outrage, mere anger alone should not be expected to lead to the storming of an embassy.  The attack in Libya is even more mysterious, and there is no sure connection between the video and the shooting.

But even as authorities investigate the exact chain of events, the incidents in both Egypt and Libya have sparked increased anti-Western sentiment across the Arab World.  Protests have erupted from Nigeria to Bangladesh, representing a deep-seated distrust of Western powers by the general populace in varying Muslim-majority countries.

These recent protests highlight a transition originally sparked by the Arab Spring.  This transition, marked by a shift from authoritarian secularism to both democracy and Islamist tendencies, has reinvigorated tensions between the Middle East and the Western world.

Western governments, it should be noted, are partly responsible for creating the conditions that led to this shift.  As the Western world condoned the actions of secular autocrats, Islamist groups often served as the main political opposition to these leaders in the absence of international pressure.  Even though the Arab Spring was a series of secular and not religious revolutions, the power void created in its wake allowed the already established Islamist oppositions to take control.

Still, this Islamist control of post-Arab Spring countries does not fully explain the actions that occurred in Egypt and Libya.  They most certainly don’t explain the protests occurring in many countries largely unchanged by the Arab Spring.  In fact, Mohamed Morsi, the president who controls Egypt’s moderate Islamist government, has repeated his calls for an end to the violence and a return to normalcy.  New Islamist governments should not receive the blame for recent actions.

A more reasonable explanation is that the video was viewed by the Muslim populace of many nations as yet another injustice against the Muslim world condoned by the U.S. and other Western powers.  This theory helps explain why protests have spread to Muslim countries not affected by the Arab Spring even though they started in the Arab Spring hotspots of Egypt and Libya.

The whole series of incidents underlines the growing symptoms of a worsening clash between Western democratic ideals and Islamic beliefs.  The incendiary video is of course protected by free speech- a basic tenet of democracy.  But on the flip side, the Islamic world places just as much value on the sanctity of their religion as Westerners do on the freedom of their speech.  Westerners are long accustomed to the obscene and occasionally revolting side-effects of free speech.   Much of the Arab world is not, and they should thus be expected to be more sensitive to its abuses.

The continuing turmoil in the Middle East is an unwelcome turn for Westerners.  However, it is also an expected and logical effect of ongoing trends.  As the Middle East struggles to find its place in the larger world, natural clashes between established traditions and new values should be expected, even if the results of these clashes are unwelcome.

Filed under International
Sep 15, 2012

In Egypt, A Consolidation of Power

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Even though new President Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected this summer, Egypt has faced a continuing power struggle.  Army leaders in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, also known as SCAF, have been reluctant to relinquish power.  After dissolving the newly elected Parliament, SCAF claimed legislative and executive powers for itself.

Morsi, of course, has actively combated the army’s efforts to maintain power.  His first bold move as President was to call Parliament back into session, superseding the army’s orders.  But now, by forcing the retirement of SCAF’s top generals, Morsi has effectively disabled the army’s grip on power.

Cleverly, Morsi relied on younger army officers to support this shake-up.  With the old army leaders gone, Morsi was able to give younger army members the most powerful positions.  Since these new leaders owe their positions to Morsi, they are less likely to challenge his power than the Mubarak appointed army leaders Morsi had been dealing with.  The army seems to be, once again, loyal to the president.

Considering that there has been little opposition to Morsi’s consolidation of presidential powers, Egypt finally appears to be returning to normal.   However, the next step that Egypt needs to take is the creation of a constitution.  After all, a constitution is critical not only to set the powers for each branch of government, but it is also critical to subdue the army in the future.  It is difficult for Morsi to argue that the army has overstepped its powers when there is no formal constitution to dictate those powers.  Additionally, a constitution will give Morsi increased legitimacy, as until now the only legitimacy for his actions has been his democratic election.  And while he is Egypt’s first democratically elected president ever, it is important to note that the duties of the office were still extremely vague when he was elected.

But even after successfully wresting control from the army, Morsi still faces a conundrum over Egypt’s courts.  In the past, Egypt’s courts have sided with SCAF and against Morsi.  The main reason for this is that, like the old members of SCAF, the most powerful judges were appointed by Mubarak and are hesitant to the change that Morsi represents.  Any new constitution will have to respect the judiciary while understanding that current judges may be unwelcome to change.

The most powerful leaders of SCAF defeated, Morsi and his Parliament face a new challenge in drafting a Constitution.  The future of a newly democratic Egypt is at stake, and specific laws must be drawn up to prevent a power struggle in the future.

Filed under International
Aug 14, 2012

Al-Qaeda in Syria, A Dangerous Development

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Westerners have tended to side with the rebels in Syria in their fight against Assad’s government.  The rationale is simple: Westerners view the rebels as freedom fighters and Assad as a dictatorial figure.  But these empathetic feelings may soon disappear.

Suspicions of al-Qaeda working in support of the rebels have been growing.  If al-Qaeda gains influence within voids created by a weakening Assad government, Syria could become a breeding ground for terrorism.

This creates a problem for the U.S. and other Western nations.  Theoretically, as nations pledged to democracy, they should support the ousting of an autocrat.  However, the collapse of Assad’s regime may only serve to further destabilize the region and further the spread of extremists.  The possibility of democracy is coupled with a threat of instability.

Up until now, the United States has appeared supportive of policies that allow the rebels to obtain arms through the Turkish-Syrian border.  However, the news of al-Qaeda influence gives the U.S. reason to double think that strategy.  A few decades ago, similar policies allowed the Taliban to obtain guns in order to combat the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Fast forward twenty years, and the U.S. government regretted that decision.  U.S. military leaders will not want to make the same mistake with Syria.

Then again, stopping Syrian rebels from receiving arms only serves to tip the fight towards Assad.  To fix this, the United States also has the option of trying to establish stronger diplomatic relations with the rebellion’s leadership.  The rebellion is actually based in Turkey, and since both the U.S. and Turkey have taken a strong stance against Assad, the two countries share a mutual interest in a strong but al-Qaeda free rebellion.

However, it is not exactly clear how much control rebel leaders headquartered in Turkey have on ground operations in Syria.  The U.S. has no way of telling if the rebellion’s leaders would have a way to successfully remove al-Qaeda influence from the rebellion.  And since the extent of al-Qaeda’s reach is still a mystery, the U.S. does not even know how widespread the problem is.

Because of the many unknowns still surrounding the situation, no extreme action should be expected in the short term.  Still, the danger a nascent al-Qaeda influence presents will likely impact international reactions in regards to the Syrian conflict.  Actions by the international community against Assad are more difficult when the alternative is just as scary.

Filed under International
Jul 25, 2012

Egypt’s Continuing Power Struggle

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Egypt’s newly elected president Mohammed Morsi has made an aggressive political decision by calling Egypt’s Parliament to re-assemble.  Just weeks ago, the Parliament was dissolved by Egypt’s Supreme Court in a move that many viewed was an attempt to cement the military’s hold on power.  Both the most powerful judges and the military elite are holdovers from the days of Mubarak, and their attempts to maintain power threaten the viability of Morsi’s new government.  As Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Morsi has the responsibility of successfully transitioning Egypt out of the army’s clutches and making it a fully functioning democracy.

Morsi’s call to reconvene the Parliament can be viewed as a direct challenge to the military leaders.  In this respect, his actions make sense.  After all, both he and the Parliament have been elected to serve Egypt.  The military leaders, being unelected, should in no way hold power over the legislature.

However, Morsi’s call is also in direct opposition to the Supreme Court.  While often assumed to be aligned with the military in blocking democratic efforts, the court is still important for the functioning of Egypt’s government, and Morsi has partially voided its legitimacy by attempting to overrule its decision.

The underlying problem with these events in Egypt is that Egypt no longer has a constitution to provide checks and balances to its separate branches of government.  Morsi’s action may be criticized for having no basis in law, but any action can be criticized as illegitimate when there is no supreme law of the land.

When the Supreme Court disbanded the legislature, the army assumed legislative powers.  Mr. Morsi, by reconvening the Parliament, is giving legislative powers back to elected representatives.  Additionally, the first step to creating a functioning constitution is to have a democratically elected voting body.

Mr. Morsi is creating legitimacy for his government.  While the army’s reaction is not yet known, an overruling of a Mubarak-tainted Supreme Court seems acceptable if the end goal is to create a working and stable democratic system.

Filed under International
Jul 9, 2012

Pakistan Supply Line Reopened

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Last November, U.S. led NATO forces and the Pakistani army clashed for unknown reasons, leaving 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.  As a sign of anger against what they declared was an unprovoked attack, Pakistani leaders closed the NATO supply route that went through their country.  This action complicated NATO’s counter-terrorism efforts, leading to tensions, especially with the United States.  RantAWeek reported in May that even though Pakistan’s President Zardari came to the Chicago NATO summit, no deal was worked out to reopen the supply line, showing that tensions still existed.

However, the power of an apology finally brought the issue to a conclusion.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Pakistan an apology for the deaths of their soldiers, quickly leading to an agreement to reopen the closed supply route.

This symbolizes a new step forward for U.S.-Pakistan relations, but also a step forward for Pakistan itself.  After all, better relations with NATO members makes Pakistan appear much more stable.  For much of the year, Pakistan’s government seemed susceptible to a coup, and observers questioned if President Zardari would be able to maintain control of his country.  Zardari has kept his power, but his Prime Minister was forced out of office by the Supreme Court just weeks ago.  The fact that new Prime Minister Raja Ashraf has overseen such a dramatic change in policy so quickly after his election points towards a strengthening Pakistani government.

NATO and middle eastern countries such as Pakistan are co-dependent when it comes to fighting terrorism, and cooperation between the two is imperative to security.  Tensions threatened a united front against terrorism, but renewed relations promise a brighter future.

Pakistan’s assistance is key.  NATO plans to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, meaning that both Pakistan and Afghanistan will have to work on combating terrorist cells that historically have had a presence near the border of the two countries.  If a record of cooperation can not be established now, it will be more difficult for the two countries to work together later, without the assistance of NATO.

The War on Terror has been helped by this supply line and was hurt by its closure.  It’s a relief to see tensions subsiding and the route reopening.

 

Filed under International
Jul 3, 2012

Problems in Pakistan and Yemen

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The NATO summit earlier this week left a pretty good impression of the exit strategy world leaders have for the War in Afghanistan.  However, the summit failed on two notable counts: improving the relationship with Pakistan and furthering counter-terrorism efforts within Yemen.

First, Pakistan.  Relations deteriorated last year when SEAL Team Six assassinated Osama bin-Laden well inside Pakistan’s borders and without informing the Pakistani military.  However, tensions increased dramatically last November when an skirmish with U.S.-led NATO forces left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.  Both the provocation for the attack and the instigating party are still disputed, but national anger in Pakistan prompted leaders to cut off a vital NATO supply line.

Relations have hardly cooled down since then.  The main reason is that the U.S. has continued its drone strikes in Pakistani airspace, an act that Pakistan views as an infringement of its sovereignty.  Still, many were optimistic when Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari agreed to come to the NATO summit, especially considering Pakistan is not a NATO member.

Unfortunately, even though Zardari did come as planned to the summit, no deal was worked out.  President Obama said in his post-summit comments that he had not expected a deal to occur during the summit, and that further negotiations would have to be pursued in order to finally reach a compromise and reopen the supply route.

Even though this deal was apparently not expected, the fact that Zardari made the trip demonstrated that an agreement certainly was a possibility.  Additionally, the fact that the U.S. has maintained so shaky of relations with one of its crucial allies and has been unable to repair the situation for months emphasizes the difficulties the U.S. will continue to have within the Middle East.

Those difficulties within the Middle East also apply to Yemen.  While diplomacy is the main problem with Pakistan, issues with Yemen are more focused on combating terrorism.  But unlike the stagnant situation in Pakistan, the situation in Yemen is deteriorating.

Yemen, after an Arab Spring revolution that removed the president from office but only ended with his vice president taking power, is in a precarious political position.  The weakness of the central government has led to increased strength of the tribes that control and influence various regions of Yemen.  This has created fears that a nascent branch of al-Qaeda within the country can use the lack of federal oversight, coupled with the strong tribal culture, to create a dangerous terrorist network.

These fears were exacerbated by a terrorist bombing attack on Monday that killed nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers in the capital of Sana’a.  The fact that such an attack was able to occur within walking distance of the presidential palace demonstrates the relative strength of al-Qaeda compared to the Yemeni government.

While America has helped Yemen through the use of drone strikes, the NATO summit failed to adequately address the issues Yemen presents.  However, if al-Qaeda continues to grow its strength in Yemen, the threat will need to be discussed more completely at a future NATO summit or by the individual leaders within their own countries.  Al-Qaeda’s diversification outside of the nations it is usually associated with is a risk that organizations like NATO cannot ignore.  Successfully stopping extremism in nations like Afghanistan accomplishes little if extremism is allowed to grow unchecked in other nations.

As NATO winds down its role in Afghanistan, its job on the world stage is far from being over.  NATO countries, especially the U.S., must focus on improving relations with Pakistan.  In addition, the growing threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen means that more attention must be paid to its problems, and that a clear path forward must be made.

 

Filed under International
May 22, 2012

Sudan Civil War

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The nation of Sudan has been rife with conflict for decades, but many hoped that tensions would subside when South Sudan broke away and became its own country last summer.  Unfortunately, the split has failed to decrease violence, and the two nations are edging closer to war.  The center of controversy lies at oilfields along the border which both countries lay claim to.  Complicating the situation is the fact that the exact border between the two nations has not yet been drawn because several areas in the vicinity of the disputed oil fields must still hold referendums to determine which country they want to be a part of.

South Sudan, perhaps more than its northern neighbor, is in desperate need of money from these oil fields.  Landlocked in the heart of Africa, South Sudan relies almost entirely on oil revenues to keep its economy functioning.  Without many other natural resources or a solid infrastructure, oil is a crucial factor for South Sudan’s development.  That being said, Sudan’s economy is also based off of oil and it will also be negatively affected by the loss of these oil lands.

Attempts at compromise have already been made.  The most viable plan was that South Sudan would pay Sudan a fraction of their oil revenues for the right to use Sudan’s existing pipelines.  On the surface, this plan makes sense.  Even without infrastructure of their own, South Sudan would be able to export their oil.  And even after losing some oil fields, Sudan would not lose all their oil revenues.

However, tensions between the two countries have built up to the point where border skirmishes and bombings are drawing the nations closer to more widespread violence.  Ominously, problems in Sudan have quickly escalated in the past, and there is no specific reason why we shouldn’t expect increased violence this time around.

Still, there is hope for peace.  To achieve a peaceable conclusion, leaders in both Sudans must be persuaded that a revenue sharing compromise deal is a better outcome than the outbreak of yet another civil war.  Unfortunately, even though international focus has been placed on preventing violence, the ongoing bloodshed over these oil fields has continued.  It seems that international attempts to fix the situation in Sudan may not amount to much success.  After all, even though the International Criminal Court has an outstanding arrest warrant against Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir, he remains in power.

But there seems to be internal hope for a nonviolent solution.  Sudan has said that it is willing to discuss matters with its southern counterpart, showing that the violence has not yet escalated to a point of no return.  With hope, these negotiations can bring an end to the violence and a more concrete plan for how to share the oilfields.  The Sudanese region has been riddled with violence for too long, so let’s hope they can work out a peaceful solution.

Filed under International
May 12, 2012

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