After two weeks of slaughter in South Sudan, UNMISS, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, faces three possible scenarios: fragile success, prolonged agony and decisive failure. In the first and best scenario, the mission will manage to hold together militarily long enough for more-or-less sincere political talks to end the violence. In the second, it might muddle through in the face of half-hearted negotiations and spasmodic but serious violence, trying to save as many lives as possible. The third, worst-case scenario would involve the fragmentation and rout of UNMISS after repeated attacks on its bases, personnel and convoys.
The mission’s fate could reshape debates about the U.N.’s capabilities and limits. For most of 2013, UNMISS was overshadowed by the trials of other blue helmet missions, notably the long-running operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the new force in Mali. This month’s outbreak of fighting between supporters of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his erstwhile deputy, former Vice President Riek Machar, has presented the Security Council and U.N. officials with a brutally urgent new set of priorities. Even if UNMISS makes it through the current crisis, it will take a major political and military investment to restore its longer-term credibility.
South Sudan should be a flagship success story for peacekeeping. The U.N. oversaw the country’s referendum on independence in January 2011, and aid agencies were keen to get the new state off the ground. Under pressure to limit costs and minimize friction with Kiir, U.N. officials crafted plans for a lightweight peace operation of 7,000 soldiers and 900 police officers to help maintain security. Although far smaller than the U.N. forces in neighboring Darfur and the DRC, the mission was meant to gain strength from high-end military assets and sharp political analysis.