White House Permits Defense Exports to South Sudan
U.S. President Barack Obama has given his approval for the sale of weapons and defense services to South Sudan, possibly paving the way for purchases of air defense systems, equipment the South has been asking for since before its independence.
SOUTH SUDANESE SOLDIERS march with their national flag during a military parade marking South Sudan's independence in July. (Phil Moore / Getty via AFP)
In a Jan. 6 memo sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama said that the "furnishing of defense articles and defense services to the Republic of South Sudan will strengthen the security of the United States and promote world peace."
The Republic of South Sudan, which officially declared its independence from Sudan in July, faces a number of internal and external security challenges.
Inside the country, violent tribal clashes in the state of Jonglei have resulted in the death and displacement of thousands of people. In response, the United Nations has launched major emergency and food distribution operations.
Meanwhile, tensions continue to rise between South Sudan and Sudan, which is accused of attacking the southern country using aerial bombardments.
Sudan ended a decades-long civil war in 2005, at which point the southern region was granted autonomy but not independence.
Last January, South Sudan overwhelmingly voted for its independence from Sudan, news welcomed by the Obama Administration, which, along with the U.S. Congress, has been a strong supporter of the independent state.
However, over the last year, attacks and border incursions by the north have continued and some believe the two countries are lurching toward war.
"It is becoming more likely almost by the day," Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and a Sudan researcher and analyst, said.
Reeves said he hoped Obama's executive order would allow South Sudan to buy the defensive military capabilities it needs to protect itself.
E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, called the order "quite significant given the fact that there has been a very significant ramp of tensions between Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan."
"I have to imagine that part of the discussion within the administration was: 'What kind of signal does this send?'" Hogendoorn said.
Sudan's military capabilities far surpass those of South Sudan.
Sudan's air force includes MiG-29 Russian fighter jets, Soviet-built Hind helicopter gunships and troop transport aircraft.
The approval from the White House could open the door for South Sudan to acquire air defense systems, which some advocates of South Sudan have argued are long overdue.
"This determination is not a surprise, and indeed many feel as I do that it has been much too long in coming, especially given the enormous security challenges facing South Sudan," Reeves said.
In addition to air defense, South Sudan needs transport helicopters, communications gear and training to convert the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) from a guerilla force into a modern army, Reeves said. "One of the reasons that violence in Jonglei got out of hand was that both the U.N. and the SPLA had a tremendous amount of difficulty getting people into Pibor," the town under attack.
However, whether the White House's decision on weapons exports changes things on the ground, Reeves said it is too early to tell.
"Let's see what this thing actually translates into," he said. "It's an enabling action, but it does nothing on its own."