January 11, 2011, 4:00 AM
On Sunday, the southern Sudanese began voting on a referendum to secede from the Republic of Sudan and establish their own sovereign nation. By all accounts, they will soon secede from the Arab, Islamic country and form an independent African, Christian and animist state.
The consequences of their actions will reverberate around the world.
This week's referendum takes place in accordance with the US-brokered Comprehensive Peace Treaty between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement signed on January 9, 2005.
The CPT officially ended the second Sudanese Civil War that began in 1983.
The South Sudanese referendum will not settle the issue of control over all of southern Sudan. Numerous flashpoints remain. Most importantly, the disposition of the town of Abyei remains undetermined. Abyei is where most of Sudan's oil deposits are located.
Unlike the rest of the south, its population is a mix of Arabs and Africans and its residents are split over the issue of separation from Khartoum. If there is war after independence, Abyei will likely be its cause.
Abyei's residents were supposed to vote on a referendum to determine the disposition of their town at the same time as the rest of the south. But fuelled by their conflicting interests, they could not agree on how to run the poll, and so it did not take place.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is playing a contradictory role in the South Sudanese referendum. Al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
Last week he visited South Sudan's capital city Juba and pledged to support the referendum's results. As he put it, "I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is secession. Even after the southern state is born, we are ready in the Khartoum government to offer any technical or logistical support and training or advice - we are ready to help."
But then, last Friday, pro-Khartoum militias attacked anti-Khartoum targets in Abyei. By Monday, 23 people had been killed. According to South Sudanese military spokesmen, militiamen captured in Abyei said they were ordered to attack by Khartoum.
MUCH OF the international discourse on southern Sudan has centered on what South Sudan's independence means for its citizens and for Africa as a whole. And this is reasonable.
In its 54-year history, Sudan has suffered from civil war between the north and south for 39 years. Some 200,000 south Sudanese were kidnapped into slavery. Two million Sudanese have died in the wars. Four million have become refugees.
But the fact is that with the West openly supporting southern Sudanese independence, a new war's consequences will not be limited to Sudan itself. Therefore it is worth considering why such a war is all but certain and what southern Sudanese independence means for the region and the world.
There were two main reasons that Bashir agreed to sign the peace treaty with the south Sudanese in 2005. First, his forces had lost the civil war. The south was already effectively independent.
The second reason Bashir agreed to a deal that would give eventual independence to the oil-rich south is because he feared the US.
In 2004, led by then president George W. Bush, the US cast a giant shadow throughout the world. The US military's lightning overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime frightened US foes and encouraged US allies. The democratic wave revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon were all fuelled by the world's belief in US's willingness to use its power to defeat its foes.
Bashir's regime is closely linked to al-Qaida, which he hosted from 1989 until 1995.
When the US demanded that he accept the south's victory, he probably didn't believe he could refuse.
Today, the US is not feared or respected as it was six years ago. And according to a recent article in the online Small Wars Journal by US Army Lt. Col. Thomas Talley, Bashir's current dim perception of the US makes war inevitable.
Talley argues that without Abyei, South Sudan will be rendered an economically nonviable failed state. South Sudan, he claims is too weak to secure Abyei from Khartoum without outside assistance.
According to Talley, the deterioration of the global perception of US power has convinced Bashir that the US will not protect Abyei for the south and so his best bet is to invade the town or at a minimum prevent the south from securing it.
As Talley notes, for Bashir, far more than oil is at stake. If Bashir agrees to cede southern Sudan without a fight, he will be discredited both by his fellow Arab leaders and by his fellow Islamic leaders.
Arab leaders as diverse as Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal have decried South Sudan's independence. Gaddafi warned that southern secession would be the beginning of a "contagious disease."
Faisal called it a "dangerous move" that no member of the Arab League should support.
THE FACT of the matter is that the Arabs have reason to be concerned about what is happening in Sudan. If South Sudan becomes an independent nation, it will be the first case of rollback of Arab imperialism since World War I.
One of the central aspects of Middle Eastern politics that is overwhelmingly ignored by scholars is Arab imperialism and the role it has played in shaping the region's politics.
Both during the post-World War I breakup of the Ottoman Empire and with the breakup of the British and French empires after World War II, British and French imperial authorities colluded with Arab imperialists to guarantee the latter's nearly uninhibited control over the Middle East.
For the Kurds, Shi'ites, Druse, Alawites, Copts, and other non-Sunni, non-Arab, or non-Muslim populations in the region, the end of Western rule meant the end of their relative freedom.
In the case of southern Sudan, during the half century of British rule, the south was administered separately from the Arab north.
But when the British withdrew in 1956, in their haste to leave, they placed the south under Arab rule. Fearing disenfranchisement and oppression, the south began the first Sudanese civil war in 1955 - the year before independence.
There were only two exceptions to Europe's collusion with Arab imperialists - Christian- majority Lebanon and the Palestine Mandate. In both these areas, Western powers allowed non-Muslims to take charge of territory claimed by Arab imperialists.
As the post-independence history of both Lebanon and Israel shows, the Europeans eventually attenuated their support for non-Arab governments. The French have pressured Lebanon's Christians fairly consistently to appease the Arabs. This pressure has caused continuous Christian emigration from Lebanon which has rendered the Christians a minority in Lebanon today. And the Lebanese Christians' attempts to appease the Arabs, opened the door for Hizbullah to take over the country for Iran.
As for Israel, in light of its failure to convince the Arabs to be appeased by its concessions and the Arabs' failure to overrun the Jewish state, since 1973 Europe has collaborated with the Arabs in recasting reality to suit the aims of Arab imperialism.
Whereas Israel was established and repeatedly defended by the Jewish national liberation movement against the wishes of Arab imperialists, with European assistance, the Arabs have inverted history. The current Arab-European claim is that the Arab imperialist war against Israel is a Jewish imperialist war against Arabs.
AGAINST THIS backdrop of Western perfidy towards the Middle East's non-Arab minorities, the West's support for South Sudanese independence is nothing short of miraculous.
Unfortunately, the West's support for South Sudan probably owes to Western ignorance rather than a newfound Western will to defy Arab imperialists. That is, it is likely that West is doing the right thing today in Sudan because it doesn't understand the ramifications of its own policy.
If the West doesn't understand its policy, then it is unlikely to understand the significance of a challenge to that policy by Khartoum and its allies. And if it fails to understand the significance of a challenge to its policy by Khartoum, then it is unlikely to defend its policy when it is challenged.
Against this backdrop, it is important to recall Lt. Col. Talley's claim that Bashir will attack Abyei because he does not believe that the US will defend South Sudanese control of the border town. The shallowness of Western support for South Sudan will lead to war.
But again, it isn't just the Arabs that will force Bashir to go to war. He also has the pan-Islamic jihadists to consider. His erstwhile friends in al-Qaida have made clear that they will not take the surrender of southern Sudan to non-Musims lying down.
Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al Zawahiri has denounced Bashir for signing the peace agreement with the south. In an article Friday in The Daily Beast, former US National Security Council official Bruce Riedel wrote that in 2009 Zawahiri called on Sudan's Muslims to fight "a long guerilla war," because "the contemporary Crusade has bared its fangs at you."
Zawahiri told Bashir, "to repent and return to the straight path of Islam and jihad."
And it is not only al-Qaida that will feel disconcerted by the south's secession. At a time when jihadist regimes and forces throughout the Arab and Islamic world are using violence to repress Christians and other non-Muslims and force the full implementation of Sharia law, the notion that the Dar el-Islam or Muslim world is shrinking in Sudan is widely perceived as unacceptable. Islamic attacks against the West for its support for southern Sudanese independence are highly likely.
None of this means that the West should end its support for South Sudan. The South Sudanese have earned their independence in a way that most nations never have.
They deserve the support of all nations that value freedom and decency.
But what it does mean is that as they move forward, South Sudan's leaders must recognize that the West is likely to abandon them at the first sign of trouble. They must weigh their options accordingly.
More importantly, the all but certain results of South Sudan's independence serve as yet another reminder to the West about the nature of power, war and friendship.
Power is inextricably linked to the perception of power. You are perceived as powerful when you show you can tell friend from foe, and stand with the former against the latter.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.