Can UN Peacekeepers Prevent Civil War in South Sudan?

South Sudan is falling apart.

It has been one week since a failed coup attempt set off a string of ethnic attacks and reprisals between ethnic Nuer and Dinka militants. The two had been allies in their fight for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan. But less than three years following independence, a severely fragile state has finally broken. Conflict between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir (and Dinka) and his main political rival, Riek Machar (a Nuer) is on the verge of becoming a full blow civil war.

Standing in between these forces, sometimes literally so, are about 7500 UN Peacekeepers from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Prior to this fighting, UNMISS soldiers carried on common peacekeeping tasks; they helped build state institutions like the army and offered some breathing room between South Sudan and their rivals to the north.

Now, UNMISS has taken on an urgent civilian protection role. They are sheltering some 40,000 civilians that have fled to their compounds and caring for the wounded. But the scale of people needing protection compared the the number of armed groups and the size of the UN peacekeeping mission does not auger well. Last week, for example, an outpost guarded by 45 Indian peacekeepers was overrun by 2000 Nuer militiamen trying to hunt down ethnic Dinka that had taken shelter inside. Two Indian peacekeepers were killed and 35 civilians are unaccounted for.

That tragic incident demonstrates that a few thousand peacekeepers spread across a large country cannot by itself deter mass atrocities from being carried out by large and committed militants. If Riek Machar and Salva Kiir want to escalate the conflict, they can and they will. There’s nothing that UN Peacekeepers on the ground can do to stop these politicians from making a political decision to go to war.

Peacekeepers can — and are — working within their mandate to protect civilians by offering shelter and safe haven, evacuating the wounded and protecting vulnerable populations. The thing is, they cannot be everywhere at once. And as the incident last week demonstrated, even when there are peacekeepers present and protecting civilians, they will always be outnumbered and outgunned.

Ban Ki Moon announced yesterday that he is repoisitiong Peacekeeping assets in the region, moving troops from the Congo to South Sudan. That can certainly help reinforce current positions. But if this conflict is going to de-escalate, it will do so because the parties to conflict believe they have more to lose than gain from continued fighting. Peacekeepers can help make this conflict less deadly than it otherwise would be for civilians. But they cannot prevent a civil war from erupting.