ADDIS ABABA - After 13 months of fighting and six failed ceasefires, diplomats are being forced to accept that any deal to end the war in South Sudan will, at best, result in a return to the status quo that precipitated the carnage in the first place.
The latest peace proposal drafted this week in Addis Ababa by regional bloc IGAD and seen by AFP leaves Salva Kiir as president and re-installs rebel leader Riek Machar as his deputy, a position he held until July 2013 when his sacking planted the seed of a war that erupted five months later.
Hopes of formulating a comprehensive peace deal that addresses South Sudan's underlying problems and tribal divisions have faded. "That moment has passed," a European diplomat involved in the talks said.
"More and more it's moving towards an elite compromise, but at least that will stop the killing," said another Ethiopia-based diplomat.
Regional and international peace efforts have repeatedly squeezed out promises of peace from Kiir and Machar, but each one has been broken within days, if not hours.
South Sudan's Sudd Institute think-tank describes the talks as "frustratingly slow", gloomily recalling a "plethora" of deals that had been "subsequently dishonoured" by one side or the other.
"The two parties will sign anything to get out of Addis, but they have never given up on the idea of solving this on the battlefield," a diplomat said.
Earning a reputation as slow talkers and hard drinkers, the South Sudanese delegations at the European Union-funded talks held in luxury hotels in Ethiopia have already cost at least 20 million euros (S$30.5 million), according to diplomatic sources.
Talks were first held at the plush Sheraton Hotel, an imposing chunk of beige stone on a hillside in the Ethiopian capital. Delegates could choose from 11 restaurants and bars, bathe in a pool that plays music underwater, visit the spa or simply enjoy the indoor fountains, decorative ponds and mini-palm trees. Rooms cost around US$300 (S$406) a night.
As the bills piled up as fast as the bodies back home and progress proved glacial, the talks were moved to a nearby hotel where rooms are half the price. Delegates continue to claim a 220 euro per diem for attending.
"The waste has been enormous," a European diplomat said, signalling that patience was wearing thin.
"One could be forgiven for having the impression that they're interested in the per diem, the luxury hotel, the bar and the minibar, enjoying the nightclubs of Addis Ababa, and not peace," said another European diplomat observing the talks.
"They don't seem to have any sense of urgency or responsibility to the people on the ground who are dying. They have displayed total contempt for their own people."
No overall death toll for the war has been kept by the government, rebels or the United Nations, but the International Crisis Group says it estimates that at least 50,000 people have been killed.
South Sudanese are exasperated too. "Some people sit in Addis Ababa discussing politics while on the ground other people are fighting and dying," the Catholic bishops of South Sudan said in a statement.
"This war is about power not about the good of the people."
A diplomat in Addis Ababa echoed the bishops' dim view.
"It's all about two people and their cronies fighting to steal the wealth of South Sudan," he said.
A divided region
Half the country's 12 million people need aid, according to the United Nations, which is also guarding some 100,000 civilians trapped inside UN camps ringed with barbed wire, too terrified to venture out for fear of being killed.
The eight-member IGAD, which leads mediation efforts, has been partly stymied by internal divisions.
Kenya and Uganda are leery of imposing sanctions because both have important economic ties to South Sudan. Meanwhile, Uganda has troops in South Sudan to defend Kiir and Sudan is widely suspected of backing Machar.
More than two dozen armed forces - from ragtag militia, to rebels from neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region, to the Ugandan troops backing Kiir - are all now fighting.
"I'm not sure that anyone would have managed it any better than IGAD has," said Alex Rondos, the EU's special representative for the Horn of Africa.
"We're talking about the breakdown of South Sudan's whole political system and yet IGAD has contained what could have been a dangerous regional confrontation. It could have created a proxy war, but we're not there yet," Rondos said.
Fighting began in South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. It quickly spread from the capital Juba triggering a cycle of retaliatory massacres across the country.
The Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based research group, said Thursday that both sides have spent recent months "reinforcing their military positions" to prepare for a "dry season military campaign".
Threats of sanctions are repeatedly made but not implemented. The European Union and the United States placed travel bans on three military leaders accused of atrocities but Kiir and Machar remain untouched.
Diplomats are left with few options other than to continue talking, and to accept any deal that offers the hope of an end to the slaughter, however inadequate.
"We have to stop the killing, even if it's a bad agreement that doesn't change anything," a European diplomat told AFP.