It was one of those moments during the Lebanon war in summer 2006 when newspapers were glimpsing the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel. A friend turned to me and said, without realizing what he was saying: “Yesterday we stood on the edge of a precipice. Today we have taken a great step forward. He was correct. The light disappeared and we fell off the precipice. All over Darfur, lights are going out and great steps are being taken off the edges of precipices. The sense of despair among those working in Darfur is palpable and makes a nonsense of the upbeat assessments and “expectations of some of the more senior international emissaries to the region. There is, for the moment, nothing to expect in Darfur except more death, more destruction, more rape and more pressure on the rapidly-dwindling band of humanitarians struggling to save lives in areas far outside the war zones. For the first time since the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed in Abuja, Nigeria, in May last year – an agreement forced to a hasty conclusion that left it incomplete and so ensured its failure – those who would bring peace to Darfur are finally acknowledging that the agreement cannot work as it is and needs re-examination. (“Renegotiate is still a no-no word. As if semantics matter when people are dying.) The DPA “is not like the Koran or the Bible that you cannot change or modify , the special envoy of the African Union (AU) to Sudan, Salim Ahmed Salim, said on February 16, after months of saying the opposite. The bad news, the step off the edge of the precipice, is that there is no coherent plan for how to go about “modifying the peace agreement. The United States, essential to any successful pressure on the Sudanese government, remains fixated on getting United Nations peacekeepers into Darfur – admittedly as part of a “hybrid force with the AU now – to enforce a peace that does not exist and that neither the UN nor the AU can bring about by force. Field commanders of the fragmented Sudan Liberation Army were to have met in North Darfur this month to try to forge a degree of unity in advance of new peace talks somewhere, somehow, under AU-UN auspices. But, like the DPA before it, the conference lacks the security guarantees necessary to make it workable. First scheduled for November last year, when the government prevented it by pounding the conference site from the air, the commanders’ conference may never happen – not inside Darfur at least. And even if it does, the manner in which it has been handled has already created a new divide among the non-signatories of the DPA – most importantly, between those who want to represent the interests of their people and seek a negotiated settlement for Darfur, and those who are in hock to outside interests and their own ambitions for power in Khartoum. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment at which things began to go wrong, for they have never gone right. There has been a lot of racket about the “genocide in Darfur – a controversial and time-consuming debate that did nothing to help find a solution to the killing. However, there have been no effective measures to halt it, and no serious, concerted, believable pressure on a Sudanese government that, although not monolithic, is still controlled by those who can watch Darfur dying without flinching. In the post-DPA days, the tipping point probably came in the middle of last year when the African Union expelled non-signatories from the Darfur Ceasefire Commission. The decision deepened the non-signatories’ distrust of the AU – and its motives – and made a nonsense of the commission, which gives representation only to the government and its abusive partner in peace, the rebel leader Minni Minawi. As things stand today, the government and Minawi must investigate their own ceasefire violations. And pigs can fly. Since then, a wide coalition of DPA critics grouped in the National Redemption Front (NRF) have accepted Chad’s patronage and now find themselves on the front line of Chadian President Idriss Deby’s war with Darfur-based Chadian rebels supported by the Sudan government. For many NRF leaders, the need to end the bloodshed in Darfur and to get the displaced safely back to their homes is no longer the priority. Safeguarding the Chadian regime that supports them and their own political ambitions is. Darfur is settling down to be one of those intractable conflicts in which the spoilers run the show. Deby wants Darfur in flames because it allows him to blame his internal troubles on Khartoum. Sudanese President Omar Bashir wants it because it is the best possible pretext for not implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement concluded with South Sudan, an agreement that obliges Khartoum to share both wealth and power. The UN’s Acting Emergency Relief Coordinator for Darfur, Margareta Wahlstrom, said recently that Darfur is becoming one of the most dangerous areas in the world for aid workers. With more than a third of Darfur s war-affected population – almost 1 million people – effectively out of bounds to aid agencies, aid workers are themselves now coming under direct and deliberate attack. Attacks on aid workers almost doubled in 2006. In December alone, hundreds were withdrawn from Darfur for their own safety. Andrew Natsios, the US special envoy to Sudan, has said he fears that aid groups could be forced out of Darfur, opening the way for a “bloodbath in which the government-sponsored Janjaweed militias would try to close down camps that give refuge to millions. Natsios said US diplomacy would focus on protecting the humanitarian aid effort in Darfur. How? The AU has proved incapable of doing this and there is no agreement yet, and may never be, on a tougher hybrid force. The only possible solution lies in going back to the drawing board and seeking a political settlement that involves all those who are a party to the conflict – inside and outside Sudan. There are no short cuts, and it may well be that there will be no solution for a very long time: all the key elements are moving in the wrong direction today. The international players made mistakes, bad mistakes, and didn’t care enough when all was said and done. But if the leaders of the parties, government and rebel, don’t want peace they can’t be forced to make it. The responsibility, at the end of the days, is theirs. Julie Flinthas written extensively on Sudan. She is the author, with Alex de Waal, of “Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.