JUBA, Feb 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the edge of the airport runway in South Sudan's capital, a pickup truck of red bereted soldiers watched as young girls danced barefoot to welcome President Salva Kiir home from peace talks in Ethiopia.
Dressed in his trademark black cowboy hat, Kiir gave a thumbs up to crowds who had come to cheer the latest ceasefire agreement in talks to end 15 months of conflict that has driven 2 million people from their homes.
"Peace is around the corner and, God willing, peace will be reached within the first quarter of this year," Information Minister Michael Makuei told reporters at the airport.
However, few observers share the government's optimism, saying mistrust, a lack of political will and an entrenched culture of violence have undermined real progress towards peace in the world's youngest nation of 11 million people.
The most recent pact signed on Feb. 1, by Kiir and former vice president-turned-rival, Riek Machar, promises to create a second vice-presidential post, as well as renewing a ceasefire.
It was part of delicate power-sharing talks to end fighting over political power that has fractured along ethnic lines, between Kiir's majority Dinka and Machar's Nuer, the second-biggest ethnic group, after Kiir dismissed Machar in July 2013.
The tension spilled into violence in December 2013, when fighting broke out among the presidential guard and Kiir accused Machar of leading an attempted coup against him.
According to the latest roadmap, peace talks will resume on Feb. 19 and be completed by March 5, with the goal of a transitional government taking effect by April.
Many experts are sceptical.
"Every deadline that has been set has not been met so far," said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group thinktank.
The warring parties have repeatedly violated a cessation of hostilities agreement which they signed more than a year ago. Clashes broke out on Tuesday in two South Sudanese states barely a week after the latest ceasefire deal was signed.
Part of the problem lies in the political elite's roots in various rebel movements in what was then Sudan.
For more than two decades, the ruling SPLM party's armed wing fought the Khartoum government before peace talks led to a vote on independence and eventually the birth of South Sudan.
"Most of their adult life, they have not been in government, they have been in the bush," said Harry Verhoeven, professor at Georgetown University. "Violence ... is the default."
Another complicating factor is the fractious history of the rebel movement which splintered during the south's war of independence with rival militias turning on each other.
"There is just no trust," said Verhoeven. "These people have very long resented each other."
Lam Akol, leader of the opposition in parliament, said: "The crux is the parties don't have the political will to settle for peace. They still believe they can slug it out in the field."
Last year, key towns changed hands up to six times before the rains lashed down in early May, putting hostilities on hold.
Now with temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius, South Sudan's swamplands have dried into sun-baked dirt roads, enabling tanks and soldiers to resume their battle for control of the oil-rich north.
There have not been any major offensives yet, suggesting neither side wants to be blamed for spoiling the ongoing talks.
"It has been skirmishes and a few clashes," said a Western diplomat who declined to be named. "By now, the ground should be dry enough for a major offensive. So far, there has not been one but it does not mean there won't be one."
Under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Kiir and Machar signed a protocol in August stating that Kiir would remain president and Machar would get the newly-created position of prime minister.
Since then, the leaders have been deadlocked over the division of power in the planned transitional government. Each side wants their man to have executive power, while their opponent would be a ceremonial figure.
Analysts say Kiir is keen to hold elections to bolster his legitimacy before his presidential term runs out in July. If a peace deal is finalised before then, ushering in a new power-sharing government, the vote would likely be deferred for a couple of years.
WANING GLOBAL INTEREST
Many blame the regional mediators, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), for the stalemate, criticising the body for a lack of a unified position.
Others say there has also been a lack of interest by world powers in backing IGAD, which has undermined its effectiveness.
While Washington enthusiastically supported South Sudan's creation, it is disillusioned after the new nation has slipped back into violence and hunger so quickly, experts say.
Pro-SPLM lobby groups and politicians known to be sympathetic to the former rebel movement have lost influence in Washington, while Kerry is focusing on more traditional U.S. interests, such as oil-rich Angola and Nigeria.
And few expect action from the U.N. Security Council, whose five permanent members are at loggerheads over Ukraine.
"There is very little appetite for nation building," said Verhoeven, pointing to international efforts to create new administrations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
"It would cost a lot. Which countries are going to contribute troops to go to South Sudan?"
Some hope an African Union (AU) Commission of Inquiry report into abuses committed during the war could be used as leverage.
The report, believed by experts to name senior figures responsible for atrocities, was submitted on Jan. 29 but has not been published "to advance the peace process", according to ex- Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who led the inquiry.
Threats to name names could help to push the parties towards a political solution, Copeland said.
"If the parties are told if you make this agreement, this report gets shelved forever, then this is an actual incentive," she said. "But ... it's all very wishy washy and no one is clear. The way it's been used so far has been rather clumsy."
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Katie Nguyen)
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