President Obama and other leaders agreed to press fighters in South Sudan to agree to an accord by Aug. 17, and threatened sanctions if they do not comply.

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — For President Obama, the birth of South Sudan four years ago was the capstone of his Africa policy.

Four years later, that triumph has degenerated into tragedy amid a ruthless ethnic conflagration that has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced more than 2 million others and dashed Obama’s hopes of forging a brighter future for that corner of Africa.

Obama convened a meeting of the region’s leaders Monday to try to halt the conflict in South Sudan, in his most direct personal intervention since the violence broke out more than 18 months ago. He and other leaders agreed to press the fighters to agree to an accord by Aug. 17, and threatened sanctions if they do not.

In a discussion of what to do if the rival forces fail to agree, one of the African leaders in the meeting even suggested regional military intervention to stop the fighting, according to U.S. officials. Obama, though, was more focused on returning to the U.N. Security Council to secure international sanctions against individuals or organizations involved.

Obama used the meeting to press two countries — Uganda, which has openly supported the government in South Sudan, and Sudan, which has tacitly backed the rebels — to force their allies to stand down.

The situation is so grim that White House officials hold out little hope of success. Presidents rarely get involved in a diplomatic meeting without a reasonably guaranteed outcome, and Obama’s aides do not usually talk about a Plan B before a Plan A has failed.

But Obama and his advisers say he had no choice but to try because he was coming to the region to visit Kenya, and Ethiopia, where the executive branch of the African Union has headquarters.

The session on South Sudan followed separate meetings with Ethiopia’s leaders. He met Monday with President Mulatu Teshome and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and held a joint news conference later with Desalegn at which they discussed shared interests in economic development and the battle with Islamist extremists but skated lightly over human-rights issues.

On Tuesday, Obama will address the African Union, the first U.S. president to do so, at a time when he is encouraging Africans to do more to fight the terrorist group al-Shabab and to resolve other conflicts.