The US role in Sudan

Amr Abdel-Ati
Tuesday 9 May 2023

US policies under both Republican and Democratic administrations have reflected Washington’s failure to fully support and assist the democratic transition in Sudan, writes Amr Abdel-Ati


Despite the commitment that US President Joe Biden made on his first day in office on 20 January 2021, and that he and other members of his administration have reiterated since, to make democracy and human rights a priority on Washington’s agenda, the US has done little to advance the democratic transition process in Sudan since the overthrow of the Omar Al-Bashir regime in 2019 and since the Sudanese military establishment reasserted its authority over the country in October 2021, reneging on its pledge to transfer power to a civilian government.

This is also despite the US president hosting two democracy summits in December 2021 and March 2023 explicitly devoted to democracy and human rights.

Sudan is in the process of being torn apart by a power struggle between two camps, one led by the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and de facto president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, and the other by his deputy, the Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), both of whom are variously supported by complex networks of international and regional alliances with conflicting interests.

Yet, the US response to date to attempts to fuel the conflict by members of those networks reveals the limits of its influence in Sudan. The US is no longer the central international actor it was at the time it helped broker an end to the decades-long Civil War between the north and the south of Sudan and supported the referendum on the independence of South Sudan.

The crisis in the democratic transition process in Sudan has not been a priority for the Biden administration. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not visited Khartoum during his African tours, unlike the secretaries of state under previous Democratic and Republican administrations (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Mike Pompeo, and John Kerry).

Nor has the Biden administration attempted to impose sanctions or otherwise penalise the Sudanese military leaders for reneging on their commitment to transfer power to the civilian authorities and staging a coup against the democratic transition process, despite the demands of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to do so.

The decline in the US role in Sudan has made it possible for regional and international forces, Russia in particular, to strengthen their influence in Sudan, a process that often conforms with the Sudanese military leadership’s desire to perpetuate its control over government in a way that conflicts with the US’ interests and vision. These powers have come to have a greater influence than the US on Sudan’s future.

As the fighting between the two camps intensified, the Biden administration prioritised two main aims in Sudan. The first was to ensure the safety of US nationals in Sudan and then to evacuate them in order to avert a repetition of previous US failures in conflict zones that could hamper Biden’s prospects of winning a second term in the US presidential elections in November 2024. The second was to play down the involvement of the US’ international rivals, most notably Russia, which are keen to shape Sudan’s political future in a manner conducive to promoting their own particular interests.

With the decline in the US influence in Sudan, the options available to the Biden administration for dealing with the intensifying military hostilities and the vanishing prospects for putting the democratic transition back on track have been limited to two.

One is to call on Washington’s regional and political allies to intervene and pressure Al-Burhan and Hemedti to return to the negotiating table, end the fighting, and agree on a formula for restoring and sustaining stability and security. The US is aware that the state of stability and security in Sudan affects other areas, such as the Horn of Africa, an area of priority importance to Washington’s influence in the continent which has become an arena of strategic rivalry between the US and its global competitors.

 After numerous ceasefire violations by the Sudanese belligerents, the US, in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, succeeded in launching the first serious initiative to end the military conflict, bringing together representatives from the SAF and RSF for talks in Jeddah on 6 May.

The second option is to comply with the demands of Congressional lawmakers from both parties, whose more active engagement on the Sudanese question has helped fill their government’s diplomatic gap, to impose sanctions on the Sudanese military leaders and their supporters, thereby cutting off the revenues that support their forces and their grip on power and creating an opening for the growth of Sudan’s budding democracy movement.

Three weeks after the fighting began, Biden issued an executive order to impose sanctions on the members of the combatant forces in Sudan for their use of violence against civilians, jeopardising the country’s stability, and committing gross violations of human rights. The sanctions actually predated the recent flare-up, but Washington hesitated to impose them in 2019 and 2021 for fear of losing its influence on facilitating the fragile democratic transformation process.

It also feared that pressuring Al-Burhan and Hemedti in this manner might rebound negatively on the process and simultanously drive them into the arms of powers rivalling the US for influence in Sudan, especially Russia. The latter has developed close relations with Hemedti’s forces through the Wagner Group, and it hopes to establish a naval base in Sudan to facilitate the passage of its ships to the Indian Ocean.

As a whole, US policies under both Republican and Democratic administrations since the overthrow of the Al-Bashir regime in 2019 have reflected Washington’s failure to fully support and assist the democratic transition in Sudan. The consequence has been a decline in US influence in favour of that of regional and international powers whose interests conflict with those of the US.

This, combined with the gap between rhetoric and policies on the ground, has limited the Biden administration’s options for responding to the current crisis in Sudan.

The writer is an expert on US affairs at Al-Ahram’s Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine.


A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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