“The violence taking place in Sudan is a tragedy, and it is a betrayal of the Sudanese people’s clear demand for civilian government and a transition to democracy.” These were the words of US President Joe Biden on 4 May, as he commented on the escalating violence in Sudan.
A new cycle of violence is unfolding in the Sudanese arena, which portends the country’s impending descent into civil war, following the rapid deterioration of reconciliation between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under the command of General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, which caused fighting to break out between the two sides. In response to these events, President Biden stated that the United States “stands with the people of Sudan and is acting to support their commitment to a future of peace and opportunity.”
This calls into question Washington’s response strategies for dealing with the rising violence in Sudan and its dynamics.
US Multifaceted Response
In a country rife with militias and rebel movements, Sudan has entered a new phase of instability against the backdrop of a new wave of fighting. Armed conflict between the SAF and RSF erupted in the middle of last April, months after they had signed a draft agreement with international support in December 2022 to create a road map for civilian leadership. However, negotiations to put the agreement’s specifics into action were unsuccessful. Conflict in Sudan continues to cripple the country, with hundreds killed, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes. Due to the complexity and complication of the Sudanese scene, Washington had to adopt a multifaceted strategy, which can be described in more detail below.
Evacuating US Citizens
As the current wave of violence in Sudan has escalated, the issue of evacuating American citizens has emerged as a top priority for the US administration in order to prevent a repeat of previous failures of US administrations in some flaming areas. The US administration is fully aware of the impact that such a decision would have on the popularity of the democratic government and its potential impact on the likelihood that the Democrats will prevail in the 2024 presidential election. On 22 April, as the armed clashes entered their second week, the US evacuated its diplomats from its embassy in Khartoum after transferring US forces to the Camp Lemonnier base in Djibouti. The United States government has organized military evacuations for its diplomats and helped hundreds of other citizens leave the country via land and sea convoys and flights on partner aircraft. CNN reports that the massive evacuation efforts were prompted by the growing anger of Americans in Sudan, who felt abandoned by the US government and left to face a complex and dangerous situation alone.
In general, it is fair to say that President Biden’s administration has tried to aid in the movement toward civilian rule in Sudan. In this regard, it appointed John Godfrey as ambassador to Khartoum for the first time in 25 years. In addition, as a member of the Quartet along with the UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Washington pushed for the parties in Sudan to adopt the framework agreement reached in December 2022. After the outbreak of armed violence, the United States government took several diplomatic measures to bring the situation under control. US State Department spokesman Samuel Warburg disclosed that the United States has been in constant contact with Sudan’s neighboring countries, the Gulf states, the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, the United Nations (UN), and others about the situation in Sudan. Relatedly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken contacted Al-Burhan and Hemedti to emphasize the need for an immediate cease-fire, as well as his Saudi and Emirati counterparts, in an effort to restore security and stability in Sudan. During his visit to Cairo, Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi discussed the regional situation, including recent events in Sudan. Additionally, Washington presented a plan to end the conflict and pave the way for Al-Burhan and Hemedti to hold negotiations in Jeddah in collaboration with Riyadh.
The United States is one of the largest providers of humanitarian aid to Sudan, and it is a reliable conduit for addressing current events and preventing the escalation of violence in the country. A week after the outbreak of the unrest, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced that the organization had sent a team of experts in disaster response to Sudan to coordinate humanitarian aid as the fighting there continues. She also explained that in the initial phase, the team will be based in Kenya and will work with the international community and partners to identify humanitarian needs and safely deliver humanitarian aid. She also explained that in the initial phase, the team will be based in Kenya and will work with the international community and partners to identify humanitarian needs and safely deliver humanitarian aid. In a statement released on 4 May, President Biden confirmed that the United States “is already responding to this unfolding humanitarian crisis and stands ready to support enhanced humanitarian assistance when conditions permit.” On 9 May, Blinken issued a statement confirming Washington is negotiating an extension of the ceasefire and an agreement on the delivery of humanitarian aid in Jeddah.
- Avoiding Involvement on the Ground
Concurrent with Washington’s intense political and diplomatic efforts to address the ongoing violence in Sudan, National Security Advisor of the United States Jake Sullivan stated at a White House press conference that “America has no plans to put peacekeeping troops on the ground in Sudan.” In an exclusive interview with Sky News Arabia, Samuel Warburg elaborated on the United States’ stance on the escalating developments and its efforts to evacuate its citizens from Khartoum. He stated that the United States has no plans to send any forces to Sudan because it believes that the solution must come from the Sudanese parties themselves because external interference will not be in the interest of Sudan and the Sudanese people. This suggests that Washington understands the need to avoid the mistakes of the past by avoiding the option of military involvement on the ground in disputes and conflicts, if anything is any indication of that.
Interconnected US Interests
President Biden stated in his statement imposing sanctions on the Sudanese parties involved in the conflict that “the situation in Sudan, including the military’s seizure of power in October 2021 and the outbreak of inter-service fighting in April 2023, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the United States’ national security and foreign policy.” This indicates that a number of factors related to Washington’s interests are driving its multi-path response. These factors can be seen in light of the current US administration’s comparatively expanding presence in Africa, which can be explained as follows:
Sudan’s Strategic Importance
Sudan enjoys a strategic location overlooking the Red Sea and owns a strategic seaport, namely Port Sudan. It is bordered by seven countries, including Egypt and Libya to the north, Eritrea and Ethiopia to the southeast, South Sudan to the south, and Chad and Central Africa to the west and southwest. Due to its location and geopolitical influence, Sudan is connected to a number of significant regions, including the Middle East, Arabian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. Sudan is also one of the world’s most agriculturally and mineral resource-rich countries. It has an extraordinary abundance of natural resources and wealth, including uranium, gold, cobalt, oil, and others. Thus, it seems difficult to ignore Sudan’s strategic significance when examining Washington’s responses to the current crisis, given Washington’s desire to capitalize on the current crisis while working to deter its opponents from doing so.
Preventing Additional Escalation
In a climate rife with crises, problems, and conflicts, particularly in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia), the violent developments in Sudan reflect growing concern about the snowball effect. In addition, there is already unrest within the borders of countries bordering Sudan, including South Sudan, Chad, Libya, and the Central African Republic. These challenges may exacerbate the deterioration of the situation in Sudan. This has led some analysts, such as Alan Boswell, the International Crisis Group’s Project Director for the Horn of Africa, to state that “what happens in Sudan will not stay in Sudan.” In effect, the ongoing fighting puts Chad and South Sudan both at immediate risk of negative effects. Former South Sudanese Minister of Oil Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth made a comment in this regard, stating that “instability in Sudan would inevitably lead to instability throughout the region, with South Sudan, which broke away from Sudan after decades of civil war, possibly being the first to be impacted.” On the other hand, it is anticipated that the Sudanese conflict will delay the ongoing tripartite discussions regarding the Ethiopian dam. Therefore, the effects of the ongoing violence in Sudan on its already precarious surroundings mean that the African continent will experience a state of instability, the effects of which may extend beyond the continent’s borders and have an impact on the world stage. This should motivate Washington to increase its efforts and increase its level of involvement in order to prevent this outcome.
Keeping Opponent Expansion to a Minimum
Because Washington is aware that any US void will be filled by a similar rise in the role of its adversaries (Russia and China), Washington frequently seeks to limit the role of adversaries in its dealings in multiple scenes, including developments in the Sudanese arena. Consequently, the US’s multifaceted response can be viewed in light of its desire to define a clear role that conceals its opponents’ anticipated moves. For example, Washington is worried about growing cooperation between the Russian Wagner Group and the RSF, which control most of Sudan’s gold mines, and the possible launch of a Russian base on the Red Sea, which has been planned to be established since 2019 and faces no objection from either of Sudan’s two warring parties. On the other hand, China and Sudan have strong economic ties in a number of industries (such as mining, energy, and agriculture), and Beijing is one of Khartoum’s biggest trading partners and has sizable investments in Sudan. The Chinese initiative “Belt and Road” includes Sudan as well. Thus, it appears that Washington wants to be a part of the political track of the crisis in order to prevent its opponents from paving the way for a different political track. Additionally, its focus on manipulating the aid and sanction tools reflects pressure on the opponents’ desire to advance economic rapprochement.
Continued Counter-Terrorism Initiatives
The security dimension has always dominated Washington’s view of Africa, as combating the expansion of terrorism in Africa has been a top priority for the United States in its dealings with the continent in light of its global anti-terrorism objective. The continuation of the Sudanese crisis in its current form, according to some analyses, could provide terrorist organizations with the opportunity to reposition themselves by strengthening ties between their networks in Sudan and those in neighboring countries and regions.
And given that the Islamic State has declared that Africa has become a safe haven following its defeat in its principal strongholds in Iraq and Syria and that Al-Qaeda has increased its activities in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia, it is evident that Sudan’s vulnerability as a result of the ongoing conflict offers an opportunity for these groups to grow stronger and more influential, not to mention the potential for Sudan to become a focal point for extremist and violent groups in the Sahel, Sahara, and Horn of Africa. Furthermore, the shared borders between Sudan and Egypt, Libya, Chad, and Ethiopia could facilitate the relocation of the terrorist threat to the Middle East and even Europe. Moreover, Sudan’s common borders with Egypt, Libya, Chad and Ethiopia could help transfer the threat of terrorism to the Middle East region and possibly to Europe, which implies harm to US influence and interests, possibly also in the Middle East and Europe as well as in Africa.
Protecting Trade and Navigation Routes
Given the strategic importance of the Red Sea to the United States as a link between Africa and the Middle East, and as a focal point for the interactions of regional and international systems, the location of Sudan on the sea’s edge provides a compelling rationale for US involvement in the conflict. The US government’s commitment to ensuring unfettered shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean, was reaffirmed in the country’s October 2022 National Security Strategy. The United States’ interest in Sudan can also be understood in the context of US Ambassador Godfrey’s warning to Sudan not to permit Russia to establish a naval base in Port Sudan.
On the other hand, the precariousness of the situation in Sudan could have a negative impact on Red Sea shipping and even inspire fresh waves of the piracy that have plagued the Horn of Africa for years. Attacks by pirates frequently have an impact on the interests of numerous countries, including cargo owners, countries involved in trans-shipment, and destination nations. As a result, in 2008, the US government approved a strategy to counteract piracy threats in the Horn of Africa for the efficient operation of the global economy and maritime traffic.
Promoting Israel’s Normalization Path
Washington has recently adopted a strategy for the Middle East and North Africa that centers on integrating Israel into the region by promoting normalization between countries of the region and Israel. Sudan was one of the countries that took the initiative to normalize relations with Sudan after the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the two countries agreed to move forward with efforts to normalize relations during the February 2023 visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to Sudan. This was preceded by Al-Burhan and Hamedti dispatching high-level military envoys to Israel prior to the fall of Abdalla Hamdok’s government on 25 October 2021, with the goal of establishing joint intelligence and security relations with Israel. This normalization agreement led to the closure of the Hamas office in Sudan, which is classified as a terrorist organization by both Israel and the United States. Some analysts believed that this was a strategy used by the Sudanese ruling class to pressure Israel into pressuring the United States to comply with their demands. Therefore, it is challenging to analyze Washington’s stance on the current violent developments without also considering its desire to keep the region on the path of normalization.
Advancing US Ideals
Since assuming office, the Biden administration has emphasized the importance of restoring Washington’s moral standing or the United States’ values-based policy, particularly with regards to democracy and human rights. As a result, Washington is well aware of the need to act in accordance with this principle so as not to damage its image on the international stage, given its repeated efforts to confirm its continued global leadership. Therefore, both internal and external forces, including Sudanese civil society and international human rights organizations, are pressuring the United States to cease its support for the current elite, given their contribution to Sudan’s instability. According to the Al-Hurra website, Sudanese Americans started a legal and humanitarian initiative in the United States through a petition that was signed by activists and human rights advocates, calling on the UN and the United States to act quickly to look into any violations that may be taking place in Sudan as a result of the ongoing conflict. They also urged the UN to bring the two military parties to the conflict to an international trial and hold them accountable for the deteriorating conditions and their failure to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to the civilians. In addition, they demanded that the United States, the UN, and other international organizations take moral responsibility for the Sudanese people, who are facing extremely difficult humanitarian conditions as a direct result of the conflict.
Keeping the Humanitarian Crisis Under Control
As the violence in Sudan worsens, more people in Africa will likely seek refuge elsewhere. According to information from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), before the outbreak of fighting, Sudan was housing more than 1.1 million refugees. After the outbreak of violence, the UNHCR reported that “many civilians have been forced to flee, including people who were already internally displaced due to previous conflicts in Sudan and refugees from other countries who had sought safety in Sudan” and that “in addition to new internal displacement, over 300,000 people, including Sudanese refugees and refugees of other nationalities hosted by Sudan have fled Sudan to neighbouring countries or returned home in adverse circumstances –notably to Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Egypt and Ethiopia.” The World Food Program has issued a warning that the unrest in Sudan may result in a humanitarian crisis that affects all of East Africa. According to a UN statement, the Secretary-General decided to send Martin Griffiths, the humanitarian coordinator, right away to the region due to the deteriorating conditions in Sudan.
Thus, it appears that Sudan and its regional surroundings will experience a series of interconnected and intricate humanitarian crises, with obvious repercussions for violence levels, migration patterns, and the prevalence of organized crime. This situation necessitates an active role from Washington to prevent or at least mitigate the potentially disastrous consequences. This can be inferred from Blinken’s statement on 9 May, in which he made it clear that Washington is participating in the Jeddah negotiations to extend the cease-fire and come to a humanitarian aid agreement.
In short, in light of the aforementioned factors, it is difficult to predict how the United States will respond to the violent developments in Sudan given its stances toward those conflicts and others in the Middle East and Africa over the past ten years. The main determinant of Washington’s engagement will continue to be the degree to which developments in the Sudanese arena will affect US interests. Consequently, the limits and scope of US involvement in Sudan continue to depend on the administration’s interests in light of the aforementioned drivers. In light of the upcoming presidential election in 2024, it is likely that the policy adopted by Washington regarding the conflict in Sudan over the next few months will be altered to some degree.