The United States and Saudi Arabia announced on June 17, 2023 that both sides to the conflict in Sudan—the Sudanese Army Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—had agreed to a new, three-day ceasefire.1 Since May 6, the US and the kingdom have been overseeing peace talks between the warring parties in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to end the conflict that erupted on April 15. These talks have so far resulted in a number of ceasefire agreements that have only been partially respected. The Biden administration has faced serious domestic criticism that it does not have a clear strategy to address the situation, which is widening into a larger humanitarian crisis and threatening to cause instability in neighboring countries and produce a suitable environment for the spread of extremism.
Some critics of US policy in Sudan, including former officials in the Biden administration, accuse the United States of bearing part of the responsibility for the conflict because the Trump administration ignored conditions in Khartoum following the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. This neglect has continued under the Biden administration.2 In June 2019, the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), committed a massacre—under the auspices of the transitional military council—while trying to break up a sit-in outside of SAF headquarters, a bloodbath in which at least 120 people were killed. The Trump administration’s response at the time was quite timid because of its focus on normalizing Sudanese-Israeli relations as part of the so-called Abraham Accords.3
Not only did the Trump administration ignore the massacre, but together with its regional and western allies it also pressed Sudanese civilian forces to participate in a transitional government with the military, pending general elections in 2022. But the agreement that led to the establishment of the Transitional Sovereign Council in August 2021—which was composed of equal numbers of military officers and civilians—ended up under the leadership of SAF Commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with Hemedti as his deputy; and this despite Washington’s description of the new arrangement as one of “civilian leadership.” The agreement also stipulated that the military would lead the council for 21 months, followed by civilian leadership for the following 18.4 But the military leaders annulled the agreement with an October 2021 coup against the government of then Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was arrested and detained. While the Biden administration froze $700 million of development aid to Sudan, worked with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to freeze an additional $6 billion, and annulled plans to defray $50 billion of Sudan’s debts, none of the coup leaders were personally sanctioned.
Feeling the diplomatic and economic pressure, the coup leaders returned Hamdok to his premiership in November 2021, but he resigned at the beginning of 2022 because of the military officers’ noncompliance with their commitments. According to Jeffrey Feltman, who served as US special envoy for the Horn of Africa from April 2021 to November 2022 and who resigned in protest at the absence of a clear US strategy for Sudan, Washington should have had stronger procedures against the coup leaders and should have done what it was preaching regarding “trying to promote a civilian-led democratic transition.”5 But the Biden administration remained hesitant to call Burhan’s takeover in 2021 a coup.6 And despite its participation in December 2022 with the United Nations, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa in devising a framework agreement for a civilian transition in Sudan, the civilian forces were not well represented in it. Nor was there a mechanism to ensure accountability for military leaders if they did not comply with their commitments. To Feltman, Washington and its allies failed in preventing Sudan from sliding into war because they had too much confidence in the generals.7 Indeed, there are those who profess that the framework agreement that Washington helped bring about may have been the element that led to the current conflict.
However, others saw that the United States could not have done much to prevent the 2021 coup and the ensuing conflict between the SAF and the RSF. David Satterfield, who replaced Feltman as US special envoy to the Horn of Africa and who has since resigned, said that Washington did not have anything but bad choices in Sudan, and therefore had to strike deals with the Sudanese military. According to Satterfield, “If there is ever an opportunity to return to a path towards restoration of a civilian-led government, you’re going to have to talk to the military then as well.”8 Many who believe this still argue that the United States does not have many tools to pressure the military. Hemedti’s financial assets, for instance, are mainly in the gold he trades with the United Arab Emirates, and it would be difficult for the US to sanction its ally in the Gulf.
There also is widespread discussion among the civilian forces in Sudan about their own responsibility for not being united around the goal of a democratic system that would take into account the role of the army and the need for a transition compromise with it. The dispute among these forces (between those who support a full rejection of the role of the army in the transitional period and those ready to unconditionally share power with it) allowed the military to maneuver among civilian forces to the point that some of them struck deals with Hemedti against the army during the discussions around the framework agreement.
American Calculations in Sudan
In August 2022, the Biden administration issued its Sub-Saharan Africa strategy, which says that, “The United States can offer choices to Africans as they determine their own future, limit openings for negative state and non-state actors, and obviate the need for costly interventions.”9 When mentioning state actors, the document refers to Russia and China specifically, while non-state actors are those that Washington accuses of terrorism. Washington also sees that Sudan holds great geopolitical, economic, and strategic importance that makes it the subject of regional and international ambitions and greed. Besides, any instability in Sudan means instability in a very sensitive area that has infrastructural fragility and weakness. Geopolitically, Sudan is at a vital geographical crossroads, with Egypt and Libya in the north, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, and Chad and the Central African Republic at the heart of the African continent. Sudan comprises 60 percent of the Nile Valley. It also plays an essential role in managing an ongoing dispute between Egypt, the downstream state that depends on the Nile for 90 percent of its water needs, and Ethiopia, which controls the headwaters of the Blue Nile and hopes to increase its electricity generation via the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Egypt and Sudan oppose because of its impact on their water supplies. Sudan also has a strategic location on the Red Sea, through which nearly 10 percent of world trade traverses, and huge mineral wealth—it is the third largest gold producer in Africa and possesses sizeable deposits of silver, copper, and uranium—and it produces 80 percent of the world’s gum arabic, which is used in food, paint, and cosmetics.10
There are three general reasons the United States cares about what happens in Sudan:
1. Confronting Russian-Chinese Influence in Africa
The United States’ perception is that Russia and China work in tandem in Africa in order to subvert its interests and to destabilize its global leadership role.11 During the United States–Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III warned African leaders that Russia and China’s influence may be “destabilizing.”12 To entice reluctant leaders, Washington promised to commit $55 billion for Africa over the next three years.13 While Russia’s semi-official military presence in Africa is accelerating, China is the largest creditor and invests large amounts of money in the mineral-rich continent.14
Russia has not shied away from showing its great interest in Africa. In February 2023, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a diplomatic tour of the continent and visited Khartoum, where he reiterated the need to establish an alternative to the US-led international order.15 Russia believes that its strong presence in Sudan will augment its status in Africa and the Middle East, which is considered an American redoubt. Since 2014, and with Moscow’s aspirations to exploit African mineral riches, the Kremlin has strengthened its ties to Sudan in order to ameliorate western sanctions following its invasion of Crimea, sanctions that became even harsher after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.16 In 2017, former Sudanese President al-Bashir visited Russia and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two countries agreed to establish a holding company run by the paramilitary Wagner Group to mine gold ore. Russia also signed a 25-year lease in December 2020 to build a military base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea that can receive nuclear-powered ships. It was also interesting that Hemedti headed an official delegation to Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Washington’s concern focuses on the role the Wagner Group plays in Darfur, which it sees as supporting Russia’s building of a corridor to Russian military sites in Libya and the Central African Republic.17 American experts believe that the role of the Wagner Group in Sudan is part of Russian attempts to undercut US and French influence in Africa and to exploit African countries.18 The Wagner Group uses Hemedti’s RSF as a proxy for its operations in the Central African Republic and Chad. According to US sources, in exchange for gold and coordination in Africa, the Wagner Group offers help to the RSF in its conflict with the Sudanese Army, including providing surface-to-air missiles, which in May prompted the US Treasury Department to sanction Wagner assets in Africa.19
China also has extensive interests in Sudan, which form part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Between 2011 and 2018, China lent Sudan $143 million and invested in projects like pipelines, bridges on the Nile, textile factories, and railroads. In 2021, Sudan exported $780 million worth of goods to China,20 which is its second largest trade partner after the UAE.
2. Illogical and Contradictory Alliances
Washington fears that the conflict in Sudan may lead to the establishment of new alliances pitting its allies in the region against each other. Egypt—and Saudi Arabia to a lesser degree—supports SAF Commander Burhan while the UAE supports Hemedti. Also, and in light of the Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia might resort to supporting Hemedti as well. Furthermore, Washington fears that the area of the conflict may widen to the Sahel region, especially if Hemedti resorts to recruiting foreign fighters, from Mali or Chad for example.
3. Migration and Terrorism
The United States also fears a continuation of the conflict and a prolonged government vacuum, which will lead to a humanitarian crisis that pushes hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring countries, especially to Ethiopia and South Sudan, two countries that are struggling to maintain brittle peace agreements. Washington also fears that Sudan’s instability may provide a haven to Somali terrorist groups like al-Shabab.
The principal American goals in Sudan are: arriving at a ceasefire, making the ceasefire permanent, and returning the country to a civilian government. The United States works to achieve these goals by cooperating with regional and international partners, while keeping the mediation role in its hands and those of Saudi Arabia. But it does not distinguish between the official army and the militia in dealing with the Sudanese crisis. The US State Department issued a statement on June 15, 2023 accusing the RSF of assassinating the governor of West Darfur after he accused the group of crimes in El Geneina that led to the death of 1,100 civilians.21 At the beginning of June, the United States imposed economic sanctions on four Sudanese companies, two connected to the army and two affiliated with the RSF, in an attempt to cut off “key financial flows to both the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces, depriving them of resources needed to pay soldiers, rearm, resupply, and wage war in Sudan,”22 But these procedures may not have much influence on the ability of the parties to the conflict to continue fighting, especially since Russia and the UAE are unlikely to assist in imposing them on the RSF.23 But Washington will continue trying to deescalate the conflict and to keep its international adversaries from exploiting the crisis to augment their positions in an area of strategic significance for American interests.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
This paper was first published in Arabic on June 21, 2023 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.
1 “Sudan’s Warring Sides Agree to New 72-Hour Ceasefire,” Al Jazeera, June 17, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/17/air-raid-kills-17-in-sudans-capital-khartoum.
2 Edward Wong, Michael Crowley, and Declan Walsh, “How U.S. Efforts to Guide Sudan to Democracy Ended in War,” New York Times, May 3, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/03/us/politics/us-sudan-democracy-war.html.
3 Jonathan Guyer, “Could the US Have Helped Avert the Crisis in Sudan?” VOX, May 15, 2023, https://www.vox.com/world-politics/2023/5/15/23720234/sudan-crisis-war-us-diplomacy.
4 Justin Lynch, “In Sudan, U.S. Policies Paved the Way for War,” Foreign Policy, April 20, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/04/20/sudan-civil-war-biden-burhan-hemeti-foreign-policy/.
5 Guyer, “Could the US Have Helped Avert.”
6 Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, “The Battle for Khartoum Exposes Waning U.S. Influence,” Foreign Policy, December 3, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/12/03/sudan-military-coup-khartoum-us-influence/.
7 Jeffrey Feltman, “The Eruption of Violence in Sudan Shows the Generals Can’t Be Trusted,” Washington Post, April 18, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/04/18/sudan-civil-war-generals-negotiations/.
8 Guyer, “Could the US Have Helped Avert.”
9 “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” The White House, August 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/U.S.-Strategy-Toward-Sub-Saharan-Africa-FINAL.pdf.
10 Christopher Tounsel, “Sudan’s Plunge into Chaos has Geopolitical Implications Near and Far—Including for US Strategic Goals,” The Conversation, April 28, 2023, https://theconversation.com/sudans-plunge-into-chaos-has-geopolitical-implications-near-and-far-including-for-us-strategic-goals-204453.
11 Zineb Riboua, “The Geopolitics of U.S. Engagement in Sudan,” Foreign Policy, May 16, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/05/16/sudan-us-saudi-israel-russia-china-africa-geopolitics-civil-war/.
12 “Rolling Red Carpet to Africans, US warns of ‘Destabilizing’ China, Russia,” France 24, December 13, 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20221213-rolling-red-carpet-to-africans-us-warns-of-destabilizing-china-russia.
13 Doina Chiacu and Andrea Shalal, “Explainer: How the U.S. Plans to Commit $55 Billion to Africa over Three Years,” Reuters, December 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/how-us-plans-commit-55-billion-africa-over-three-years-2022-12-13/.
14 “Rolling Red Carpet to Africans,” France 24.
15 Riboua, “The Geopolitics of U.S. Engagement in Sudan.”
16 Nima Elbagir et al., “Exclusive: Evidence Emerges of Russia’s Wagner Arming Militia Leader Battling Sudan’s Army,” CNN, April 21, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/04/20/africa/wagner-sudan-russia-libya-intl/index.html.
17 Riboua, “The Geopolitics of U.S. Engagement in Sudan.”
18 Dan De Luce, “U.S. Accuses Russia’s Wagner Group Mercenaries of Fueling War in Sudan,” NBC News, May 26, 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/us-accuses-russias-wagner-group-mercenaries-fueling-war-sudan-rcna86492.
19 “Treasury Sanctions the Head of the Wagner Group in Mali,” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 25, 2023, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy1502.
20 Tounsel, “Sudan’s Plunge.”
21 “Condemning Atrocities in Darfur,” U.S. Department of State, June 15, 2023, https://www.state.gov/condemning-atrocities-in-darfur/.
22 “Treasury Sanctions Military-Affiliated Companies Fueling Both Sides of the Conflict in Sudan,” U.S. Department of Treasury, June 1, 2023, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy1514.
23 Khalid Abdelaziz et al., “US Imposes Sanctions on Companies Tied to Sudan Forces as Fighting Rages,” Reuters, June 1, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/us-questions-sudan-parties-commitment-truce-clashes-continue-2023-06-01/.