Foreign Poilicy

The Geopolitics of US Engagement in Sudan

Research Fellow and Program Manager, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Black smoke rises above the Khartoum International Airport amid ongoing battles on April 20, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

No one can accuse the Biden administration of being overly generous with praise for Saudi Arabia. It therefore raised some eyebrows when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on May 5: “The U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcome the start of pre-negotiation talks between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces in Jeddah.”

When violence first erupted in Sudan last month, Blinken expressed concern that the power struggle was going to undermine “efforts to restore Sudan’s democratic transition.” Saudi mediation will not address Blinken’s concern about democracy. That’s understandable: Even if it were a model democracy, Saudi Arabia would have more immediate priorities, including preventing a Sudanese civil war and, more generally, stabilizing the Red Sea region. For its part, the Biden team is wise to check its impulse to promote democracy for now and support Riyadh’s efforts to prevent its maritime neighbor from descending into chaos.

The unfortunate truth is that there are no democrats or pacifists in Sudan. Since independence in 1956, Sudan has struggled with autocracy and civil wars—and is still recovering from a brutal dictatorship. The country is split between two rival commanders: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemeti,” a powerful general from western Sudan and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces. Both men, like most Sudanese, are Arabic speakers, just as the primary external actors—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are Arab countries. It’s crucial to keep in mind that the regional political context—and the fallout from further instability—reaches far into the Middle East.

The Egyptians are closer to Burhan, whose power base is in the north. Burhan helps Cairo manage the Nile conflict with Ethiopia and controls Port Sudan, a strategic prize in the conflict. The Emiratis, by contrast, tilt toward Hemeti, who hails from Darfur in the west and who controls the country’s gold mines, the profits from which sit, almost exclusively, in Emirati banks.

On Capitol Hill, the prevailing opinion advocates sanctioning Sudan in hopes of forcing a democratic transition. U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, for example, recently called on the administration “to sanction Generals Burhan and Hemetti” and “to curb the influence of external actors providing aid to the junta.” But Washington’s relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are already strained. Threatening them with sanctions—as Risch’s statement insinuates—will further alienate the very allies needed to handle the crisis and reduce tensions.

The stakes are high. Sudan risks becoming another Libya—a seemingly endless civil war among foreign-supported factions. According to the U.N. International Organization for Migration, the number of people displaced by the fighting more than doubled in one week to around 700,000, as of May 9. Port Sudan is the hub for 90 percent of Sudan’s trade with the world, the destination of several regional overland routes, and the landing point of one of Africa’s major undersea cable systems. The blockade of the port in 2021 left 950 shipping containers stranded and created major obstructions. Since fighting between the factions erupted on April 15, more than 600 people have been killed and 5,000 wounded.

A civil war risks not just disrupting the regional economy but also turning Sudan back into a haven for terrorists. From there, terrorists could undermine efforts currently underway to stabilize the Sahel region. And they could threaten more distant areas: It’s worth remembering that Osama bin Laden, before being expelled in 1996, spent five years in Sudan developing the terrorist organization with global reach that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

As in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin also stands ready to exploit the conflict. To be sure, the Ukraine war has exposed shocking weaknesses in Russia’s military, but Putin’s interventions in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere have taught him that when it comes to weak and failing states, even small military deployments can generate outsized geopolitical rewards—especially when the United States and its allies work at cross purposes. He also has the advantage of being currently popular in many African states because of the activities of the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor that has filled much of the vacuum left by the retreating French across the continent.

Putin, we can now see clearly, is working in parallel with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Africa to undermine the U.S.-led order. Together, they seek, among other goals, to tarnish the status of the United States as the region’s main strategic actor and to take control of the global trade in precious commodities and other resources. In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured Africa, decrying European imperialism and reminding his hosts that the Soviet Union was a champion of independence for colonized peoples. Lavrov’s trip included a stop in Khartoum, where he stressed the need for multipolarity in international affairs while also positioning Russia as an alternative to the U.S.-led order.

The Kremlin understands that a strong Russian presence in Sudan would give him even more influence over Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which are already, each in its own way, hedging away from Washington and toward Moscow and Beijing. In fact, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was already caught negotiating a plan to covertly produce 40,000 rockets for the Russian military, a fact he later unpersuasively denied. The lesson should be obvious: Moscow is courting Egypt, and Cairo is ready to be courted.

Indeed, reviving vanished ties between the Soviet Union and both the Middle East and Africa has always been part of Putin’s strategic plan, and Sudan offers a gateway to both regions. Putin showed a direct interest in Sudan when, in December 2020, it was announced that Russia would build, under a 25-year lease, a naval facility capable of mooring nuclear-powered surface vessels at Port Sudan, directly across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, one of Sudan’s top trading partners. Meanwhile, the Wagner Group’s growing influence in Darfur is helping Moscow to establish a corridor through Sudan to Russia’s established positions in Libya and the Central African Republic.

In the incipient Sudanese civil war, Russia is astutely supporting both sides. The Russian military engages with Burhan, while Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin aids Hemeti. Burhan and Hemeti hail from very distinct parts, geographically and culturally, of a huge country. Burhan represents the north, close historically to the Egyptians, and is respected among the Khartoum elite. Hemeti is from Darfur, which, for all intents and purposes, is a separate country that, thanks to an accident of British imperial history, is stuck inside the borders of modern Sudan.

Both sides are prisoners of what seems, for now, to be an unbridgeable ethnic divide. The likelihood that one of them will emerge as a decisive winner in firm control of the entire country is about nil. Whichever way the conflict plays out, Russia will likely retain a foothold.

A primary strategic goal of the United States is to reduce the size of that foothold and, if possible, eliminate it. That will be no mean task, but the Biden team has partners who can help. Like the Russians, the Israelis also engage with both Burhan and Hemeti. Jerusalem seeks to retain Sudan as a signatory to the historic Abraham Accords. In Sudan, as with so many other issues these days, Saudi and Israeli interests align. Like Jerusalem, Riyadh has also avoided the temptation to pick a winner.

That brings us back to Blinken’s engagement with Riyadh. If U.S. President Joe Biden places the Saudi-brokered talks between Burhan and Hemeti in the correct strategic frame, he will see them as one means to help bring the United States’ Middle Eastern partners, including Israel, closer together. The talks can serve as a tool not just to stabilize the Red Sea region but to deny it to Russia and China.

While Blinken’s rhetoric pays lip service to a democratic transition in Sudan, the administration’s actions suggest that it understands that a strategy centered on democracy promotion is destined to fail. China, Russia, and Iran seek to undermine the U.S.-led order globally. The only way to elevate Washington’s status in the Red Sea is by directly working with allies who can, in this case, negotiate a cease-fire between Hemeti and Burhan. Therein lies the true opportunity: to restore relations with Arab allies and to develop the Abraham Accords into a strategic instrument in the competition with Moscow and Beijing.

Read in Foreign Policy.