Foreign Policy

How should the United States be understanding the present-day conflict in Sudan?

June 27, 2023

Africa, particularly Sudan, is no stranger to conflict. The recent events in Sudan and the Horn of Africa are troubling not only because of the negative impact on the lives of Africans. For countries, like the United States, who have a checkered history with Sudan, the present conflict presents new challenges to our relationship with them and advocacy for democracy abroad.

To provide insight into these issues and more, we spoke with Elizabeth Shackelford, senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, a grantee of Stand Together Trust. Informing Elizabeth’s insights include her experience as a career diplomat, serving as a Foreign Service Officer in Somalia, Kenya, Poland, and several State Department roles in Washington D.C. For her work in South Sudan during the outbreak of civil war in 2013, Elizabeth received the Barbara Watson Award for Consular Excellence, the State Department’s highest honor for consular work. Today, her analysis, writing, and outreach focus on building awareness and understanding of a “restraint” approach to foreign policy, which seeks to limit the use of military force to the defense of core US national security interests and favors robust diplomatic engagement.

STT: The conflicts and political destabilization in Sudan and the Horn of Africa are of great concern to the world and for those who support the cause of human dignity. Can you tell us what is currently going on and what has led to this crisis?

Shackelford: Africa’s third largest country, Sudan, is rapidly descending into civil war. The capital city of Khartoum, which has a population similar in size to New York City, has been experiencing airstrikes and intense urban warfare, and the violence comes from within – not from some outside actor. While Sudan is no stranger to conflict, it’s never seen something like this unfold in Khartoum. Other parts of the country, most notably Darfur in the West, are also seeing intense fighting and civilian casualties.

The immediate cause of the fighting is a power struggle between the head of the Sudanese army and de facto leader of the country, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who is widely known by his nickname Hemeti. The RSF is essentially a rebranded version of the Janjaweed militia that is most well-known for committing widespread violence and genocide across Darfur during the early 2000s.

The seeds of this conflict were sown years ago. Omar al-Bashir, the country’s longstanding dictator, empowered Hemeti’s RSF specifically to ensure a counterbalance to the power of the Sudanese army. Bashir himself came to power in a coup, so this was an effort to coup-proof his own regime. Unfortunately, those two came together to oust him in 2019 after months of public protests. Given the extensive public opposition to Bashir, the military coup that overthrew him was welcomed by the international community and civilians alike. International partners helped negotiate a transitional civilian-military government, but it turned out to be wishful thinking, and the civilian element was quickly undermined and ultimately ousted too.

The Sudanese people and international partners continued to press for a transition to civilian rule, and both generals had agreed to do so on a timeline aimed at April. It isn’t clear who fired the first shot, but neither seemed willing to cede their accumulated power. Hemeti and Burhan could not agree to terms for integrating their armies into a single national force, so they chose to fight instead.

The consequences for human welfare are massive already, but it could easily get worse depending on the actions of other interested countries, and there are many.

Sudan borders seven other countries, most of which are already facing insecurity themselves and have significant humanitarian needs. From the recent war in Ethiopia, to hunger across the Horn of Africa after the fifth consecutive failed rainy season, to ongoing civil conflict in Libya, this region has little bandwidth to manage additional crises. Most of the neighbors seem genuinely interested in pressing both warring parties to peace, though some have favored sides. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely others will start choosing sides, which could help sustain the war for much longer.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are probably the most influential and engaged outside states though. Both provide millions of dollars in direct budget support and have paid both sides for mercenaries to fight their wars abroad. They have wide-ranging business dealings as well. The hope is that they see their interests served better by a peaceful Sudan than one at war so that they use their influence and leverage with both Hemeti and Burhan to push them to peace.

How would you characterize the United States’ actions in the region during recent years? 

The US has a history of brokering peace talks for Sudan. It was a key player in securing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and laid the groundwork for South Sudan’s independence. But beyond that, America’s history with Sudan has been fraught for decades. The US had wide-ranging sanctions on Sudan until 2017 and only removed Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2020. The natural result is that we don’t have deep economic or diplomatic ties today, which limits the influence we can wield.

Since the removal of Bashir in 2019, the US has actively tried to change that by focusing on engagement, which has made the US hesitant to resort to harsh tools like sanctions even after Hemeti and Burhan removed the civilian prime minister in a coup in 2021.

In many ways, it’s been a classic case of overcorrection. The lack of engagement before 2017 accomplished few of America’s goals, but the near unconditional support that came after also limited our ability to shape a positive path.

What involvement does the United States currently have in addressing the conflicts in Sudan and the Horn of Africa? Are there considerations or changes to our approach that should be taken up?

Many experts (myself included) think the United States was too eager to endorse a transitional government that gave so much power to Hemeti and Burhan. We saw a similar (also failed) approach in South Sudan after its civil war began in 2013.

The typical approach to conflict resolution involves securing a peace agreement that splits power between the men with guns. The agreements often include lofty goals and lay out a path to democracy, but those promises are put off again and again as international attention dissipates, and the conflicting parties often just use that lag period to regroup or expand their own power, readying for the next fight. Power sharing is rarely comfortable for strongmen who are used to securing their power with brute force.  

The truth is, as hard as it is to secure lasting peace by negotiating with those stoking violence, it’s hard to secure even short-term peace without them. So what are the more promising options for conflict resolution?

I think it’s important that the United States continue to be a voice for democracy and support the will of the people there, which was very clearly displayed during months of protests that helped bring Bashir down. The way we’ve interpreted that commitment, however, has relied a lot on wishful thinking. We applauded the transitional government as a democratic success, even though it was evident from the start that the military leaders were retaining a monopoly on power. The United States should have been much more circumspect.

At the same time, the United States wasn’t quick to provide Sudan with the kind of relief and support that could have helped set up the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, for success. Sudan continued to suffer economic hardship after the transition began in 2019 as the country continued to languish on the state sponsor of terrorism list and under the burden of tremendous debt. It’s uncertain if that could have changed the trajectory, but Hamdok has suggested that swifter economic recovery could have raised the costs to the generals for veering off the transition’s path.

The challenging question of how to effectively address the long-term transition with hopes for more accountable civilian governance will return. But the urgent question now is what role the US and others can play to bring the conflict to an end for the sake of the Sudanese people. With power in the hands of two armed groups, it will once again inevitably require appeasing the men with guns.

To hear more from Elizabeth Shackelford about the Sudan conflict and ideas for resolution, visit her page at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs or follow her on Twitter.