Sudan: Alignment of Forces, Players
People fleeing fighting in Khartoum, Sudan, April 19, 2023.
The worst-case scenario is coming to pass, apparently, in Sudan. That is, at any rate, the apocalyptic message streaming out of Khartoum in the western media.
President Biden lent credence to the alarmist perception by confirming that on his orders, the US military conducted an operation “to extract government personnel from Khartoum.”
According to the US Department of State, about 16,000 American nationals are currently in Sudan. The US embassy in Khartoum had an excessive staff strength — on par with its Mission in Kiev — which was unwarranted by the scale and volume of US-Sudanese bilateral ties, leading to speculation that it was a key intelligence outpost.
In the Horn of Africa, the Gulf states traditionally took a deep dive into the complexities of power projection, political rivalry and conflict across the Red Sea, which has lately re-emerged as a geo-strategic space in which competing global and regional players have sought to project influence.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other, intensely competed to counter each other’s influence and project their rivalries on to the politics of the Horn, but, after years of fierce competition, signs have appeared lately that they’ve begun cautiously recalibrating their respective roles.
The post-Covid strain on their financial resources, the drawdown in Yemen, and the eagerness of the Gulf states to appear as constructive and reliable partners, adopting a more pragmatic approach on regional issues — all these contributed to the notable signs of détente replacing the intense intra-Gulf competition in the Horn of Africa.
In Sudan, Saudi and Emirati efforts to shape the political transition after Omar al-Bashir’s ousting in April 2019 led to partial successes but also significant difficulties, as they came at a severe reputational cost under scrutiny from both the Sudanese population and the international community.
The US and the EU saw GCC countries as useful partners in the Horn in terms of their surplus capital to invest that Western powers lacked, as well as their good personal networks. The Faustian deal between the Trump administration, Israel and the Gulf states to lure the Sudanese military leadership into the Abraham Accord in 2020 was a defining moment.
However, this dalliance proved short-lived and the Western powers’ game plan to ride on the wings of the Gulf states to counter the growing influence of Russia and China in the Red Sea met a sudden death too, as the ground beneath the feet of the US-Saudi alliance shifted dramatically under the Biden presidency and Riyadh began strengthening its ties with Moscow and Beijing.
The Greater Horn of Africa
This, in turn, compelled the Western powers to explore the opportunity to push for greater coordination and constructive engagement directly with the generals in Khartoum, banking on their own efforts and resources running parallel with the Gulf states’ recalibration of their involvement in the Horn.
In a nutshell, the crux of the matter is that the Western understanding of stability and sustainable development in Sudan through the prism of the neocon ideology that permeates the Biden administration lies at the core of the aggravation of the sluggish internal political crisis in Sudan that has been brewing since 2019 between the army led by the de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and armed formations led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.
The immature, unrealistic political settlements promoted by the Western liberal democracies significantly fuelled the military’s infighting. The Anglo-American dealmaking was largely limited to the Transition Military Council and the Forces for Freedom and Change, an inchoate coalition of hand-picked civilian and rebel Sudanese groups (reg., Sudanese Professional Association, No to Oppression Against Women Initiative, etc.) that by no means represented the national forces in Sudan. Unsurprisingly, these neocon attempts at imposing exotic settlements on an ancient civilisation were doomed to fail.
The spin propagated by the western media reduces the present crisis in Sudan — manifesting as conflict within the military establishment — is a grotesque oversimplification and attempt at cover-up. Simply put, this crisis cannot be reduced to a personal dispute between the two generals — Burhan and Hemedti — who had been friends for a very long time.
The crisis can be resolved only through a “security solution,” which means an integration process involving the Rapid Support Forces in an appropriate manner as a political partner in governance, not just a military force affiliated with the army.
Lest it not be forgotten, Sudan is a vast country of great ethnic and regional diversity — inhabited by something like 400-500 tribes. The country’s stability depends critically on an optimal model of interaction between the elites and clans.
Basically, what drives the special forces in the current conflict is their expectation to increase their importance in the domestic political process of the country. It must be understood that the current strife is not about access to some military resource, but about control over the economy and the distribution of power.
Meanwhile, the clumsy, inept handling of the formation of the new government by the UN Representative Volker Perthes significantly contributed to the present crisis. Perthes, a German establishment think tanker, fired up by the neocon ideology, was the wrong man to handle such a sensitive mission.
This is yet another edifying example of the legacy of UN Secretary General Guterres to preferring Westerners as envoys to those hotspots where the West’s geopolitical interests are at stake. The UN meeting on March 15 exposed that the overzealous Perthes was detached from reality by rushing through the transfer of power from the military administration to the civilian one — rather than concentrating on helping to form a government and creating a committee to draft a new constitution — which, alas, provoked the intensification of confrontation between the warring parties.
The good part is that there are not yet any signs of radicalisation in this conflict on religious grounds. Nor is there any power vacuum that could be exploited by a terrorist group. At the same time, mediation by external powers is required.
The countries of the region can help resolve the conflict. A comprehensive settlement may not happen soon, since the internal contradictions that accumulated over time require compromises, and so far at least, the parties are not ready for this.
In the present climate of conflict resolution enveloping regional politics in the West Asian region and the Gulf in particular, there are no objective prerequisites for the conflict to move to the regional stage. The main countries that are associated with the warring factions have come up with peacekeeping initiatives — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt.
In addition, other external partners, especially Russia and China, will make efforts to prevent a prolonged open conflict. By the way, Sudan has an external debt under $ 60 billion, and most of it falls on China — and Russia, on the other hand, is well-placed to foster rapprochement between al-Burhan and Dagalo.
Russia takes a balanced position. During his visit to Sudan in February, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with the leaders of both opposing sides. Russia is a stakeholder in Sudan’s stability.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “The dramatic events taking place in Sudan cause serious concern in Moscow. We call on the parties to the conflict to show political will and restraint and take urgent steps towards a ceasefire. We proceed from the fact that any differences can be settled through negotiations.”
However, the Anglo-American agenda remains dubious. Their focus is on internationalising the crisis, injecting big power rivalries into the Sudanese situation and willy-nilly create pretexts for western intervention. But any attempt to reignite the embers of the Arab Spring will be hugely consequential for regional security and stability. The Gulf states and Egypt will need to be particularly watchful.
Sudan would have figured in the phone conversation between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.
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