Comment & analysis

Sudan: with the Jeddah talks faltering, the US must focus on civilian engagement

1 August 2023 Tyler Pry Sudan: with the Jeddah talks faltering, the US must focus on civilian engagement

US engagement in Sudan has made several missteps in recent years. The US has shown reluctance to pursue accountability since the October 2021 coup, and has been slow to throw its weight behind efforts to dismantle the military’s involvement in the economy. Its pursuit of political agreements to restore a civilian-led government after the coup prioritized a speedy process focused on armed groups rather than broad engagement with civilian groups. Following the outbreak of hostilities on 15 April this year, the lack of progress in ceasefire talks led by the US and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah has highlighted further shortcomings.

As the Jeddah talks stagnate, the US has an opportunity to reflect on its engagement in the conflict – as hostilities continue and armed actors remain unwilling to meaningfully negotiate. Moving forward, the US must prioritize two key areas: reinvigorating its regional diplomacy, and laying the groundwork for an inclusive, civilian-led political process.

A full-court diplomatic press

At the heart of the diplomatic challenge facing the US is its lack of direct leverage over either the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) or the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). This is evidenced by early breakdowns of the Jeddah talks and by its inability, together with Saudi Arabia, to negotiate the warring parties’ adherence to the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan. In this context, the US should pursue deeper engagement with allies that hold greater influence – such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are closely linked to the SAF and RSF, respectively.

While both Egypt and the UAE may believe they stand to gain if their chosen Sudanese ally triumphs, neither will benefit from lasting conflict and instability. The Sudanese people have shown that they are unwilling to tolerate a repressive regime and that they will continue to press for a democratic Sudan. Should either the SAF or RSF succeed in gaining control of the country, the ensuing state violence against civilian protesters could plunge Sudan back into conflict. The US must engage robustly with the UAE and Egypt, making the case that reorienting their support for the warring parties is in their national interest. The US should employ an incentives-based approach, using a broader range of diplomatic levers – including frank conversations about the importance of peace – to press the UAE and Egypt to mobilize the SAF and RSF into good faith negotiations.

As well as engaging the UAE and Egypt, the US should step up its diplomatic efforts in the region. Currently, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee is leading US policy on Sudan, with Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey in support. To signal Sudan’s significance and the US’ commitment to the country, the US should engage higher-level officials – such as the Secretary of State. There is talk of promoting Ambassador Godfrey to the position of US Special Envoy to Sudan, but this appointment should instead be a Presidential Envoy, reporting directly to the President with the ability to further involve the White House. Elevating diplomatic engagement would lend gravitas to conversations with regional partners such as the UAE and Egypt. It would also give the US a clear, senior-level focal point across three international initiatives – the Jeddah talks, talks led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union, and regional meetings held in Egypt – and on issues such as sanctions. The US has announced sanctions on several entities linked to the SAF and RSF, but most of the armed parties’ assets are held in the region and further action would require cooperation from regional allies.

A different approach: power to the people

Even as the US works with its regional allies to end the fighting, it must also lay the groundwork for a future political process, ensuring that civilian groups are not only included but are able to contribute meaningfully. In doing so, the US should take a course of action guided by two principles, learning from past mistakes: 

1. Rebuild trust and meaningfully engage a broader set of civilian and civil society groups

Following the 2021 coup, the US was a key supporter of UN-backed talks with the military that led to a Framework Agreement in December 2022. The deal was criticized by many, as it was the product of direct negotiations between the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) – a political coalition comprising select civilian and rebel groups – and the military, then encompassing both the RSF and SAF. The deal lacked both a broader civilian consensus and accountability for military leaders, particularly General Al Burhan of the SAF and General Hemedti of the RSF. 
Both the post-2021 and current negotiation processes have also damaged civilian perceptions of the US, with many arguing that engaging with the SAF or RSF is legitimizing the same actors responsible for overthrowing democratic rule and sending the country into conflict. This position comes into tension with the reality that the fighting will continue until the SAF and RSF come to the table and agree to stop. Even so, the focus of the US since April 15 on the RSF, the SAF and the Jeddah talks – coupled with the previous missteps by the US outlined above – has eroded the confidence of many civilian groups in the role the US is playing. Rebuilding trust is essential for the US, as it will be critical to establishing a constructive long-term relationship with a future civilian-led Sudan.

Moving forward, the US needs to change how it engages with civil society and civilian groups. It must go beyond limited engagement with the FFC, encompassing outreach to trade unions, resistance committees, professional groups, grassroots community groups, women’s groups and neighborhood service committees. Piecemeal engagement and listening will only go so far; the US must use its power differently to how it has in the recent past, structuring broader and deeper inclusion into processes that it can influence.

2. Invest in a long-term process of consensus-building among civilian groups that works in parallel to efforts to end the fighting

With Sudanese civil society scattered due to the conflict, meaningfully engaging civilians has become a challenge. However, it is imperative that the US does not prioritize expediency over inclusivity. There are numerous issues that need to be resolved beyond the current fighting, including the role of the security sector, justice for atrocities, resource distribution, and political and geographical representation.

Building consensus that is conducive to durable peace takes time: to identify and reach out to civilian and civil society groups beyond the FFC, to convene them in virtual or physical spaces, to discuss issues in all their complexity, and to find viable paths forward. This cannot be achieved in a few short weeks or even months. The current conflict reflects one of the major critiques of the December 2022 Framework Agreement – that its six-month timeframe was unrealistic.

Allowing sufficient time is as important as correct sequencing. Beginning this process only after a ceasefire has been secured between the RSF and SAF would be a critical mistake. Political consensus-building among civilians must start now, working in parallel with ceasefire negotiations between armed actors. When all parties eventually come to the same table, civil society must be ready with a cohesive position that empowers them through solidarity with one another. The US cannot simply expect civilian groups to join the late stages of an elite bargaining process. Durable peace can only be reached when people’s voices are meaningfully heard.

The floundering of the Jeddah talks provides an opportunity for the US to rethink its engagement in Sudan – and to accompany this engagement with a meaningful change in action.