Dialogue, international diplomacy might avoid catastrophe in Sudan

Dialogue, international diplomacy might avoid catastrophe in Sudan
© EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Sudanese military forces fired on innocent civilians, killing more than 100 in a failed bid to break the back of the democratic protest movement, but new hope was injected into the stalemate by week’s end. The United States called in some of its many chits in the Arab World, as Under Secretary of State David Hale reached out to counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to urge them to put pressure on their clients in Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) to show restraint and pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement of concern, noting, “The Kingdom affirms the importance of resuming the dialogue between the various parties in Sudan to fulfill the aspirations of the brotherly Sudanese people.” Abu Dhabi shortly followed suit.

Adding to this break in the diplomatic logjam, the African Union by mid-week suspended Sudan from the body three weeks ahead of the deadline it originally had imposed to restore civilian rule. The AU statement called for “the effective establishment of a Civilian-led Transitional Authority, as the only way to allow the Sudan to exit from the current crisis.”

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The AU also took the extraordinary step of immediately dispatching Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Khartoum on Friday to assess the prospects of a renewed negotiation process. Initial reports from those talks suggest that if certain preconditions are met, the opposition is willing to submit to external mediation. Sensing they dug themselves into a hole, the TMC agreed to restart transition talks.  

Now there is once again an opportunity for the United States to engage in the crisis in a way that supports the de-escalation of tensions in the short term and helps create a roadmap for a long-term, sustainable transition.  

In the midst of the chaos, calls increased for the U.S. to appoint a special envoy and for the international community to appoint an on-the-ground mediator. But before we are locked into new personalities and a negotiating structure, we first should consider the qualities and skills needed and how these different elements will fit together and function effectively.

As a first step, the State Department should appoint that envoy, but particularly someone with experience and relationships in the Arab world, since that is where the bulk of the heavy lifting will be. This is the challenge of Sudan — a vast country that saddles the meeting of the Arab and African worlds, where language, religion, tribe and culture are defined at the village level and where the ruling elites, the political class and the business community have always looked North to Egypt and East to the Gulf for influence and support.  

This has always created a bureaucratic rub at the State Department and hindered effective diplomacy in Sudan. The Africa Bureau, where bureaucratic responsibility for Sudan resides, has little expertise or influence in the Arab world and even fewer Arabic speakers among its ranks. Our career appointees coming from Ouagadougou or Banjul rarely are seen as particularly clued-in to the nuances of Khartoum’s elite political circles. Career Middle East diplomats such as Anne Patterson and Jeff Feltman — who have run the Near East Affairs bureau at State and managed crises in the Arab Spring — should be at the top of anyone’s envoy list.

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Second, Washington needs more robust representation on the ground in Khartoum. A series of missteps early on in the protests soured the Sudan street on the U.S.; protesters believe we are more in line with Gulf thinking of stability and security over democracy. Moreover, because our bilateral relationship with Khartoum never was normalized, we suffer from not having ambassadorial representation since 1997.

We should appoint a retired U.S. ambassador to deploy immediately to Khartoum as our chargé d’affaires. In a place where titles and stature matter, an experienced hand would refocus our efforts, renewing our relationship with Sudan’s would-be democrats.

Beyond Washington, we must press for a single international mediator to deploy to Khartoum to salvage talks between the democratic Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and the TMC, especially if we hope to avoid more atrocities.  

As we had in the Darfur peace negotiations, such a mediator should wear several hats reflecting the diverse interests of regional groups active in Sudan. Ethiopia’s prime minister could be tapped to continue the job, although with his own reform agenda at home not yet fully consolidated, one wonders how he realistically could do both.

As unwieldy as it might be, a mediator should represent the United Nations, African Union and Arab League interests, giving a share of responsibility to those who would support — or spoil — the chances for peace. Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, if he could be convinced, would be an ideal match. Zeid understands royal politics and the interest of Gulf states, but also had a long career at the United Nations protecting and supporting human rights, including as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.  

To round out the diplomatic architecture, we should push for the creation of an international contact group. Not just one of like-minded states, as Washington tried to convene last month, but an all-inclusive forum where the diverse, competing and even nefarious agendas being driven from Moscow to Cairo can be identified and addressed.

Many might argue that Sudan enjoys nothing more than a good international rope-a-dope that they can tie in knots and play off each other as they extend their hold on power. After all, they spent five years negotiating a peace deal with South Sudan and several more years slow-rolling the international community in Darfur. But what choice do we have?

Absent the proposed international diplomatic architecture to keep the parties talking and the spoilers occupied, we risk a catastrophic outcome in Sudan. For the sake of the Sudanese, who suffered 30 years at the hands of a genocidal dictator, and whose army clearly remains capable of continuing those tactics, this seems an obvious choice to make.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. He previously chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and director for African affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.