Sudan's New Friendships Are Starting to Pay Off

4 MINS READSep 23, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
As long as Sudanese President Omar al Bashir remains in power, a closer relationship between Khartoum and Washington is unlikely to emerge.

Sudan has been gradually shifting its alliances over the past two years, and its efforts may finally be starting to bear fruit. On Sept. 20, the U.S. State Department issued a press release commending Sudan's attempts to boost its cooperation in counterterrorism operations with the United States. The statement went on to say that the Sudanese government has worked to disrupt the activities of terrorist groups within its borders and that Washington would continue to partner with Khartoum within the confines of U.S. law to combat terrorism. The State Department's comments follow Israeli media reports in early September that Israeli officials have urged their U.S. counterparts to improve ties with Sudan in light of its break with onetime ally Iran. But despite these apparent diplomatic coups, Khartoum has many challenges left to overcome before it can reap the full benefits of its newfound orientation toward the West.

Sudan has been distancing itself from Iran for some time. Khartoum's intent, in part, was to move closer to Iran's biggest regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members. In many ways, Khartoum already has been handsomely rewarded for its ties with Riyadh. Yet its ultimate goal was to forge a friendship not with Saudi Arabia, but with the United States.

Sudan's ambitions are not unrealistic, either. The United States and Sudan's history of cooperating closely on counterterrorism and regional security dates to the 1970s and 1980s, before Sudan gained a reputation as a haven for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. That Israel, one of the United States' closest allies, is now lobbying for a detente on Sudan's behalf could signal a renewal of ties between Washington and Khartoum ahead. Because much of Israel's proxy battle with Iran has taken place in Sudan, Israel's blessing would no doubt be a prerequisite for the United States to even consider engaging Sudan in talks once more. (Eager to avoid the appearance of relying too heavily on Israel, the Sudanese government has publicly declared that its relationship with Washington is bilateral in nature and will improve without other countries' assistance.)

Of course, Israel's endorsement is not the only factor on which the future of U.S.-Sudanese relations hinges. Sudan must also make progress on several of its long-standing internal problems, not least of which is its fractured political landscape. The numerous armed conflicts among Sudan's wide array of rebel groups and political factions have raised questions in the past about the government's ability to rule effectively. The clashes, and the state-sponsored violence that often accompany them, have also been a constant source of international criticism of the government in Khartoum. Recent years, however, have brought some progress toward settling those disputes. For example, four of the country's biggest opposition groups signed an African Union-backed peace deal with the Sudanese government on Aug. 9 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The agreement aims to resolve some of the outstanding issues surrounding conflicts in the regions of Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan. Though the road to peace will likely be fraught with setbacks, given the deeply rooted grievances that still exist among Sudan's most important figures, it nevertheless indicates that Khartoum is headed toward a more stable political future.

Perhaps the stickiest issue standing in the way of a warmer relationship between Sudan and the West is an international arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. As long as the president, who is charged with genocide, remains in power, a high-level rapprochement with the United States is unlikely. Al Bashir told the BBC in April, however, that he intends to step down in 2020, when his current presidential term is set to end. In the meantime, as the recent State Department press release shows, al Bashir's presence will not prevent lower-level engagement from continuing. This is especially true within the realm of counterterrorism, where Sudan has the ability to curry favor with Western officials seeking local partners to help find, track and disrupt terrorist groups operating in areas where the United States and Europe lack a significant presence.

Sudan has not given up on reshaping its friendships to better fit the changing realities of its region, or of the Middle East at large. So far, it has even had considerable success in cozying up to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states. But it remains to be seen whether Sudan will be able to fix its problems at home so that it can someday more fully repair its relationship with the United States. For now, it seems that the best Khartoum can hope for is to strengthen its cooperation with Washington on matters of counterterrorism and military engagement, at least until a new leader assumes the Sudanese presidency.

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