Source: Foreign Policy
From meeting with Netanyahu to working with the ICC, the new
government is reversing the foreign policy of the Bashir era.
BY CAMERON HUDSON | FEBRUARY 12, 2020, 4:54 PM
Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council made a landmark announcement this
week. It plans to cooperate with the International Criminal Court
(ICC) in prosecuting former President Omar al-Bashir and four of his
henchmen, who were indicted for atrocities and genocide in Darfur, as
part of an eventual peace deal with the country’s armed movements.
This is a watershed moment in Sudan’s rapidly evolving political
But it is only the latest in a dizzying series of major policy
reversals in recent weeks that have the potential to fundamentally
remake the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. In this
case, the government’s offer could transform Sudan from the court’s
leading international opponent to an ally by delivering its biggest
and most important case in its brief history.
It was only a week ago that heads were already spinning in Sudan when
details emerged of a secret meeting between the leader of Sudan’s
transitional Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The potential for normalizing relations between the two enemies—and
undoing a history of combative relations that saw Sudan targeted with
Israeli airstrikes as recently as a decade ago for its role in
funneling weapons into the West Bank and Gaza—makes good on Sudan’s
new leaders’ promise to pursue a balanced foreign policy and play a
positive role in the region and beyond.
This comes on the heels of a leaked letter from Sudanese Prime
Minister Abdalla Hamdok to United Nations Secretary-General António
Guterres last month proposing a sweeping new U.N. political mission in
Sudan that would transform that fundamental relationship from one of
conflict to abiding cooperation in helping to “consolidate gains in
peacebuilding … and provide technical support on judicial and security
It’s a far cry from when the U.N. was labeled a colonizing and
invading force by Bashir and its peacekeepers were forced to virtually
fight their way into the country in an only modestly successful
attempt to protect Darfuri civilians against government bombs and the
janjaweed, the notorious Arab militia responsible for some of the
Bashir regime’s worst abuses. That conflict ultimately displaced more
than 2 million people, killed at least another 300,000 more, and cast
a shadow over the country that the new government is only now trying
The 2008 indictment that the ICC aims to prosecute does not name Gen.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, the head of the former
janjaweed militia who in his political second act now serves as the
second-in-command on the Sovereign Council. Another senior janjaweed
commander, Ali Kushayb, is named in the ICC indictment, suggesting
that any cooperation with the court could surface new evidence to
This astonishing array of policy reversals is all the more impressive
given the divided nature of government in the country.
As part of a hastily agreed deal last summer, which walked the
country back from the brink of severe violence, a civilian cabinet was
brought in to share governing responsibility with a Sovereign Council
that the military would, at least initially, control.
Since assuming power only six months ago, many skeptics viewed this
“uniquely Sudanese model of transition,” as the prime minister refers
to it, as merely an effort by the military to put a civilian face on
its effort to attract outside investment and remove remaining
Many observers still believe that civilians will be unable to alter
the fundamental power dynamics of a state where military interests and
assets are protected and prioritized over all else.
Under this assumption, many governments, including the Trump
administration in the United States, have taken a wait-and-see
approach to the governing dynamics in the country—praising civilian
rule but remaining circumspect in their approach to the big policy
incentives such as sanctions removal and debt relief for fear that the
military will reassert total control once all of Sudan’s penalties are
Indeed, frustration is growing inside and outside Sudan over the
cabinet’s timid approach to policy implementation and its fear of
upsetting the country’s political and military leaders on issues large
and small. Delaying the replacement of state-level military governors
with new civilian officials and walking back the decision to remove
treasury-draining subsidies show that the unelected government is not
eager to make enemies of these powerful forces.
It is thus hard to explain the dramatic moves by the civilian
government in the last few weeks— such as turning over senior leaders
to the ICC and radically expanding U.N. operations in the country,
both of which seem to run counter to the military’s interests. Indeed,
these moves suggest that the military shares the government’s desire
to see the country reintegrated into the international community.
After all, the announcement this week that Sudan would ensure those
sought by the ICC saw justice served came from a spokesman of the
military-run Sovereign Council at the site of the peace talks in South
Sudan that the military is leading on behalf of the government. It
seems doubtful and out of character for the prime minister to force
the military’s hand and box it in on the issue of transitional
justice, as some Sudanese commentators have suggested.
And even on the question of Israel, knowing that there would surely be
some popular outrage and a political cost in any Arab country from
meeting with Netanyahu, why would Sudan’s military leader take the
meeting if it wasn’t in the hopes of both advancing Sudan’s chances of
being removed from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism and
advancing the ideals of the revolution?
The reasons for a cooperative approach between military and civilian
leaders become clearer when a third leg of Sudan’s power structure is
factored into the equation.
Hemeti’s militia, the Rapid Support Forces, arguably remains the
single most powerful force in the country and a threat to the
military’s traditional role.
The RSF controls gold mines and a sizable financial reserve, along
with commanding tens of thousands of new recruits. Sudan’s military’s
forces have long resented and feared the RSF as a competing power
center and an undisciplined force lacking the formal training of a
If the country pursues a relationship with the ICC, it will be a
direct threat to Hemeti: From his view, prosecuting the five indicted
parties could lead the ICC lawyers to look into his past
transgressions. If he feels that his freedom is threatened, he could
use his financial power and fighting force to undermine the
By allying itself with the country’s civilian leaders, Sudan’s
military leaders may well be playing the strategic long game that
marginalizes the Rapid Support Forces, secures their survival under a
new political dispensation, and advances the revolution’s overall goal
of reforming the state and coming in from the cold. Their hope is that
those on the outside are not too blind to see it.