Source: Africa Report

Sudan: What’s wrong with the US-Saudi-mediated talks in Jeddah?

Posted on Monday, 8 May 2023 10:38

By Amgad Fareid Eltayeb

Sudanese politician, previously served as assistant chief of staff to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and as political advisor to the UN special political mission in Sudan (UNITAMS). He is currently the CEO of Fikra for Studies and Development, a non-partisan political think tank based in Khartoum. Twitter (@amjedfarid)

Sudanese Army sodliers walk near armoured vehicles stationed on a street in southern Khartoum, on May 6, 2023, amid ongoing fighting against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. – Air strikes battered Sudan’s capital on May 6, as fighting entered a fourth week only hours before the warring parties are to meet in Saudi Arabia for their first direct talks. (Photo by – / AFP)

Over the weekend, US-Saudi mediated talks took place in the city of Jeddah to find a way to stop the war from escalating in Sudan. The initiative, which began on 6 May, may have been founded on good intentions, but is riddled with deficiencies and defects that render it absurd.

The war in Sudan will not be fixed by quick fixes — and the superficial and hurried support from certain Sudanese civil and political forces, as well as regional and international organisations eager to associate with US-affiliated efforts is not helping, either.

It bolsters the Humpty Dumpty diplomatic approach that has dominated US policy towards Sudan since the October 2021 coup d’état. After repeated failures, this disorganised strategy must be harshly criticised in order to be re-evaluated and altered.

The current situation in Sudan is graver and more perilous than allowing another failure of efforts to restore peace, stability, and a civilian democratic transition to the country. Only genuine civilian democratictransition can ensure the first two take place.

Good intentions…

The US-Saudi initiative that delivered the talks, which began in Jeddah on 6 May, may have been founded on good intentions, but it is riddled with deficiencies and defects that render it absurd.

In the past few weeks, the US and Saudi Arabia have proclaimed six times since the outbreak of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that a humanitarian cessation of hostilities has been reached.

However, after each announcement, the battle between the warring parties immediately escalates, indicating that these efforts have little influence or capacity in the real world. The low-key delegation sent by the two Sudanese parties to Jeddah reveals that neither is honestly interested in a fruitful outcome, but rather is using it as a platform to demonstrate their alignment with the two big foreign actors, for whose approval both SAF and RSF are competing.

‘Unwilling to engage or coordinate’

The US and Saudi Arabia continue to keep the process to themselves and appear unwilling to engage or coordinate with other regional and international actors involved in the situation.

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They are evidently more concerned with having full ownership of the process rather than its actual success – a typical attitude of US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, who is running the show in Jeddah and who previously pushed two US envoys to Sudan to resign because they disagreed with her administration of US policy towards Sudan.

This occurred following October 2021, after the now-warring parties partnered to stage a coup to overthrow the civilian government. The US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, resigned from his position in January 2022, and his replacement, David Satterfield, resigned from the same position in April 2022, due to the irrational and unprincipled soft and spoiled treatment of the Generals following their coup.

This fed their lusting for more power and their illusions of legitimacy in the absence of any discourse about political accountability for their actions. Clearly, the catastrophic approach contributed to the escalating tension and polarisation that has erupted in the current conflict, which followed a chaotic political process that the US fostered behind the scenes, leaving the tripartite of the UN, AU, and IGAD to handle the optics. Despite this, and despite the calamitous circumstances, Phee continues to lead US efforts to address the situation.

The current negotiations in Jeddah are plagued by the following five issues:

1. Absence of civilian voices

The absence of any civilian voice at the table in Jeddah makes it another closed-door deal between the two parties who started the war. This will only lead to another power-sharing deal or short-term understanding that was behind the causation of this war in the first place.

The US steered discussions by favouring certain civilian political actors and individuals and giving them the monopoly of representing the civil movement in Sudan. But upon discovering its grave mistake, its tactic has been to gloss over it, and not engage the civilians at all, without considering for a minute how this approach is handing the country to the realm of the military and cementing it.

The definition of the civilian actors should not be reduced to the like-minded pro-west institutionalised political forces but should be expanded to the broadest possible definition, to include:

  • Formal civil society organisations
  • Informal groups
  • Elected trade unions
  • Resistance Committees
  • Local and traditional leaders (whose efforts for preventing fighting were the only successful action in North and West Darfur)
  • Eminent personalities, in addition to certain political leaders/parties

2. US-Saudi talks legitimise warring parties

The US-KSA mediated talks in the current format continues to legitimise the warring parties as natural political actors – in fact, as the only political actors of the country. It is giving them the urgency to discuss solely the situation in Sudan, in relation to their points of conflict.

This not only feeds their thirst for power but is also based on the same flawed analysis that neglected that both warring parties (SAF and RSF) were partners in mounting the 2021 coup that put in motion the chain reaction leading to this current war.

This flawed analysis must be revisited immediately, and all interventions founded on it must cease.

3. Flawed and repeated strategy

There is an increasing sense that the continuation of the same strategy, including involvement by the same US and KSA representatives who were part of the previous botched political process, indicates that Washington and Riyadh do not truly believe that these negotiations will result in anything.

Instead, they want something on the record so that after one side “wins,” everyone may talk to that side since it was “willing to negotiate.”

Another check-the-box exercise.

4. Delayed humanitarian response

Moreover, many Sudanese believe these secretive talks are being used as a pretext to further delay the humanitarian relief response, which is the only practical people-centred intervention at present.

It is also used to reduce the sense of urgency of the situation by creating the illusion that someone is taking action to address it.

5. Lack of transparency

The secrecy regarding the substance and content of Jeddah’s arrangements – or rather the absence of such substance – makes everyone suspicious of it. Particularly because the US, which is leading the process, exerted pressure regarding the Security Sector Reform in the previous process in order to achieve certain interests that are not consistent with the goals of a democratic transition in Sudan (such as restoring the arrest and detention powers of the General Intelligence Service that were stripped from it after the 2019 revolution).

These doubts are heightened by the fact that the same individuals who pushed for these demands in the previous process from the US Department of State and the US Department of Defence are currently the same people present in Jeddah and pressing for this process.

This may suggest that the American presence in this initiative is intended to pave the way for a military regime in Sudan that serves only US security interests in the region but represents a tragic end to the revolution and democratic transition in Sudan.

Going forward

If international actors are to learn anything from what has happened and is happening in Sudan, it is that they must reconsider and re-evaluate their strategy in the region and abandon their ongoing ad hoc diplomatic approach to the situation.

Support for democracy and civil transformation in Sudan cannot be mere lip service. The international community must adopt positions consistent with the aspirations of the Sudanese people who fought during their revolution to bring down the Islamist regime in 2019.

The limited and short-term perspective to serve temporary interests will only result in more instability and volatility in Sudan, as well as regional and global repercussions.