1 August 2018

Sudan: More Domestic Engagement

Three developments took place recently that worth a careful review as they will have their impact on the Sudanese-American bilateral relations. In the spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia, the United States kept mum on supporting its northern ally publicly, and in effect went step further by equating the two countries as close allies, thus Trump administration distanced itself from the conventional US position in defending human rights all over the world. The second development is that Washington has finally stopped looking at Sudan through the South Sudan prism and the long history of animosity. It even went step further and started even to push for punitive measures against Juba and missed no opportunity in expressing its skepticism on the outcome of Khartoum's efforts to conclude a peace deal for South Sudan. The third is the change in the US focus on combatting terrorism with a new strategy that highlights state threats from sources like Russia, China and North Korea more than from terrorist organizations.

On the face of it the apparent lack of enthusiasm from the Trump administration to drum on human rights issues should be a welcomed development by Khartoum, who had complained from western meddling into its own affairs under the pretext of defending human rights, but clearly the issue is not out of the woods yet, though it may come under a new title.

Earlier this year, Trump appointed former senator Sam Brownback as an ambassador in charge of the issue of religious freedoms. He is the first politician ever to be appointed to this post. No wonder, Brownback does not hide his political affiliations that tie him with the Christian lobby, which is one of the main pillars for the Trump presidency. During his term in the congress he helped in promoting the issue of religious freedom and has been a constant critic of Sudan. Up to the last annual report of last year, Sudan has been designated officially as a, "Country of Particular Concern" despite the separation of South Sudan and where majority of Christians moved with the new state. It remains to be seen how the new annual report under the direction of Brownback will say about Sudan.

More significant is the dwindling interest of the Trump administration in the issue of combating terrorism. It was the adoption of this strategy following Sept. 11 that pushed both the Bush and Obama administrations to make it one of the cores of their foreign policy outlook. Sudan sensing the potential danger had cooperated fully utilizing its intelligence capabilities that have eventually saved it for some day from the US wrath and led to the paradoxical situation, where the State department annual review of terrorism activities lists Sudan as one of the countries helping in combating terror activities, but at the same time maintaining Sudan in the list of countries sponsoring terror.

This new American military strategy reduces, if not completely strips Sudan from one of its valuable cards that allows it to engage with Washington in a more conducive way.

However, these new steps being taken by Washington are not restricted only to Sudan. They are part of a new approach by the Trump administration that will have their impact all over the world. In fact it is ripping off the foundations of an inherited world order, but without putting something in place, yet.

The recent developments in the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia and Eritrea is resuming their cordial relations after two decades of open animosity and where South Sudanese were brought to join forces and end the 5-year old civil strife, all are taking place without much of an involvement from Washington. It is the indigenous and regional forces that are taking the lead to create new realities in the Horn with little or no outside help at all.

Under Trump, the US may be putting his election promise for America First into practice. That may provide an opportunity and a challenge for others, including Sudan. Already western allies are scrambling to come to terms with the new reality of doing without US in security issues. To Sudan it is more of a challenge to find a way to engage with this new approach. More important, is how to utilize this for its people where every concession worth giving should be done domestically in the first place.

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