The next stage of the battle for Khartoum will, it seems, be decided in Cairo, Ankara and Abu Dhabi.
The middle powers of the Middle East are talking peace even while they are arming their favored clients. The theory is that when one side gains a clear battlefield advantage, the other will sue for peace. It’s a high-risk approach.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his Turkish counterpart Recip Tayyip Erdogan are lining up in support of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and its leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is increasingly backed by the old-guard Islamists who held power under the long reign of President Omar al-Bashir. In doing so, they are setting aside longstanding differences over the Muslim Brothers — Turkey supports them, Egypt suppresses them.
Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nayhan, president of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, has made the opposite bet. He has supported General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemedti, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and, according to some reports, is still supplying him with weapons. Hemedti impressed bin Zayed with his energetic leadership, especially of the paramilitaries he provided for the Saudi-Emirati ground war in Yemen, and his opposition to the Muslim Brothers — famously, the Emirati ruler’s bête noire. Hemedti also has a mutually profitable business trading gold to UAE.
Starting a few days after the eruption of civil war in Khartoum in April, the United States and Saudi Arabia convened talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah. The immediate aims were to secure a ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid, but another goal was to prevent the emergence of a proxy conflict such as this.
After a slack period in which two other peace initiatives surfaced — one led by Kenya, the other by Egypt — American and Saudi diplomats have pushed their talks with new vigor. But the chance of a ceasefire is slipping away, and with it comes the peril of a new, even more intense phase of the war.
At the outbreak of hostilities on April 15, Hemedti’s RSF surprised its adversary, the SAF, with its tactical acumen and its ability to hold ground in Khartoum. As RSF troops occupied strategic sites throughout the city, the SAF was reduced to enclaves and to air and artillery barrages. Unable to control the capital, its claim to represent the government was in question.
But the RSF could not press home its early military gains, while it decisively lost any sympathies among the city dwellers through the appalling abuses perpetrated by its fighters—arbitrary killings, rapes and ransacking residential neighborhoods as well as occupying hospitals and terrorizing medical staff, and vandalizing universities and the national museum.
The army interprets the May 11 “Declaration of Principles for the Protection of Civilians,” signed by both parties in Jeddah, as stipulating that the RSF withdraws not just from homes and hospitals, but virtually all the positions it controls in Khartoum. The RSF rejects that.
What it gained on the battlefield, the RSF lost in the political arena. After the popular uprising that overthrew the longstanding military leader, President Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019, Hemedti was the most nimble and energetic politician in Sudan. Belying his horrific human rights record, Hemedti positioned himself as a champion of revolution and the main bulwark against the return of the old guard of the al-Bashir regime. For that reason, segments of the civilian resistance leaned towards him.
Populist politicians thrive in the limelight, but when the fighting broke out, Hemedti disappeared, fueling speculation that he had been seriously injured. Only last week did he release a short video clip. He looked stiff and pallid. Meanwhile, he has forfeited the political initiative.
Whatever happens in Khartoum, Darfur faces another round of turmoil and bloodshed, this time without any serious international attention.
By default, SAF’s leader, General al-Burhan, has gained the political upper hand. He’s increasingly recognized as representing the government. But he has shown neither political profile nor leadership, and it’s unclear if he can manage his cabal of quarrelsome lieutenants, including the resurgent veteran Islamists who served under al-Bashir.
The Forces for Freedom and Change, which spearheaded the 2019 uprising, are trying to regroup, but other civilian groups are disenchanted with them. Most of them refuse to entertain talks with the Islamists—a position that, during the civilian-led interlude that lasted until the October 2021 military coup, pushed the Islamists into the army’s embrace.
Meanwhile, the deposed civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, has continued his cautious pattern of seeking consensus, disappointing those who wanted to see a more energetic stand against the generals.
In June and July, a burst of diplomatic energy seemed to promise that the low-wattage U.S.-Saudi and African Union mediation processes might be overtaken by more vigorous efforts. It hasn’t worked out that way, as rival initiatives have cancelled each other out, turning the diplomatic arena into a field of tactical positioning.
In late June, the northeast African regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), held a summit meeting and appointed Kenyan President William Ruto to head a “quartet” including Djibouti, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Ruto made no secret of his strong views. He condemned the war as “senseless” and the violence in Darfur as, possibly, “genocide.” He said that the Sudanese people had made it perfectly clear what they wanted—a democratic government. The IGAD leaders also spoke of activating the East African Standby Brigade to intervene.
Shortly afterwards, Egypt convened a “Summit of Sudan’s Neighboring States.” Strenuous diplomacy by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ensured a strong attendance. Paragraph 3 of the communiqué stressed “the importance of preserving the Sudanese State and its institutions, and preventing the fragmentation of the country, or descent into chaos.”
Egypt has a longstanding diplomatic rivalry with IGAD. Twenty-five years ago, the IGAD peace process for southern Sudan, led by a Kenyan general, resulted in a peace agreement that gave the southern Sudanese the opportunity to vote to secede. They took that option in 2011, creating the independent state of South Sudan. A parallel Egyptian-Libyan initiative, resolutely opposed to granting self-determination, was brushed aside.
Al-Sisi’s summit met his minimal aim of blocking IGAD, thus reducing the diplomatic arena to tactical maneuvering without strategic direction.
The Egyptian plan was nurtured behind the scenes by Qatar and Turkey, both of which back Sudan’s Islamists. None are impressed with al-Burhan’s leadership, but they far prefer him to the alternative. This gave al-Burhan the green light to boycott the IGAD leaders’ follow-up meeting, and for SAF to voice strenuous objections to IGAD, on the pretext that Ruto has business dealings with Hemedti and is therefore biased. (They overlooked Ruto’s remarks about genocide, which targeted the RSF and its allies.)
But an escalation in battlefield technology would not go unchallenged. The RSF already has some less capable drones of its own. It will be pressing the UAE to send it high-end versions — and bin Zayed is quite capable of resisting pressure from Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara, and overruling his own advisors to follow his own path. This would turn Sudan into a proxy war among Middle Eastern powers.
With Egypt canceling out IGAD, the diplomatic pass-the-buck goes back to the Americans and Saudis. After a six-week suspension, talks resumed in Jeddah in mid-July. The mediators insist they have a plan and may yet have the leverage to get the generals to agree to a ceasefire. But there’s no sign of a strategic vision for how to help Sudan escape from its crisis.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Global Affairs, Tufts University, and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: 200 years of the war on disease and its alternatives (Polity 2021).
Sudan's General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan walks with troops, in an unknown location, in this picture released on May 30, 2023. Sudanese Armed Forces/Handout via REUTERS
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.