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The daunting challenges facing Biden's Sudan envoy

The daunting challenges facing Biden's Sudan envoy

In an exclusive interview, Tom Perriello explains how he'll try to bring peace to the troubled region

Analysis | Africa

For over a year, Sudan has been engulfed in one of the world’s most violent civil conflicts. The war has ravaged the country and now risks spreading beyond its borders, engulfing the wider region in a destabilizing, protracted conflict.

Like most international players, the United States initially responded slowly to the war in Sudan, but President Biden appears to be taking the situation more seriously, having recently appointed former Virginia congressman Tom Perriello as U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan. Perriello — who previously served as Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region during the Obama administration — will lead talks between warring factions and concerned regional parties with the goal of reaching a lasting peace agreement and paving a path for the creation of a civilian government.

Since his appointment, Perriello has been pushing to restart the on-again, off-again peace talks that have been based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Responsible Statecraft, he expressed hope that the formal peace talks would restart sometime this month.

“We are eager to start them tomorrow,” Perriello said. Delaying them further, he warned, risks making Sudan “look more like a failed state that could become a 10- to 20-year crisis like we’ve seen in Somalia, but in a country much larger and in a very strategic location.”

The risks of this conflict spreading arms and refugees throughout East Africa and the broader Gulf has attracted regional powers’ attention to both sides of the conflict. The UAE has reportedly provided military support to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), while Egypt and Iran have reportedly supported the government’s de facto military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), including by providing drones.

Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudan and East Africa and the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, told RS that the growing complexity of the conflict means that the African Union (AU) or other regional bodies like Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) can’t solve it alone. Rather, according to de Waal, ending the conflict requires a widespread diplomatic effort involving all major actors across Africa, the Gulf, and important international bodies, like the U.N.

Perriello shares this perspective, saying he and his team have “been working particularly with some of the neighboring countries and other key African leaders to help communicate to the world and to other key regional actors that this is headed to a truly disastrous situation of a more factionalized, ethnicized war that is more likely to bring in neighboring countries that have overlapping populations.”

“For those who focus just on the regional stability concerns,” he added, “this has now crossed over into being a very serious strategic crisis."

Perriello says African countries are sounding the alarm to other regional actors and beyond: “don’t light this fire, don’t pour fuel on this fire, this is something that could burn us all. We have got to rein this thing in before it becomes something that goes past the point of no return.”

Perriello also said any lasting peace deal “shouldn’t be a … way for former corrupt officials or extremist elements to backdoor their way into power.”

“I don’t think some sort of power-sharing arrangement between the two sides is in anyone’s interest,” he added.

Ultimately, however, the United States may lack sufficient leverage to determine the makeup of a post-war Sudanese government largely due to the involvement of extra-regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia — where the formal peace talks will be held — as well as the UAE, Egypt, and Iran, all of which have provided military support, therefore implicating them in the war’s outcome.

As a result, Washington should expect these states to advocate strongly for their own interests during the peace process. This means that Washington may have to live with a compromise that satisfies at least some of the demands of key domestic and foreign actors.

Perriello admitted that although regional and global actors are increasingly inclined to end the war, “the two fighting sides are negotiating primarily through guns” and lack strong political will to end the conflict.

Indeed, the war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters in years. More than 8 million people have been displaced and human rights groups have documented widespread human rights violations committed by both sides. Among these include forced enlistments, the burning of homes and other property, sexual violence, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

With over 1.8 million Sudanese now refugees in neighboring states, the security situation is closely interlinked with the dire humanitarian crisis. De Waal says that the humanitarian system is “collapsing.” In the past, he said, Sudanese refugees could expect to receive a “modicum of peace and security” in neighboring states. That’s no longer the case, as those countries are now dealing with their own intense security and governance challenges, and are struggling to provide the resources needed to support the dramatic influx of recent migrants.

Perriello expressed frustration that “there has just not been enough aid, enough food and medicine sent” to Sudan and the surrounding region.

In response, many Sudanese have worked at a local level to increase access to humanitarian aid and deliver money through the creation and proliferation of digital cash apps to help transfer critical funds to support the purchasing power of those struggling to afford food and other necessities.

The humanitarian sector is also struggling from a lack of funding. “Even in areas like Chad that have been quite welcoming of humanitarian organizations, [refugees] are not getting more than one meal a day,” Perriello lamented.

The need for humanitarian support seems to now resonate across the West. Just a couple weeks ago, major European governments met in Paris to discuss increasing the financial support for humanitarian aid in Sudan. They jointly announced that they had raised $2.1 billion to support the humanitarian response. Before Paris, the U.S. had provided more humanitarian aid than any other country, having provided $115 million in 2024 so far.

Perriello spoke repeatedly of the importance of uplifting the voices of the Sudanese people, saying that “we think the most important thing is for the negotiation to be as centered on the Sudanese people as possible.”

Although this sentiment has value, the claim that the United States speaks for and represents the interests of the Sudanese people is not always a view shared by those in Africa.

Tying the threads of this conflict together will prove to be a difficult task for Perriello and his colleagues. Yet, the United States deserves credit for engaging diplomatically with regional and domestic players in an attempt to end the war before it grows to an even greater scale.

Special envoy for Sudan Tom Perriello (Reuters); and a woman and baby at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan, Jan. 2024. MSF/Mohamed Zakaria/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

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