On June 3 the elite military forces of the ruling junta stormed the site of a peaceful sit-in by the civilian protest movement in Khartoum, razed the encampment, brutally beat, whipped, and chased hundreds of demonstrators, and systematically raped untold others. In the course of the unprompted crackdown, the shock troops killed 118 civilians before shunting many of the bodies into the Nile to hide the bloodshed, according to an investigation by the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors.
The assault aimed to cripple a meticulously choreographed protest movement designed to bring Sudan civilian rule and democratic elections after three decades of military dictatorship. Despite early support for the peaceful protesters whose months of organized civil disobedience swept Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir from office on April 11, the U.S. has remained largely disengaged. Nonetheless, this abdication is not neutral, and the U.S. has played a highly consequential role in the Sudan uprising, if indirectly.
Indeed, the autocratic regimes bent on strangling the Sudanese uprising by empowering Sudan’s ruling junta are recipients of substantial and unconditional American aid, arms transfers, political and military support. Notwithstanding the foreign policy establishment’s dogmatic insistence that America’s “access” to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt through this support brings leverage and influence, the crackdown these regimes have encouraged in Khartoum tells a different story. Not only has the U.S. failed to leverage this access to restrain the malign intentions of its allies, but these relations have made Americans complicit in their crimes.
The unprompted crackdown on the Khartoum encampment followed a series of meetings between the leadership of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The TMC installed itself as Sudan’s sole military-political authority in the wake of Bashir’s resignation, and in its short rule the body has dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, and cut off internet access.
Scarcely a week after the TMC seized power, Saudi Arabia and the UAE jointly pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan in a bid to prop up the junta. The monarchies rely heavily on the Sudanese recruits and the TMC’s armed auxiliaries, the Rapid Support Forces, as footsoldiers in their military campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen. The roots of the Rapid Support Forces lie in the Darfur conflict, where its members committed wide-ranging atrocities and were known by the Darfuri name Janjawid (“robbers”). Today, many members of the Rapid Support Forces are Nigerien and Chadian, and it was the RSF which executed the crackdown on the Khartoum sit-in. Despite these troubling connections, in May top TMC leadership traveled to the Gulf where, according to Saudi state media, deputy TMC commander Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman “Sudanese forces will remain in Yemen to defend the security of Saudi Arabia.”
Egypt’s role is no less problematic. In April the African Union, currently chaired by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, extended the deadline for the TMC to give up power, drawing a worrying comparison to the downward trajectory of Egypt’s own abortive civil uprising. Weeks later, TMC commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met Sisi in Cairo, where the latter vowed to support the Sudanese transitional leadership in “preserving state institutions,” a clear reference to the military and intelligence services with which Egypt has strong ties.
To dismiss the troika’s role in Sudan as a matter of bilateral relations outside the U.S. remit is simplistic, and it ignores the complicity which is an unavoidable consequence of unrelenting American support for these regimes and unconditional security cooperation with them.
On the whole, the American foreign policy establishment overestimates both the value of security cooperation as well as the costs of using those relations as leverage to demand changes by widely known rights abusers.
The military and foreign policy establishment are fixated on cooperation as a means of “access” to allied militaries and territory. Perversely, the obsession with preserving inter-military relationships at all costs has turned what the military construes as a source of leverage into a glaring liability. The Pentagon is loath to jeopardize its access to a specially cultivated network of global military elites, or the use of foreign bases or airspace, by leveraging this cooperation or applying conditions to arms transfers, even when its partners are recalcitrant or malign.
However, this hesitancy is founded on a flawed premise. The actual cost of withholding arms transfers is almost certainly overestimated.
By way of example, in 2013 the Egyptian military locked-down Cairo, put President Mohamed Morsi under house arrest, and eventually brought down the government, ousting the only democratically elected executive Egypt has ever known. Trapped between an uncomfortable reality and triggering a mandatory suspension of arms transfers following an obvious coup, the Obama White House dithered. Refusing to call a spade a spade, some in the administration internally referred to the toppling of Morsi as “the coup-like event.” Nonetheless, despite its talmudic hair-splitting, the administration temporarily suspended the transfer of F-16 fighter jets, and contrary to the fears of proponents of military access above all else, American access to Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal remained.
More fundamentally, the imperative to transfer arms at all costs ignores the perverse incentive structure that subordinates foreign policy decision-making to the financial interests of private corporations whose sole interest is selling military hardware, no matter the buyer or end use.
Perhaps the most critical failure is the unwillingness to recognize that access alone does not necessarily equate to influence. In the ideal case, the argument against placing conditions on arms transfers assumes that such agreements are a form of leverage in their own right. Simply put, influence is said to flow from access. However, in the case of Egypt, neither diplomatic nor military warnings, nor tens of billions of dollars in direct foreign aid, prevented Egypt’s 2013 military coup or the installation of a now-entrenched military government.
The lesson is clear: access has value, but only if the potential influence it brings is actually used.
In the past decade Saudi Arabia has been the world’s most enthusiastic buyer of American weapons, and President Trump frequently touts the non-binding memoranda of understanding for $138.9 billion in arms, training, and parts for the Saudis as a justification for turning a blind eye to Saudi crimes.
However, when calculating the value of the influence brought by such deals, politicians and the military have filled in the equation wrong. By overstating the meaningful access and number of American jobs created by weapons manufacturers, they overestimate the potential cost of conditioning the sales on substantive reforms. Given the errors in their inputs, it is little wonder they fail to demand changes to the buyers’ malign regional interventions and domestic policies, including political repression, torture, and mass executions.
A do no harm approach
In effect, American political, military, and technical support have enabled the reckless behavior of some of the world’s most notorious regimes. A “do no harm” foreign policy applies equally to America’s own practices and those of its partners, allies, and the end users of the weapons systems it promiscuously sells and promotes around the world.
There is hope. The cost of applying conditions to this cooperation is both lower than the foreign policy establishment believes, and an untapped font of leverage.
In the case of Sudan, giving cover to an opposition bloc of peaceful civil society actors will require the U.S. to take a bold and novel approach: meaningfully deploy the leverage it already has to restrain its allies, or watch another civil protest movement be mired in autocracy and further bloodshed.