On 26 January 2021, the Deputy Commander of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Ambassador Andrew Young led a high-ranking military delegation during a visit to Sudan. This was the first such visit by a US military official to this country since it was removed from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. This paper sheds light on the significance of the visit’s timing and objectives, and the prospects for military and security cooperation between the two sides.
Significance of the timing
The visit of the US delegation came a few days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, on 20 January 2021, to confirm the new administration's interest in building on the approach of former President Donald Trump with regard to strengthening relations with Khartoum. The Biden administration is aware of the opportunities and gains from building close relations with Sudan, especially that it is a country rich in vast natural resources. Besides, its strategic location makes it an important focal point and springboard for protecting US security interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.
Naturally, the strategic importance of Sudan stimulates the new administration’s interest in preserving Sudan’s political stability. The visit of the US delegation coincided with the escalation of border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia, given that the US delegation showed great interest in those tensions. On the other hand, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, explained that the movements of his country’s forces are within the Sudanese borders and do not aim to escalate the military confrontation with Ethiopia. The Biden administration fears that the escalation of the confrontation between the two countries would affect the internal political equation in Sudan and lead to the dominance of the military component over the transition process, or that those tensions would affect the security of the Red Sea if their scope expands.
The US interest intersects with the Israeli interest in reducing those tensions. The visit of the US delegation coincided with the visit of a high-level Israeli delegation to Sudan, headed by Eli Cohen, the Israeli Minister of Intelligence, aimed at strengthening military and security relations with Sudan, and perhaps strengthening the Israeli presence in the Red Sea, and limiting the influence of Iran and Turkey which aspires to establish a military presence on the Sudanese island of Sawakin (also Suakin).
The visit’s objectives and security dimensions
Washington shows a noticeable interest in strengthening the military and security partnership with Sudan, especially after the signing of a peace agreement between the transitional government and the armed movements to integrate the latter into the Sudanese army. Washington wants to be close to the issue of restructuring the Sudanese armed forces, and to prevent Russia from monopolising this issue. This was confirmed by the statements of Ambassador Andrew Young who expressed a desire to strengthen security cooperation with Sudan in the field of training, rehabilitation and arming of the Sudanese army, and intelligence cooperation in combating terrorism.
Nevertheless, Washington wants to limit the incursion of the Sudanese army into the political domain, and to control its movements in a way that serves the US orientations, especially after the congressional approval of the Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability and Financial Transparency Act of 2020, which was supported by both parties. For its part, the Biden administration seeks to support this trend. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has expressed in a telephone conversation with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, following the formation of the new government in early February 2021, his support for a civilian-led democratic transition in Sudan.
The growing US interest in strengthening the military and security partnership with Sudan is explained by the decisive approach announced by the Biden administration in dealing with Russia and China, and curbing the influence of the two countries in Africa. While President Joe Biden's speech to the African Union (AU) summit on 5 February 2021 did not include any reference to the policy of the two rival powers in Africa, the Biden administration seems interested in filling the vacuum left by the Trump administration in the region, especially after Russia's announcement of its intention to establish a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Washington is looking forward to strengthening its investments in the oil and minerals sector in Sudan in a way that leaves no room for Chinese and economic hegemony in Sudan and the region.
Prospects for security and military cooperation
Despite the increasing US calls by security and military leaders, such as General James Jones, former national security advisor to President Barack Obama, to move the AFRICOM headquarters to Africa, the US interest will remain apparently limited to the US desire to build a military base, and to maintain a logistical presence for the AFRICOM command in Sudan, especially after the Biden administration cancelled his predecessor Trump's decision to withdraw US forces from Germany in the context of the Biden administration's interest in strengthening transatlantic relations.
The US-Israeli understandings in Sudan will strengthen the Biden administration's support for Israel’s ambitions and its efforts to integrate into a new security system that strengthens cooperation with Sudan and the Arab countries. Israel has expressed to Sudan its aspiration to join the Red Sea Alliance. The transfer of Israel from the US European Command (EUCOM) operations area to the US Central Command (CENTCOM) operations area seems to pave the way for a wider Israeli security and regional role, including the Red Sea region, especially after Israel has signed peace agreements with some Arab countries and signed military, security and intelligence cooperation agreements with Sudan.
However, there are still many challenges that impede this Israeli-Sudanese cooperation. So far, the two countries have not signed a formal agreement to normalise relations. Furthermore, there are Egyptian fears about the Israeli presence in the region, which is one of the reasons that explain the establishment by Cairo of the Berenice Military Base on the Red Sea. Israel had announced its recognition of Sudan's sovereignty over the Halayeb and Shalateen Triangle, and its readiness to assist Ethiopia in building a missile defence system to protect the Renaissance Dam. So far, the Biden administration has not shown clear support for the Egyptian position, unlike the position of President Trump who warned of an Egyptian military strike against the Renaissance Dam if the Ethiopian "intransigence" continues.
Both Washington and Tel Aviv hope to enhance Sudan's role in combating terrorism. While Sudan had been a safe haven for some terrorist organisations during the period of the previous regime, it later played an important role in providing intelligence support in the efforts to combat terrorism. Khartoum seems ready to cooperate in this field, especially in the light of the aspiration by the new Sudanese authority to US military support and the rehabilitation of the Sudanese army. However, there are still many challenges to this role, especially the security challenges in Darfur and the presence of some armed movements that did not sign the recent peace agreement, most notably the Abdel Wahid al-Nur Movement which is based in Jebel Marra.
The visit of the AFRICOM delegation to Sudan indicates the Biden administration’s interest in strengthening the US military presence in Sudan to protect US interests and contain the influence of Russia and China. There is a US-Israeli understanding to strengthen the Israeli presence in Sudan and the Red Sea, which raises the concerns of some Arab countries, such as Egypt which views with concern the Israeli support for Sudan on the issue of the Halayeb and Shalateen Triangle and Tel Aviv's support for Addis Ababa in the Renaissance Dam crisis. Hence, Tel Aviv and Washington are expected to seek to conclude a political deal with Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa that would ensure better conditions for the integration of Israel into a regional security entity that includes Arab and African countries, in exchange for imposing a political settlement of the Renaissance Dam issue and ending the border crisis between Ethiopia and Sudan.
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