While the US envoy handling the crisis in Sudan pointed out this week that neither party to the military-civil partnership in Khartoum can choose their partners, the same appears to be true of the envoy himself.
A major confidence gap now permeates the talks as the Sudanese and Americans try to find a way forward after a military coup, and Washington is turning, of all places, to Jerusalem to bridge that chasm.
US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, returns Sunday to a region he apparently knows best. Feltman will be in Israel on Sunday and Monday to speak with Israeli officials.
The Biden administration wants to take advantage of Israel’s close ties with Sudan’s coup leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to urge the army to restore Sudan’s civilian rule.
The Israeli connections with Burhan came during the Sudan-Israel normalization process initially negotiated by the administration of then-US President Donald Trump, but which stalled amid philosophical differences on issues related to military and civilian leadership in Khartoum.
“We remain extremely concerned about Sudan’s democratic trajectory after the military takeover. Sovereign Council Chairman Burhan and his military supporters have kidnapped and betrayed the aspirations of the Sudanese people for a peaceful and democratic country, ”Feltman told reporters this week.
He left Khartoum on October 25, just before the coup, and told reporters that while there were obvious tensions in the military-civil partnership, it seemed to him that there was a good faith commitment on both sides, until his plane took off. .
“Right before the military hijacking the transition, we were engaging Sudanese leaders – political leaders and military leaders – in mechanisms that could have addressed what the military said were their concerns and, frankly, what civilians They said their concerns about the transition were not moving as decisively or quickly as expected, ”Feltman said.
“So, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they lied. What I would say is that they seemed to be talking to us in bad faith, because they were talking to us about how to address the concerns they had through constitutional channels and instead as soon as we left they decided to just hand over the entire negotiating table in favor of a military takeover ”, he said.
The civil-military transitional government had been in place since April 2019, following the popular overthrow of long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir. The military was to transfer state control to its civilian partners in November, with a view to scheduling elections and a full transition to democracy in 2023.
“Civilians are burned by what their military partners did on October 25. So I think civilians are going to have great expectations of the kinds of guarantees they would need to be able to trust the military in a partnership again, ”Feltman said.
The scale and duration of the civilian reaction to the coup appears to have caught the armed forces off guard, and many experts now anticipate that Burhan may have to settle for a power-sharing agreement with the civilian side of the transitional government.
The objective, according to some analysts, is for the military to return to the framework of the constitutional arrangement. That could require a mea culpa from Burhan, who may set the stage for the resumption of talks. Feltman may be skeptical, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be looking for a solution.
“The United States cannot choose the interlocutors it deals with. There is a less likely scenario that Feltman is eventually dealing with different military figures, if the street puts enough pressure on the military to change leadership, but even that is out of the control of the United States, ”said Jonas Horner, the attached project. of International Crisis Group. Head of the Horn of Africa and Senior Analyst for Sudan.
And that does not appear to be the US strategy at stake, based on Feltman’s visit to Israel.
In the weeks leading up to the coup, Sudanese military officers traveled to Jerusalem to speak with Israeli government officials, and a Mossad secret service delegation reportedly flew to Khartoum to meet Sudanese military personnel, though not their own. Burhan.
As international condemnation rained down on the military in the wake of the coup, Israeli officials remained silent, hoping to keep the normalization process alive.
The Biden administration, which has shown ambivalence about using its political capital to advance the Arab-Israeli normalization process initiated by Trump, may now be in search of a deal negotiated by Jerusalem instead of Washington, turning the whole notion into your ear. .
For his part, Feltman understands the region well, having previously served as Under Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Ambassador to Lebanon, Senior Deputy Officer at the United States Consulate in Jerusalem, and in multiple roles at the Embassy of the United States in Israel in Tel Aviv. .
The State Department said this week that Feltman and senior US officials have been in constant talks with high-level figures in and around various countries in and around Sudan, and outside the region, including Israel, in hopes of getting anyone with a long-term personal interest. long-term Sudanese stability on board.
“The United States can still be very influential and still has influence in this adverse context. The United States has cards to play in terms of leading the international community on the financial front. You can mobilize the IFIs (international financial institutions) more easily.
Sudan needs more structural support than short-term financial inputs. The $ 700 million in aid that the United States suspended after the coup was not necessarily what was going to change things, anyway.
That support is about allowing civilians to get credit to meet the needs of civilians, ”Horner said.
In the months leading up to the coup, there were clear signs of pull for the government’s painful economic reforms. For example, inflation had started to fall and the trade balance had improved, Horner said.
Meanwhile, Washington has enlisted the Saudis, the Emiratis, the British and a number of conventional allies to help with the return of substantive talks in Khartoum.
The fact that the motive for Feltman’s return to Jerusalem is to coordinate Israel’s assistance to achieve a peaceful resolution in Sudan underscores that the last time Feltman addressed the Middle East as a US diplomat is now anything but conventional.