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By Yassir Karooka
Last month, Sudan erupted in the deadliest and largest protests the country has seen since President Omar Al-Bashir took power in a military coup in 1989. The lifting of fuel subsidies by the government earlier in September provoked the protests, which have culminated in calls for the removal of Al-Bashir and his regime. The recent demonstrations, however, have their roots in two decades of suffering, abuse of human rights and corruption by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
The current Sudanese situation bears a stark resemblance to pre-civil war Syria, and if the international community does not act swiftly and wisely, the world is likely to see a reincarnation of the Syrian crisis at the heart of Africa.
Despite the fact that they originate from different ideologies, both the NCP in Sudan and the ruling Ba’ath Party in Syria are devoutly anti-Western. They also seem to have no trouble responding to popular dissent with determined brutality. Although the Darfur Crisis in Sudan dwarfs the Hamma massacre of 1982 in Syria in terms of numbers, both are testimonies to the wiliness of the Ba’ath and NCP to slaughter their own people. When dissent grew in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, Al-Bashir responded by killing protesters much the same way the Ba-ath party sought to quell the protests in Damascus two years ago.
The international community has been unable to meaningfully address the Sudanese question despite the long history of human rights abuses and other ongoing humanitarian plights in the country. This is because Sudan is a fault line in big power turf scramble in Africa much the same way Syria was for the United States and Russia in the Middle East.
China, a U.N. Security Council member with veto power, has traditionally been a strong ally of Khartoum, repeatedly blocking measures that would seriously undermine the regime in Sudan. China is Sudan’s biggest trading partner with more than two-thirds of Sudan’s oil exports going to Beijing. China had also been an arms supplier to Sudan and media reports have often accused China of continuing to arm Khartoum despite a U.N.-imposed embargo.
Most important, Sudan also has a critical geopolitical significance for China and that is why it sees it as a vital strategic ally. China is nervous about the U.S.’s expanding military footprint in East Africa. Sudan with its Red Sea window also borders Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic; all these countries have been the theaters of a recent U.S. buildup in the continent. Through its ally Sudan, China hopes to counter U.S military influence in East Africa.
The United States, however, views the regime in Sudan as a strategic security threat, having previously hosted jihadists like Osama Bin Laden. Sudan also has strong relations with Tehran, which shares with Khartoum a strong antagonism towards Israel. Israel is said to have reportedly bombed an arms factory in the suburbs of Khartoum last year. For the United States, Sudan is also a weak link in its ally state network against terrorism in North and East Africa. Despite the threat from the regime in Khartoum, the question of Sudan has paralyzed U.S. policymakers who have conveniently opted for economic sanctions and a hollow designation of Sudan as a terrorist state.
Among big international powers, a similar dynamic was at play before the situation catastrophically deteriorated in Syria. The power calculus at the U.N. Security Council has for too long only permitted piecemeal solutions to the injustices that were happening and continue to happen in both countries. Like Syria, Sudan is also a testimony to the international multilateral system’s chronic tendency to foster impasses with catastrophic humanitarian impacts.
In Khartoum, with a determined youth-led protest movement and with many armed groups in the margins, the situation in Sudan has never been more volatile. The separation of the oil-rich South Sudan in 2011 left the Sudanese economy in shambles. As the regime increases its curtailing of democratic space, the current political order in Sudan becomes unsustainable. If the current protests movement in Sudan galvanizes mass support, the regime is likely to respond with its same characteristic brutality and the world might witness a Syria-style conflict with the same internal and international dimensions and proportions.
China has big leverage in Khartoum and can play an influential role if it chooses. The myth that China’s foreign policy approach does not tie economic cooperation to political conditions is not necessarily true, at least in the Sudanese context. Considering its significant investment in oil infrastructure in the Sudan region, China had no choice but to broker a deal between Sudan and South Sudan when the latter shut its oil production last year over a dispute regarding the fees it pays for Sudan’s pipelines.
Therefore, China has and will engage politically if there is a threat to its economic interests, and Khartoum is likely to listen. Beijing must realize that the oil will not flow eastward if there is a prolonged conflict of a bigger scale in Sudan. Instead of playing a role of a reluctant broker in the Sudan region, China should engage more forcibly with the regime in Khartoum and push for political solutions that significantly incorporate the different Sudanese opposition factions. This is the only approach that will guarantee its long-term interests in Sudan.
The United States can also play an important role in Sudan but not through aid or military intimidation like it has done before. The United States should lobby its allies in the Gulf who support Khartoum, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and convince them that Khartoum’s ties with Iran are as much a threat to them as they are to the United States. This message will resonate well with some ears in the Gulf region whose countries are growing increasingly nervous about Iran’s influence in the region. The true interest of the Gulf countries lies with the Sudanese people and not the regime that kills them.
Yassir Karooka (@YassirKAROOKA) is an Atlantic Post contributor based in Cordoba, Argentina.