Skip to main content
ALM Special

Washington ignored warnings on Sudan days before descent into chaos

Senate lawmakers called for a new approach after State Department officials led by Africa bureau director Molly Phee repeatedly downplayed warnings that the country’s rival generals were heading for a violent confrontation.
his combination of pictures created on April 18, 2023 shows Sudan's army chief, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (L), in Juba on October, 14, 2019 and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (R), who commands the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), addressing the media upon his return from Russia at Khartoum airport on March 2, 2022. - Explosions rocked the Sudanese capital Khartoum on April 18, 2023 as fighting that has claimed nearly 200 lives entered a fourth day, despite growing (Photo by Akuot Chol and Ashr

WASHINGTON — The top two lawmakers on the Senate’s foreign relations panel called on the Biden administration to appoint a new envoy for Sudan after US-brokered talks between rival generals in Khartoum collapsed in violence last month, threatening to plunge the country into civil war.

During a hearing with the State Department's official for political affairs Victoria Nuland last week, committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said he would press the administration “at various levels” to appoint an envoy to oversee Washington’s diplomatic engagement with Sudan.

“We urgently need a high-level representative to deal with interlocutors in Africa, the Gulf and Europe, and one who reports directly to the president or the secretary of state,” Menendez said during the hearing.

More than 600 people have been killed and more than 700,000 have been displaced since fighting erupted on April 15 between rival forces loyal to Gens. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamadan Dagalo, better known as “Hemedti.”

Each side blamed the other for initiating the hostilities, which came amid a pause in talks over future steps to integrate Hemedti’s estimated 100,000-strong Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia into the larger Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under Burhan’s command.

The outbreak of fighting triggered a wave of criticism over the Biden administration’s decision to continue working with the generals to carry forth Sudan’s transition to democratic elections even after they ousted the country’s civilian-led transitional government in 2021.

Under the direction of the State Department’s top official for Africa Molly Phee, US officials carried on shuttle negotiations with Burhan and Hemedti with the involvement of British, Saudi and Emirati officials, but without the participation of key Sudanese civil society groups.

Ignored warnings

Both the RSF and SAF continued to recruit fighters and stockpile foreign weapons shipments even as their leaders engaged in dialogue, adding to concerns among some that the generals were not serious about submitting to the authority of a future civilian-led government, current and former US officials close to the discussions told Al-Monitor.

Yet Phee repeatedly downplayed warnings that Hemedti and Burhan were headed for a violent confrontation in the weeks and days leading up to the conflict, according to Al-Monitor sources who followed the negotiations and have intimate knowledge of internal debate in Washington.

Experts and former officials said the collapse of Sudan’s security sector reform talks and the resulting violence poses a devastating blow to the country’s imperiled transition to democracy, which began after the ouster of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir amid widespread protests in 2019, but was repeatedly obstructed by the military.

It also marked a major setback for the Biden administration’s strategy toward the Horn of Africa region as Washington has struggled to outpace Russia's and China’s influence on the continent.

Top Republican on the Senate’s foreign relations panel James Risch joined Menendez on Friday in calling for a new direction. “There is a clear need for changes to the group of people in charge of US policy and diplomacy on Sudan,” he said in an emailed statement provided to Al-Monitor.

“Such changes must also include a shift toward containing and weakening the influence of the junta leaders and their foreign backers while doing everything possible to strengthen the hand of the Sudanese people,” the Republican senator said.

Phee and US Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last week to press delegations from the warring sides toward a permanent cease-fire.

Senior State Department officials told reporters on Thursday they intend to bring more parties to the negotiating table once fighting stops, including Sudanese civil society groups that had been excluded from recent talks. But the officials admitted that prospects were dim.

“The two sides are quite far apart,” one official said. “Given the depth of enmity, I think, given the inflamed passions as a result of the fighting since the 15th of April, and given the struggle for dominance, we don’t see an easy solution to this.” 

At least six cease-fires have collapsed since fighting began. On Monday, reports circulated that the SAF had bombed a hospital that had been taken over by the RSF, despite a framework agreement to protect civilians reached in Jeddah last week.

Sources familiar with US intelligence assessments on Sudan said there appeared to be few, if any, off-ramps for the warring generals, raising fears that the country could be headed for a prolonged conflict fueled by ready streams of foreign arms and funding.

“Frankly, we’ve seen violations by both sides in all the cease-fires to date and don’t expect that to change,” a second senior US official said last week.

False sense of security

In October 2021, Sudan’s top military generals assured Jeffrey Feltman, Washington’s first envoy to the Horn of Africa region, during meetings in Khartoum that they would cooperate with the transitional government on steps toward setting up democratic elections.

Just hours later, Burhan overthrew Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his Cabinet in a military coup. Hemedti, the leader of the RSF, was complicit, former US officials said.

The incident engendered heated debate within the Biden administration, with Feltman and others arguing for imposing harsh economic sanctions on Sudan’s top generals.

But senior State Department officials including Phee disagreed, arguing that sanctions risked surrendering valuable leverage needed to salvage what progress had already been made. That camp won the debate, the former officials said.

Feltman’s role was increasingly focused on engaging with Ethiopian officials in Addis Ababa over the emerging crisis in the Tigray region before he stepped down as Horn of Africa envoy in January 2022 after less than a year on the job. 

Phee took over the Sudan file in the absence of a US ambassador to Khartoum, former officials said.

State Department officials led by Phee agreed to continue facilitating negotiations with generals in Khartoum without the involvement of the pro-democracy Resistance Committees, which had boycotted the process following the 2021 coup.

That decision marked another troubling turn, former officials said.

“By not sanctioning them, we legitimized them,” said Cameron Hudson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and former adviser to US Sudan envoys.

Hemedti continued a public relations blitz he had begun after the 2019 revolution by hiring firms and producing slick videos that portrayed him as a hero of Sudan’s downtrodden.

Current and former officials said they saw Hemedti’s influence campaign as an attempt to whitewash his image following the massacre of some 120 peaceful protesters in Khartoum in June 2019 by RSF fighters, who then dumped many of the bodies into the Nile.

Hemedti had also courted backers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia’s Wagner group, having amassed significant wealth by taking control of Sudan's Jebel Amer gold mines by 2017.

Meanwhile, both the RSF and SAF continued bolstering their forces with recruitment in Darfur and streams of foreign arms shipments from abroad, according to three current and former US officials briefed on the matter.

“Don’t act surprised,” one official said. “You see all these malign actors from various countries pouring shit into Sudan and picking sides and they all have their own strategic interests."

In September 2022, the Senate approved Biden’s nominee for the first US ambassador to Sudan in more than 25 years.

The arrival in Khartoum of John Godfrey — an Arabic speaker, like Phee, who had previously headed the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau — brought new weight to negotiations with Hemedti and Burhan, two sources close to the discussions said.

The generals listened to Godfrey, one source said, adding that both appeared wary of the prospect of prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their past roles in the Darfur conflict, which the United States has labeled genocide.

Omar al-Bashir, the former leader they conspired to overthrow amid mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, remains wanted by the ICC for overseeing the government’s campaign in Darfur.

“They seem to be playing the long game,” a former senior US official told Al-Monitor.

“The international community needs to play a long game that says we do really not want to see these genocidaires and these war criminals be the eventual leaders of Sudan,” the former official said.

Breakthrough in talks

In December 2022, the two generals reached a framework agreement with civilian representatives that promised a return to civilian-led governance.

The deal was widely seen as a breakthrough — and for some in Washington, vindication for those who had argued Sudan’s generals could be cajoled with carrots of economic aid.

In retrospect however, the agreement effectively elevated Hemedti — a tribal warlord who was granted the status of “general” by Bashir for his role leading the notorious Janjaweed militias in Darfur — to the stature of Burhan, raising concerns among SAF hard liners, former officials said. 

As backroom US- and UK-led shuttle negotiations involving Saudi and Emirati officials continued into the spring, the focus turned to the subject of integrating Hemedti’s RSF into the SAF.

Godfrey and the UK ambassador to Sudan, Giles Lever, went back and forth with the generals over recommendations laid out in a lengthy white paper drafted with the help of contracted military advisers by the US and UK sides.

The document, described to Al-Monitor by a source with firsthand knowledge of its contents, included detailed steps on basing arrangements and merging RSF militias into the SAF command structure.

Disagreements arose, including over whether RSF militias were to remain intact within the SAF or be broken up before being absorbed into the wider army, two sources briefed on the talks said.

The two generals also differed on the timeline: While Burhan was willing to allow the RSF to integrate into the army within two years, Hemedti pressed for 10 years.

Hemedti’s request added to a growing list of evidence that led a number of US officials to suspect the former Janjaweed leader, in particular, was not serious about submitting to future civilian rule.

There were also concerns about Burhan’s ability and willingness to compromise on the disuputed points. The SAF chief appeared to be under increasing pressure from Islamist members of his own camp — former Bashir loyalists who saw civilian rule and Hemedti’s rise as threats to their power.

Sources close to the negotiations said Biden administration officials downplayed clear indications of the generals' contempt for one another.

In the weeks leading up to the violence, both Hemedti and Burhan assured US officials, including Phee, that they were ready to end the military’s role in governance and submit to civilian rule. 

Yet there were increasing concerns in Washington over signs that the generals had other plans.

After the generals blew through a self-imposed April 1 deadline to announce a restoration of civilian-led government, Godfrey was permitted to depart Khartoum for vacation in Europe. His UK counterpart in the talks, Lever, also traveled for the Easter holiday.

The decision appeared timed to allow Burhan and Hemedti to win over hard-liners in their camps before returning to the table, sources close to the discussions said. 

“One of them should have been there as the two chief guarantors of the talks,” said one former senior US official with experience in Sudan policy. 

A State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor that Godfrey was originally scheduled to to visit his family in Europe March 30 – April 15, but delayed until April 3 when "discussions among senior leaders paused and it became clear a final political agreement would not be reached during the remaining period of intended leave."

"Throughout the period he was on leave, Amb. Godfrey had daily exchanges with the [US] Charge d'Affaires, foreign officials, Sudanese civilian leaders and senior aides to Gen. Burhan and Gen. Hemedti," the spokesperson said, adding that Godfrey "was also in direct contact with Burhan."

Between her own phone calls with the two generals, Phee continued to express confidence that a deal was within reach, Al-Monitor sources said.

"We had seen both sides preparing for this fight for a number of weeks,” Hudson told Al-Monitor. “We could see this coming a mile away.”

On April 10, the administration informally notified Congress of a request for a $330 million package for Sudan in preparation to reward an agreement between the generals, as Foreign Policy previously reported.

Within two days, Hemedti’s forces began deploying around the town of Merowe, some 200 km north of Khartoum and in other areas of the country, setting up a standoff with the SAF, which quickly declared the RSF moves illegal.

It wasn't the first time one of the sides had engaged in a tense deployment. Phee assured other officials that the two generals were talking and had plans to meet for an iftar dinner hosted by Saudi Ambassador Ali bin Hassan Jaafar to ease the tensions. It remains unclear whether the meeting ever took place.

“We were all waiting for white smoke to come out to tell us that there's an agreement,” Hudson told Al-Monitor. “Instead we got black smoke of the city on fire.”

Breakdown in Khartoum

Godfrey raced back to Khartoum on April 14, landing at the airport just before fighting in the capital forced it to close. 

“I just arrived late last night in Khartoum and woke up to the deeply disturbing sounds of gunfire and fighting,” he tweeted Saturday morning. “Sheltering in place.”

Over the next week, attempts to transport US diplomatic personnel by armored cars to the embassy were met with setbacks, with at least one convoy coming under fire, allegedly by the RSF.

As the Pentagon scrambled to gather AC-130 gunships and aerial surveillance assets to facilitate an evacuation, Biden administration officials debated their options.

US military officials insisted that the evacuees be consolidated at a single location, arguing that if special operations forces had to deploy to multiple locations, the situation could devolve into street battles with diplomats potentially caught in the crossfire.

As unmanned US drones scanned Khartoum’s security landscape from above, the SAF fed the US details on the positions of Hemedti’s RSF forces, two officials briefed on the matter told Al-Monitor.

On the evening of April 22, three CH-47 helicopters crossed into Sudanese airspace from Ethiopia and flew low and fast to Khartoum, staying above areas controlled by the SAF. Before they arrived, the US military jammed internet and radio communications in the capital. 

The evacuation was hailed as a success, but it remained unclear why the State Department did not consolidate its personnel at the embassy sooner.

"We evaluate the security situation daily and make decisions on how to keep those serving at our embassy safe, as we do for every diplomatic post in a challenging security environment," a department spokesperson told Al-Monitor.

Testifying before Senate lawmakers on Wednesday, Victoria Nuland admitted that key warning signs were missed.

“We saw the generals keeping their own options open. They did not put all of their forces into garrison,” she said.

Reluctant use of power

Both the Trump and Biden administrations held off on multiple opportunities to hold Sudan’s top generals accountable over concerns that sanctions or other penalties would drive them away from the negotiating table, former officials from both administrations said.

White House officials abandoned a push during the end of the Trump administration to prepare sanctions on Hemedti under the Global Magnitsky Act over his alleged role in the June 3, 2019, massacre of protesters in Khartoum, the sources said.

Biden administration officials also failed to enact sanctions on Hemedti when he cut lucrative arms-for-gold deals with Russia’s paramilitary Wagner group. 

In February 2022, amid a worsening economic crisis in Sudan, the RSF leader traveled to Moscow, where he voiced his support for the Kremlin’s request for naval base access at Port Sudan and praised Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“I'm not aware of a similar figure globally who has so closely aligned themselves with the Russians [and] who hasn't faced some kind of sanction or some sort of consequences from the United States and our Western partners,” said one former administration official with experience on Africa policy.

Critics of the approach led by Assistant Secretary Phee have argued that economic sanctions on Hemedti and Burhan following the 2021 coup would have diminished their status and raised warning flags to regional actors sending support to their forces.

“In hindsight, I still believe that would have been the right decision. It would have enhanced our credibility with the Sudanese civilians,” Feltman told Al-Monitor.

Yet the former envoy said he now questions whether the economic penalties would have been enough to prevent internecine conflict.

“Each one of these generals sees the other as an existential threat,” Feltman said, “So I'm not sure that sanctions, in the end, would have deterred the current fighting.”

But pressuring the military leaders wasn’t the only option for American policymakers.

Sudan’s neighbors played major roles in feeding the generals’ power at the expense of civilian groups, and it remains unclear the extent to which the Biden administration exerted diplomatic efforts to rein in such support.

While the United States has led efforts at the United Nations to renew the arms embargo on Darfur, former officials questioned why no similar effort was mounted for a full arms embargo on all of Sudan, despite the symbolic value such a push would have had even if vetoed by Russia. 

“There are certain things that you can do to send signals,” a former US official said. 

“It doesn't mean that any of them are silver bullets,” the official said. “But you’ve got to work with what you have instead of unilaterally disarming yourself by talking yourself out of every tool that you have at your disposal.”

Current and former US officials who spoke to Al-Monitor also raised questions as to whether broader regional priorities above the level of the State Department’s Africa bureau — such as expanding the Abraham Accords — overshadowed the need to raise pressure on Sudan’s neighbors to come into line with Khartoum’s democratic transition.

It remains unclear the extent to which the Biden administration pressed Egyptian, Israeli and Emirati officials, who, according to one former US official, signaled to Sudan’s military leaders prior to the 2021 coup that sidelining the civilian government would not trigger a harsh reaction from Washington.

“Do we have a structure in place where we can really influence those decisions in real-time at that level? I'm not sure that's the case,” the former official said.

After the 2021 coup, Biden administration officials who opposed using sanctions against the generals argued that much of their wealth was stored in banks based in Arab Gulf countries, raising doubts as to likely compliance with requested asset freezes, according to three former officials involved in the discussions.

“We have bigger fish to fry, as a government, in the Gulf,” another former senior US official close to the discussions said.

Asked whether US officials addressed with Gulf counterparts support flowing from their countries to Sudan’s factions, a State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor, “The United States worked closely with our partners in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to reestablish a civilian-led transitional government and to defuse tensions between the SAF and RSF.”

Biden administration officials repeatedly brought up concerns with Egyptian counterparts over Cairo’s support for the SAF, one well-placed regional source told Al-Monitor.

In February, Egypt rebuffed the US by hosting talks with some three dozen Sudanese groups who had not signed the December agreement, arguing that the current negotiations were not sufficiently inclusive.

During a visit to Cairo one week prior, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked Egyptian officials to respect the US and UN-led dialogue track amid concerns in Washington that Egypt may use the parallel forum to build support among Islamist members linked to Sudan's ancien regime, according to two sources briefed on the matter.

On Thursday, two senior State Department officials told reporters they were working to expand future talks on Sudan's future by inviting a wider array of civil society representatives once the fighting stops, and praised the work of the Resistance Committees in documenting cease-fire violations. 

“This has to be a process that is broadly representative of the desires of the people of Sudan and the 2019 revolution,” Nuland told Senate lawmakers last week.

But even if a lasting cease-fire can be reached, analysts and former officials said it may be too late for Washington to restore its reputation among the Sudanese public as the guarantor of the country's democratic transition.

“I don't know that the US and the Saudis sort of hand-picking which civilians come to that table is going to be a recipe for a process that’s anymore legitimate,” one former administration official said.

Editor's note: This story was updated on May 25 to include additional comments from a State Department spokesperson regarding Amb. John Godfrey's travel to Europe.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in