Toward an Improved U.S. Approach to Sudan: Summary of Private Roundtable Discussion

On May 11, 2023, Refugees International hosted a private roundtable discussion under Chatham House rules with a group of experts on U.S. policy on Sudan. The discussion covered several aspects of the political and humanitarian crisis following the outbreak of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 15. The following is a summary of the key themes discussed including: (1) scenarios for the months ahead; (2) how to improve the U.S. approach to Sudan; and (3) how to address the humanitarian crisis.


Discussants expressed considerable uncertainty about how the conflict may play out.  A successful diplomatic push to bring a halt to the fighting and bring the parties back into a political track was assessed as highly unlikely, given conflict dynamics and a lack of alignment among diplomatic powers. Far more likely is a protracted conflict that continues for the foreseeable term. This could play out in numerous ways, all of them devastating for Sudan: a bitter long-term struggle for control of major cities; a shift of the battle back into the RSF’s home turf in Darfur; and/or a possible Egyptian military intervention to bolster the SAF. Any of these would deepen the humanitarian catastrophe and prompt large refugee flows into neighboring countries.

To avoid the worst of these scenarios, the group emphasized the importance of substantially elevating the level of diplomatic pressure and engagement, and forming contact groups both internationally and within the League of Arab States to ensure the redlines of various neighbors are clear to all and not tripped by the parties to the conflict. The mid-level diplomatic engagement to date is unlikely to fundamentally shift the calculus for the parties – as evidenced by the repeated failures to abide by the nominal cease-fire agreements.

Improving the U.S. Approach to Sudan

The current U.S. approach to the crisis was seen by the group as decidedly underwhelming, with some participants assessing that the senior levels of the Biden administration are not investing sufficient attentional and political capital toward managing the situation. Discussants were skeptical of talks sponsored by the United States and Saudi Arabia at Jeddah, pointing out that the United States is represented by two mid-level and one low-level officers, and there is little indication that the conflict is getting high-level policy attention (beyond the challenge of evacuating U.S. citizens). Another discussant noted that while the United States sees the Jeddah talks as the center of gravity in addressing the crisis, several countries in the region do not. Concern was also raised that the emphasis on getting the parties to yes could lead to counterproductive results. As one discussant described, their biggest fear is that the fighting is paused, but the actors use the pause to regroup, rearm, and build their war chests. Others raised disappointment in the absence of sanctions despite a new Executive Order authorizing them, the lack of support for accountability, including documentation and evidence collection, the lack of White House engagement on Sudan, and the failure of intelligence and atrocity prevention structures in the administration to raise the risks to sufficient policy levels. One noted that the extensive investments in building atrocity prevention capacity under previous administrations seem to have completely eroded in this case.

Main Takeaways: The discussants agreed that higher-level U.S. government engagement is vital for any chance at avoiding a protracted crisis. This should include direct engagement with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other important actors by high-level U.S. officials like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan or President Biden himself. The idea of appointing a Special Envoy was also discussed with emphasis on the need for a true presidential envoy with the heft of the U.S. government behind them and the ability to engage African and Middle East actors – as has been the case in past administrations.

Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis

Discussants noted the scale of the current humanitarian crisis and likely negative trajectory in the months ahead, concentrating on three general aspects of a humanitarian response: (1) supporting creative approaches; (2) localizing the response; and (3) finding resources to support the response.

A key part of the discussion centered on the need for creative approaches. Discussants noted that new approaches should be pursued to get aid in beyond the de facto single humanitarian hub in Port Sudan. Creative approaches may include a “lily pad” approach in which aid is delivered to other hubs like Gedaref or negotiating cross-border aid delivery access from neighboring countries. One discussant argued that the leverage used to ensure evacuation of U.S. citizens and other foreigners from Sudan should be used to get aid in. A key takeaway from the discussion was that a ceasefire should not be a prerequisite for delivery of aid. Rather, focus should be placed on at least trying to get aid to areas that are accessible. As one discussant stated, the United States and other aid actors should be thinking of a map with multiple entry points and multiple negotiations.

A large part of the discussion centered on ways to localize the response by better supporting resistance committees, neighborhood groups, and other local Sudanese actors who have been on the frontlines of the humanitarian response. One discussant raised the idea of building a third pillar to negotiations on humanitarian access, adding a Sudanese civil society group to the current talks between international actors and the parties to the conflict. Such a group should be diplomatically and financially backed by international actors. As one participant stated, let Sudanese civil society negotiate on their own behalf, not take a back seat as in current talks. The precedent of a locally organized response in the Nuba mountains was cited as a possible model. The early years of the Syria conflict were also raised as a missed opportunity to build up a local apparatus for aid rather than pursuing traditional approaches. With a fresh chance in Sudan, international donors should be actively building channels to support local action from the outset of this crisis.

Several discussants raised the dangers of returning to past ways of delivering humanitarian aid through the military-controlled Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC). Participants were wary of returning to a status quo in which Khartoum was stable while the periphery burned, and one warned of dealing with the same officials from the Bashir years, ready to come back and take international donors for a ride.

Discussants also highlighted the importance of monitoring and finding the right structures for aid delivery, noting that now is the right time to be discussing ideas, but that it will take time to get systems set up.

Finally, the importance of resourcing the humanitarian response was discussed. It was noted that the current humanitarian responses both for Sudan and for neighboring countries were already less than 20 percent funded before the Sudan crisis, which is already increasing needs throughout the region. The USAID DART team deployed to the region came with an announcement of just $5 million in funding. One discussant noted that significant cuts are expected in Congressional funding for aid across the board, while another noted that statements by USAID Assistant Administrator Sarah Charles at a Senate Hearing on Sudan made no suggestion that further funding for Sudan was forthcoming. Finding ways to better support actors like the ICRC and MSF that are still on the ground, not to mention local groups, will be essential. On the local level, it was noted that restoring the banking system in Sudan or finding alternatives to get cash to local aid actors will be important in the months ahead.

Main Takeaways: Creative approaches to delivering humanitarian aid must be explored, including support for a Sudanese civilian body to negotiate aid access and the centering of aid through local actors. A ceasefire should not be a prerequisite for delivery of aid. And any approach will require increased resources both at the global and local level.

Recommendations for the U.S. government:

  • Appoint a Special Envoy with a direct line to the President of the United States and the ability to engage relevant powers in both Africa and the Middle East at high levels.
  • Ensure any agreement does not return to a status quo in which the military controls the flows of aid, stabilizing Khartoum at the expense of the periphery.
  • Support a Sudanese civilian body as a third pillar to international actors and the fighting parties for humanitarian access negotiations, including through financial and diplomatic means.
  • Localize the response by providing aid through resistance committees, neighborhood groups, and other local actors.
  • Pursue creative approaches to delivery of aid including “lily pad” hubs and cross-border delivery from neighbors including Egypt.
  • Do not wait for a ceasefire to find ways to deliver aid.
  • Increase humanitarian assistance for the Sudan crisis and the region and urge other donors to likewise increase assistance.
  • Work toward the restoration of the banking system in Sudan and prepare alternative ways to get cash in to humanitarian actors.
  • Support accountability efforts, including documentation and collection of evidence for future prosecutions of those committing grave human rights abuses.

Featured Image: People fleeing conflict in Sudan arrive at an airport in Abu Dhabi after an evacuation flight, on April 29, 2023. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)