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SUDAN - Bashir Moves Closer To The West.

One of the main reasons why Sudan can be expected to maintain an indifferent approach towards Israel is that, at present, its main objective is to rebuild its relations with the Western powers. The expectation of the Bashir regime is that, when that is done, higher levels of investment will pour into the Sudanese hydrocarbon sector and less support will be provided to the southern rebels. For Bashir, such an outcome would mean the stabilisation of his rule over the long-term.

That is why, since 2000, the Sudanese leadership has taken a far more conciliatory approach regionally and globally. Relations with the US and other Western powers are gradually being rebuilt. Normalisation with Egypt, the most important of Sudan's neighbours and a key player in Bashir's efforts to improve ties with the US, has been relatively easy because Cairo had always differentiated between Bashir and Turabi. Egypt is now playing a key role in trying to improve US-Sudan relations, with the lifting of UN sanctions imposed on Khartoum being at the top of the agenda.

On Dec. 23, 2000, shortly after the removal of Turabi from his post as Sudan's speaker, 'Al Gomhuria' newspaper of Egypt quoted Bashir as asking during a visit to Cairo: "How can a country that cannot realise its national unity and security of its territories...go beyond its borders in search of (Islamic) unity of states?" Indeed, there are indications that Bashir may himself want to follow the "Egyptian model", where a strong military leader set the country on a path of economic reform; this has turned Egypt into one of the most attractive emerging markets in the world. And a key aspect of the Egyptian model is its strong pro-Western orientation.

Bashir had in fact started reassessing his options by late 1998. Khartoum had has held discreet talks with the US and Britain in early 1999. By then, Bashir had started distancing himself from Turabi as well. Indeed, the shift in Bashir's position began after the August 1998 attack by the US against facilities allegedly linked to the network of the radical Islamist leader Osama Bin Ladin, now based in Afghanistan. He did not want to get Sudan or himself into the plight of Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

At a celebration marking the 43rd anniversary of independence on Jan. 1, 1999, Bashir said: "From this platform I declare our willingness for welcoming every benevolent initiative for dialogue... Our doors will be open to Asia and Europe... We will not close the door to dialogue with the United States and Britain despite the hostility shown by these two nations".

On Jan.2, 1999 Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail revealed on the Qatari satellite television 'Al Jazira' that his government was conducting "intensive secret" contacts with Washington and London aimed at restoring relations. He had said earlier that Khartoum had "never thought of closing the door to dialogue with Washington". For its part, the US has shown a greater degree of flexibility in its relations with Sudan.

On April 13, 2001, it was reported that the Khartoum government had accepted a US proposal to postpone the debate on the lifting of sanctions. The government accepted the US proposal to allow for more co-ordination between the US and the non-aligned countries in the Security Council. The report indicated that Sudan was keen to avoid confrontation with the new Bush administration, as "there are encouraging signals" regarding the relations between the two countries, according to one official quoted.

Visiting Washington in early April, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak had held productive discussions with the Bush administration on Sudan-US relations, the official added. According to the official, Sudan wanted to secure the adoption of a unanimous vote in the Security Council on the lifting of sanctions. In another sign of the thawing relations between the two countries, Sudan dispatched Ambassador Al Khidr Harun from Tokyo to Washington, where he had been instructed to reopen the Sudanese Embassy at the "charge d'affaires" level. The embassy was closed in 1998 after the US bombing of a pharmaceuticals factory in Khartoum, allegedly connected to Osama Bin Ladin.

Ties with the UK have been moving forward as well. In late January, British Foreign Ministry official Derek Plumbly visited Khartoum and held talks with an undersecretary at the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, Dr. Hassan Abdin, on the ``return of diplomatic ties to their normal state'' and Britain's role in helping to end the civil war in Sudan. Plumbly, director of the Middle East and North African department at the Foreign Office, was the highest-ranking British diplomat to visit Sudan since August 1988, when Britain pulled out its diplomats at Sudan's request. They also discussed the issue of human rights in Sudan, a sensitive question in Europe especially in view of allegations of the extensive practice of slavery in the country. Sudan has held talks with the EU on its human rights position.

All this does not mean, of course, that Sudan's relations with the West had improved to the point of full normalisation. Sudan remains under US and UN sanctions. It is still in the State Department's list of terrorist states. And there are suspicions that Khartoum is aiding China to position itself as a global rival of the US. For example, in March 2001, the London-based Arabic newspaper 'Al Zaman' reported that China had made installation of long-range missiles on the Red Sea coast a precondition for investing in the Sudanese oil sector. It added that American intelligence circles were secretly investigating the authenticity of this information.

The Sudanese authorities quickly denied the report. On March 16, the official spokesman of the armed forces, Gen. Mohammed Uthman Yasin, said the reports on China's preconditions were part of campaigns aimed at distorting Sudan's image. Speaking to 'Al Rai Al Aam', he that the news about stationing long-range missiles was mere lies and fabrications.

The human rights issue is also a serious obstacle in the way of improving US-Sudanese relations. On Jan. 31, 2001, a US federal advisory panel, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its first recommendations to the new administration said tougher sanctions were needed because of atrocities committed against the Christian minority by the Islamic majority. It advocated imposing a military no-fly zone over Sudan and wanted to provide humantarian aid to opposition forces.

Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, denounced the Sudan government during the panel hearing for making "cheerful proclamations of change" while continuing repression. Rice had recently visited southern Sudan and alleged a slave trade continued with the knowledge of the Sudan government.

On March 28, Roger Winter, Executive Director of the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), said in a testimony to US Congress that President Bush should appoint a special envoy as a major foreign policy priority, and should help create an environment for successful peace negotiations - by "intervening politically to force the (government) to negotiate seriously for a just peace". He called on the US administration to take decisive action if the government continued to bomb civilian targets in the south. He said the Sudan government had used food as a weapon with "virtual impunity", and that the US should lead or impose "an entirely new approach to Operation Lifeline Sudan" (the UN umbrella group working with the permission of the government in southern Sudan).
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Apr 30, 2001
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