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Foreign Policy

Prime envoy on counter-terrorism might be the primary US ambassador to Sudan in a long time

The Biden administration is narrowing the list of potential candidates for the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan in decades, and a senior counter-terrorism official tops the list, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter .

John Godfrey, currently the acting US State Department’s Counterterrorism Envoy and a seasoned Middle East diplomat, is a leading contender for the position of the first US Ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when the United States closed diplomatic relations with Sudan because of its Support for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups broke down.

The Biden administration is narrowing the list of potential candidates for the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan in decades, and a senior counter-terrorism official tops the list, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter .

John Godfrey, currently the U.S. Department of State’s acting counterterrorism envoy and a veteran Middle East diplomat, is a leading contender for the position of the first U.S. Ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when the United States closed diplomatic relations with Sudan because of its Support for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups broke down.

The United States announced in late 2019 that it would normalize relations with Sudan and exchange ambassadors after a revolution in the country toppled one of the world’s most brutal dictators, then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. At that time, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the decision to develop diplomatic relations with Sudan as “a significant step forward in strengthening bilateral relations between the US and Sudan”.

But although the new interim government in Sudan sent an ambassador to Washington, the Trump administration never reciprocated.

Six months into his term in office, US President Joe Biden has also not yet announced his election as ambassador to Sudan, but the State Department is expected to recommend Godfrey’s name to the White House, current and former officials speaking with Foreign Policy said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council did not want to comment. “No hiring decisions are final until announced,” an NSC spokesman said in an email.

Experts said the long absence of a US ambassador had a negative impact on US-Sudan relations. It also represents a missed opportunity for Washington to help shape Sudan’s weak transition to democracy and reintroduce it into the international financial system after 30 years of isolated authoritarian rule under Bashir.

Nicole Widdersheim, a senior policy advisor for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the lack of an ambassador is a signal that the United States is not giving Sudan’s democratic transition the priority it should . “If Cuba suddenly had a democratic revolution … don’t you think we would send an ambassador in the months to come?” Said Widdersheim, who previously worked for the US Agency for International Development and the National Security Council on African affairs.

“The US is leading in humanitarian and development support for the transition and has been instrumental in helping Sudan re-enter the international financial system,” said Joseph Tucker, an expert at the US Institute for Peace and a former US diplomat and assistant specializing in Sudan. “If you don’t have an ambassador, you get the impression that US political investments are missing in the transition.”

Sudan’s shaky transitional government is tasked with preparing the country for the 2024 elections, but experts warn that behind-the-scenes power struggles could fuel political crises that could affect the country’s progress. Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan‘S Prime Minister, in a recent interview with The Economist, warned of “rifts and divisions” within the country’s broad civil coalition.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a former general under Bashir who heads the country’s governing council that oversees Hamdok’s civilian cabinet, has become the country’s most important power broker, but is also grappling with rifts within the military. Another center of power is Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, vice chairman of the governing council and a former warlord who leads a paramilitary force that emerged from the militias responsible for widespread atrocities in Darfur, western Sudan.

Experts and officials said a local ambassador was vital for Washington to navigate the intricate corridors of power in Khartoum.

If Godfrey is nominated by the president, an issue officials have warned about is still in the works, it will likely be many months before Sudan finally gets its first US ambassador in decades due to cascading delays in the Senate confirmation process. Biden was slow in naming ambassadorial candidates in his first few months in office, and now Republican Senator Ted Cruz has vowed to remove all State Department candidates, including career diplomats, who have been nominated for ambassadorial posts to Africa over an argument with the Biden government on a controversial Russian gas pipeline. If this dispute is not resolved, it could postpone confirmation of many ambassadorial posts well into 2022, said several State Department officials and congressional aides.

Godfrey, a senior field officer, is currently Deputy State Department Coordinator on Counter Terrorism and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Combat Islamic State. Godfrey held several positions in the Middle East and North Africa during his time in the Foreign Service, and from 2013 to 2014 he was Chief of Staff to then-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who is now Biden’s CIA director.

A U.S. official familiar with the matter described Godfrey as a wise choice for the ambassadorial post and said his experience in the Middle East would be beneficial given the oversized influence of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern powers in Sudan.

For a quarter of a century, the United States and Sudan had only exchanged charge d’affaires, lower-ranking diplomats than an ambassador, at the head of their embassies, reflecting the frosty relationship between the two countries.

Before Bashir was ousted in the 2019 People’s Revolution, the United States worked quietly under both the Obama and Trump administrations to ease tension with Bashir’s administration and lift some U.S. sanctions against Khartoum. This process accelerated after Bashir’s impeachment and the establishment of a civilian-led interim government under Hamdok.

A year later, the United States lifted its 1993 designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism as Bashir supported prominent terrorist groups and leaders, including al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The name made the country an international pariah and cut it off from much of the international financial system.

Former US President Donald Trump agreed to lift the terrorism designation after pressuring Sudan to normalize relations with Israel. Sudan also agreed to pay $ 335 million to meet legal claims with victims of terrorist attacks in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000 to settle. The agreement followed years of careful legal negotiations with the victims, the State Department and Congress.

The diplomatic breakthroughs brought relief to Sudan’s interim government and opened the country’s anemic economy to support from the International Monetary Fund and other international economic aid organizations. The Sudanese government is still struggling to revitalize its economy, especially given the indirect effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which could further threaten the transitional government.

“Important progress is being made, but as Prime Minister Hamdok recently noted, there is tension within and between civil and security elements that add up to a political crisis,” Tucker said. “If not handled, tensions could undermine the foundations laid by citizens during the revolution and create space for spoilers.”

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