The most critical conflict in the Middle East is between the pragmatic Muslims and their existential rivals, the radical Islamists, who consist of three or four sub-groups: Iran and its surrogates, the Sunni Jihadists (mainly Islamic State and Al Qaeda) and the Muslim Brotherhood (Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, and local Muslim Brotherhood organizations in each pragmatic state). The war between the rival camps is being waged today full scale in Libya and Yemen and to a lesser magnitude in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and some areas of northern Syria (though the pragmatists there are in horrible shape and most of the warring factions are from different components of the radical camps).
It’s not often that a country flips sides in this long war. The most crucial such change took place seven years ago in Egypt when General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ousted President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and brought Egypt back into the ranks of the pragmatic camp to the disappointment of Turkey, Qatar and Hamas. For almost a year, Iraq and Lebanon have been experiencing an internal struggle in which the pragmatists have challenged the radicals who control these states, and there is a confrontation between the radicals and pragmatists in Iran as well.
The Dramatic Change in Sudan
In recent years, the most interesting change occurred in the Sudan. The country detached itself from the radical camp and joined the pragmatists. Sudan had been ruled by extreme Muslim radicals, once hosted Osama Bin Laden, served as passage for heavy arms deliveries from Iran to Hamas in Gaza, and served as the haven for Al Qaeda operatives while that terror organization carried out major attacks against American targets, including the murder of 223 Americans and local citizens in two terror attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Though Sudan started moving in this direction in 2013 after an air attack on a Sudanese weapons facility — most likely Iranian weapons on their way to Hamas — and moved further in the direction of the pragmatists after it cut diplomatic relations with Iran and joined the Saudis in their war in Yemen in 2016, the half-popular, half-military revolution in April 2019 signaled the completion of the change in Khartoum’s affiliation.
This reorientation was followed by a change in Sudan’s policy towards Israel that culminated in a meeting in Uganda in February this year between the leaders of the two states – Prime Minister Netanyahu and Sudan’s President, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Subsequently, Sudan permitted the Israeli carrier El Al to fly over Sudan on its way from Argentina.
Relations between Sudan and the United States have improved as well during this period, but a breakthrough of the kind that took place with Israel has not yet been fully accomplished. Sudan is still on the US list of terror-supporting states because of its support of Al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the past, particularly at the time of the attacks on the American embassies, even though it has since ceased its support to terror groups. Sudan did reach an agreement with the United States on compensating the victims of the attacks, which will enable erasing it from the list once it is approved by the US Congress, but some senators are critical of the deal because, in their view, the non-American victims are not going to receive adequate compensation.
Congress is supposed to vote on the deal soon, and if it does not approve it, Sudan will not be able to get American and international assistance. If the deal is rejected and its approval delayed, the pragmatic temporary regime may be further destabilized (it is already quite shaky because of poor economic conditions and the tense relations between the various groups of which it is comprised). It may even be toppled by opposing factions with affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood and to China, which was closely connected to the pre-revolution regime.
It is hard to determine how much money is sufficient compensation for the non-American victims, but bearing in mind the importance of keeping Sudan in the pragmatic camp, of rewarding its regime for its overtures to the United States and Israel, and appreciating its readiness to pay for its predecessor’s crimes despite its dire economic conditions, it makes no sense to block the deal and put the regime at risk. Such a move will also deny the families of the American victims their ability to receive the higher compensation promised to them in the agreement. Approving the plan will stabilize the regime, strengthen the pragmatic camp, prove that the United States is a reliable ally for the pragmatists, help secure Egypt, and contribute to Israel’s security and normalization of relations with the pragmatic Muslims.
To sum up, there are times when politicians should see the broader picture and not be purists. This is such a time. Missing this opportunity may have severe strategic consequences not only for Sudan but for Israel, the entire region, and US interests.