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What the military coup in Sudan means for Washington

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. has been trying to help Sudan emerge from decades of a brutal regime that was accused of genocide and terrorism. This week, the U.S. envoy for the region thought he was making progress in keeping a transitional government on track. But Sudanese generals had other ideas and launched a military coup just as he left.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on why this matters to Washington.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman had just flown out of Khartoum Monday feeling, as he put it, mildly encouraged by his talks with Sudanese military and civilian leaders.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: We landed in Doha, thinking we were transferring back to the United States, turned on our phones and said oh. Oh, my.

KELEMEN: Sudan's prime minister was detained, and Feltman says this happened not long after General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had assured him personally that the military supports Sudan's transition to democracy.

FELTMAN: If the transition is essentially a patient that has an illness, you find the therapy that addresses the illness. You don't use medicine to kill the patient, which is what the military seems to be trying to do.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has now suspended $700 million in aid to Sudan and is threatening sanctions. Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council says General Burhan knew the risks of launching a coup because the U.S. and others were sending clear signals.

CAMERON HUDSON: They were repeated over and over again, both by more than a million people who took to the streets last week, demanding a civilian-led government and as many as a few hours before the coup actually took place, where our envoy was sitting with the military head of state, warning him of exactly what U.S. assistance would be cut off if they went ahead with that course of action.

KELEMEN: The fact that General Burhan went ahead should be a wake-up call, Hudson says. U.S. leverage is waning in Sudan, while others are seeking a foothold in the oil-rich African nation.

HUDSON: Whether it's Russian disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Gulf money flowing in to influence the outcome of the transition.

KELEMEN: Sudan had been a good news story for the U.S. The country's longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, who was accused of genocide in Darfur, was toppled in 2019. A year later, the U.S. took Sudan off a terrorism blacklist and has tried to help the country move toward democracy. But Sudanese politics are complicated, says Joseph Tucker of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

JOSEPH TUCKER: This coup resulted from extreme divisions, lack of consensus within the military and the security services, within the civilians, within political parties.

KELEMEN: And he says the military takeover adds to a long list of diplomatic headaches for the U.S. in the region. There are conflicts in neighboring Ethiopia and South Sudan, and now real concerns about violence in Khartoum as protesters take to the streets.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.