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Why Sudan Is Suddenly Playing Nice

A week after the news broke that Sudan was considering opening formal diplomatic relations with Israel, its President has declared that it will start to play nice with the breakaway state of South Sudan. The BBC reports:

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has ordered the opening of his country’s border with South Sudan for the first time since the latter seceded in 2011.

The move comes days after reports that South Sudan had ordered its troops to withdraw a short way from the border.

Disputes over the border remain unresolved and the two countries fought over the Heglig oilfield in 2012.

And yet the country’s President, Omar al-Bashir, a man not exactly known for his reputation as an easy-going guy, is backing away from the boundary. Why?

Quite possibly for (one of) the same reasons that the Sudanese government was considering an opening to Israel: Sudan may be looking for a way out of its isolation, and thinks that these two steps could get it back into the good graces of the United States and our allies.

U.S. sanctions are still biting in Khartoum and the effect is even more serious in a time of oil bust and China crash. Meanwhile, the times, they are a’changing with regard to Israel. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly friendly relationship with Jerusalem gives cover to other Sunnis who are making overtures. Under the circumstances, these two gestures become a feasible way to propitiate the U.S., in hopes of a welcome back in from the economic and geopolitical cold.

On one level, this push could be a huge headache for the Obama Administration. Do you forget Darfur? Can you forgive the war crimes that Bashir and his cronies have committed? Would the American public even let you?

On the other hand, South Sudan is now free, the Sudanese people are suffering from the sanctions, and it looks like there could be a real chance to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation on two important fronts here. And having another state, whatever happened in the past, joining the fight against radicalism and lawlessness in Africa would be a solid gain.

These steps should be met, cautiously, with a sympathetic response. If Sudan is looking for ways to normalize relations with the United States and its neighbors, Washington should sit down with the leadership to see what they have in mind.

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