U.S.-Sudan relations have ranged from outright hostility to limited diplomatic engagement since Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir ascended to power in 1989, yet the Obama administration spent the past two years seeking to improve bilateral relations. The Obama administration announced plans to ease some sanctions against Sudan earlier this month. That decision was made in recognition of Sudan’s counterterrorism cooperation with the United States against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Additionally, partial sanctions relief was a reward for Sudan’s reduction in offensive military activity and its pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in Darfur, southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Now, for the first time since the 1990s, the country can trade with the United States while attracting badly needed foreign investment. In exchange, Khartoum must sever support for rebel factions in South Sudan, permit international aid groups entry into Sudan and cooperate with U.S. intelligence agencies going forward.
The Obama administration’s overtures toward Bashir’s regime came amid important geopolitical developments in Sudan’s foreign policy, which have made closer allies of Khartoum and Washington, DC. Over the past three years, Sudan has pivoted away from Iran and aligned with Gulf Cooperation Council members against Tehran. Sudan’s military role in the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, and Khartoum’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran a year ago, highlight Sudan’s strategic shift toward Washington’s Arab Gulf allies.
Israeli officials have urged their American counterparts to make positive gestures toward Sudan and increase Washington’s dialogue with Khartoum as a reward for the country’s pivot to the GCC, and for breaking off ties with Iran. Also, late last year European Union officials enhanced cooperation with their Sudanese counterparts in dealing with migration flows, human trafficking and refugee crises. The enhanced cooperation was implemented despite an outcry from many Western human rights groups. Now, the key question going forward is whether the Trump administration will enhance Obama’s overture toward Khartoum or maintain Washington’s two-decade-old policy aimed at isolating and punishing Sudan.
A Sponsor of Terrorism or a Partner Against It?
The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 concluded that Washington, DC and Khartoum “worked cooperatively in countering the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and ISIL.” The department made this declaration despite the fact that Khartoum still permitted Hamas members to raise money, travel and reside in Sudan as late as 2015. The report also noted that the country’s use for “Palestinian designated terrorist groups appeared to have declined” as did its support for other terrorist organizations, such as Abu Nidal Organization. Also, although Al Qaeda and ISIS remained active in Sudan in 2015, the government’s support for Al Qaeda had ceased.
A 2014 State Department report found that the Central Bank of Sudan and its Financial Information Unit had provided all Sudanese financial institutions with a list of UN-recognized terrorists (as well as one provided by the U.S. government), and praised Sudan for continued cooperation with the Financial Action Task Force. Additionally, the report recognized that Khartoum had taken measures to comply with international standards to counter the financing of global terrorism while adopting an Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorism Finance Act.
If Khartoum has essentially severed support for armed groups, which the U.S. government classifies as terrorist organizations, and is helping Washington counter others, then is it justifiable to maintain Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism? In truth, the State Department’s reasons for adding or removing countries from the list are not always about governmental ties to terrorist organizations. Other diplomatic, political and security issues influence such decisionmaking. For example, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the list to reward Pyongyang for reasons pertaining to the country’s nuclear program. Also, the Obama administration delisted Cuba after Washington and Havana restored relations. Today, Sudan remains on the list primarily due to its unresolved domestic conflicts, although the official reason is that Khartoum has fading ties with armed Palestinian factions.
The Future of U.S.-Sudan Relations
The Trump administration should ask itself whether Washington’s efforts to isolate the Khartoum regime have improved the humanitarian crisis in Darfur or advanced any other U.S. interests. Also, Washington’s policies against Sudan benefited China by pushing Khartoum closer to Beijing. Although the White House announced no plans to remove Sudan from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, the decision to ease sanctions appears to indicate that the Obama administration viewed the past two decades of sanctions as a failed effort to alter Bashir’s style of rule that forced the average Sudanese citizen to pay the price for the government’s conduct.
In all likelihood, Sudan will not be one of Trump’s top-tier priorities at the outset of his presidency. Furthermore, the current political climate in the United States makes it difficult to imagine the State Department removing Sudan from the list in the near term. There is a strong Darfur lobby in Washington, DC and an array of civil society groups that pressure American officials to continue applying international pressure on Bashir on human rights grounds. As long as the International Criminal Court maintains its warrant for Bashir’s arrest on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, any push for a U.S.-Sudan rapprochement would undoubtedly meet opposition from Democrats. Some of Trump’s Republican allies and activists in the United States and elsewhere would also be opposed to such rapprochement.