After months of speculation, the Trump administration has decided that the current U.S. sanctions against Sudan will remain in place – at least for now.
The State Department announced on July 11 that it would postpone the decision concerning the future of the sanctions. It said it needed more time to review the Sudanese government’s actions pursuant to Executive Order 13761, which President Obama signed on January 13 during his final days in office. Obama’s order surprised many human rights organizations and Sudan analysts as it temporarily removed some sanctions towards Sudan. But the Obama executive order included a six-month window during which the United States had to verify continued progress by the Sudanese government on “five tracks” before permanently lifting the sanctions.
These tracks included a marked reduction in offensive military activity, a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in Sudan’s conflict areas, improved humanitarian access throughout Sudan, and cooperation with the U.S. on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism. Citing previous progress on these issues, Obama suspended the longstanding U.S. trade embargo with Sudan, unfroze assets, and removed financial restrictions. All of these acts, however, were conditional, pending the six-month assessment.
Other than pushing the sanctions decision from July 12 to October 12, Trump’s executive order does little to alter EO 13761. The interagency decision-making process, which includes input from NGOs, remains the same. Likewise, the general license issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control remains in place. The general license makes otherwise prohibited transactions permissible while the sanctions continue. Finally, the criteria for removing the sanctions remain the same, although some have suggested expanding these requirements and the State Department noted the administration’s intention to engage the regime on issues outside of the five tracks including human rights and ensuring that the Sudanese government is not aiding North Korea. Still, as long as Sudan sustains the positive actions that led to Obama’s decision in January, the U.S. will likely end the sanctions program in October.
For and Against
In the weeks leading up to the July 12 deadline, advocates for both maintaining and removing the sanctions made their preferences clear. Those arguing for maintaining the sanctions included opposition political parties in Sudan, such as the Sudanese Congress Party, and Sudanese armed groups, including the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). In May, SPLM-N Secretary-General Yasir Arman argued that lifting the sanctions amounted to giving Sudan President Omar al-Bashir “a free lunch” and urged U.S. officials not to reward the regime by lifting sanctions. Several human rights groups also opposed ending the sanctions, such as Human Rights Watch, which called for specific benchmarks and tangible improvements on human rights before the U.S. removed them. A bipartisan congressional group also supported continued sanctions, and on June 30, 53 House Representatives sent President Trump a letter requesting that the sanctions remain in place for another year.
Within Sudan, two influential U.S. figures living in the Nuba Mountains – a remote area near the Sudan-South Sudan border largely controlled by the SLPM-N – also opposed ending the sanctions. Tom Catena, the only doctor permanently based in the Nuba Mountains, opposed lifting the sanctions, arguing that the Sudanese government would channel any additional revenues that sanctions removal brought into the military, which would only exacerbate conflict. Likewise, Ryan Boyette, a U.S. citizen that has lived in the Nuba Mountains since 2003, also opposed ending the sanctions. Boyette founded Nuba Reports in 2011, a local news organization working with Sudanese citizen-journalists to share their stories of the isolated and marginalized Nuba people. Nuba Reports created a virtual reality video to demonstrate the everyday hardships of life in the Nuba Mountains, which Boyette presented to the State Department and members of Congress in July prior to the Trump administration’s deadline.
Those arguing for the sanctions to be removed included Ambassador Princeton Lyman and Ambassador Donald Booth, the two preceding Special Envoys to Sudan and South Sudan. Ambassador Lyman argued that sanctions relief would provide a “preliminary first-step opening” with the regime and give the U.S. leverage in future negotiations, as Khartoum would finally have something to lose. The influential International Crisis Group also favored this approach. Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community also supported lifting the sanctions. The CIA in particular has a longstanding working relationship with Sudan despite the country’s human rights record.
State Department officials, both in Washington and at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, supported sanctions relief and continued reengagement. Earlier this month, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Steven Koutsis stated, “Sudan has shown it is a willing partner in resolving regional issues and has taken credible steps toward peace.” Previously, Koutsis praised the Sudanese government for showing “extreme restraint” when engaging militarily with the armed opposition and for making progress on all five tracks outlined in Obama’s executive order. Similarly, on July 10, the United Nations Country Team in Sudan issued a letter hoping for a “positive decision” on the sanctions issue, noting that U.N. staff had enjoyed much better humanitarian access since Obama issued the executive order in January.
Ultimately, these arguments boil down to different assessments of whether removing the sanctions will incentivize the Sudanese government to improve its behavior or whether doing so simply rewards an authoritarian regime with an appalling human rights record. Those supporting the lifting of sanctions note that after 20 years, sanctions have done little to change the regime’s behavior. Further, the U.S. sanctions towards Sudan are outdated and unnecessarily complex, including executive orders spanning multiple administrations, numerous legislative acts, and regulatory authority overlaid between the Treasury and Commerce Departments. Perhaps most troubling, Sudanese citizens endure the sanctions’ most coercive effects, while political and military elites circumvent these effects through offshore accounts and other financial workarounds.
In contrast, Sudanese political and armed opposition groups fear that removing the sanctions will only make the government less inclined to negotiate peace or to respect human rights. Similarly, many human rights groups cannot fathom removing sanctions while Bashir, who remains wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, is still in power.
In addition to facing pressure from both sides, basic staffing issues also undermined the Trump administration’s ability to make an informed decision, as key positions at the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC) remain vacant. After Ambassador Booth ended his tenure as Special Envoy in January, no replacement has been named, nor is there any assurance that the Trump administration will fill or even continue this position. Likewise, the administration has not filled the Senior Director for Africa position at the NSC after it rescinded its offer to retired Lieutenant Colonel Rudolph Atallah, an experienced African analyst with 20 years of service in the U.S. Air Force. Initially offered the job in March, the administration revoked Atallah’s offer in June. Further, a lack of comprehensive access to Sudan’s conflict areas makes it difficult to evaluate whether the government has met its obligations for sanctions relief.
Trump’s decision is undoubtedly a setback for the Sudanese government, which clearly felt that it had fulfilled the conditions required for the permanent removal of these sanctions. Before the decision, Sudanese officials often highlighted the country’s cooperation with U.S. intelligence and its acceptance of refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan. To bolster these points, the government hired K Street lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs to improve its image, paying the firm $40,000 in June. And, as a final touch, on July 2, Bashir extended the government’s unilateral ceasefire with the armed opposition for nearly four months.
Sudan Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, who was integral in negotiating the five-track process, warned that fighting between the government and the armed opposition could resume if the sanctions remained, arguing that continued sanctions will cause armed groups to harden their positions rather than engage in peace negotiations. Ghandour also noted the damaging affect that sanctions have on the Sudanese people. Following the Trump administration’s announcement, he expressed the government’s regret with the outcome, calling any decision other than the permanent and immediate lifting of the sanctions “illogical and unacceptable.” Later, President Bashir declared the suspension of the committee that worked with the U.S. on the five tracks until October 12.
Nonetheless, the Sudanese government remains determined to convince the U.S. that it should lift the sanctions. Thus, after expressing its disappointment, the government announced that it would continue to cooperate with the U.S., including sharing intelligence. Likewise, Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, the speaker of Sudan’s National Assembly warned against using unfavorable rhetoric or reactionary politics when discussing this issue.
Whether the October 12 sanctions decision will have a significant effect on creating a lasting cessation of hostilities remains uncertain. On July 7, three Darfur armed groups united as the Sudan Liberation Force Alliance (SLFA), stating that it would not respect the government’s ceasefire. Key opposition figures, most notably Gibril Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement, and Minni Minnawi of the Sudan Liberation Movement-Minni Minnawi, have welcomed this move and pledged their support of the SLFA. Ibrahim and Minnawi also stressed the need for the armed opposition to work together and resist the government. On July 8, opposition leader Malik Agar voiced similar points and called for an emergency meeting of opposition forces to coordinate efforts and escalate confrontation with the government. Agar effectively leads one-half of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an umbrella group of the four largest armed groups fighting the Sudanese government.
What Comes Next
While human rights organizations welcomed the administration’s announcement to postpone the sanctions decision, the three-month delay is probably more indicative of bureaucratic disorganization than of how the administration views the issue. From a security perspective, there are already concerns that the Sudanese government will be less cooperative and less willing to share intelligence, despite its assurances to the contrary. And, during the next three months, the government will undoubtedly make rhetorical statements about ending cooperation with the U.S. while keeping up some level of engagement and information sharing. Still, Sudanese officials have often complained that the U.S. continually moves the goalposts after promising better relations and this outcome will only reinforce skepticism that the U.S. is serious about ending sanctions or moving past a relationship focused almost solely on counterterrorism cooperation and security issues. At worst, this decision will embolden hardliners within the government unwilling to consider peace or compromise and unconcerned with human rights.
Strategically, this delay reflects a broader pattern of strained U.S. policy towards Sudan that attempts to balance punitive isolation and measured engagement. Thus, while the State Department, and especially the Office of the Special Envoy, favored sanctions relief and reengagement, U.S. policymakers also stressed that Sudan would remain on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. At the same time, the U.S. intelligence community has praised Sudan’s cooperation on counterterrorism and the head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) met with the director of the CIA and head of the FBI in Washington this past March. While NISS may provide useful intelligence, it is also a ruthless and repressive organization within Sudan, linked to numerous human rights abuses. Finally, Sudan’s inclusion on President Trump’s travel ban only further complicates the U.S.-Sudan relationship.
While the Trump administration deserves some credit for postponing an important national security decision that it was not prepared to make, it must be poised to act on October 12. Most importantly, it must have a thoughtful and substantive policy towards Sudan regardless of whether it decides to continue or lift the sanctions. Cameron Hudson, a senior official that worked on African affairs during the George W. Bush administration, recently made this point, stressing the need for day-to-day dialogue between U.S. and Sudanese officials. As Hudson noted, “There’s not a lot of value if any change of policy with respect to sanctions is not supported and backed up by a really robust diplomatic effort.”
In the meantime, Sudanese citizens will continue to carry the heaviest burden of the sanctions and U.S. officials will continue to make do without a coherent U.S. policy towards Sudan.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of the Navy, or the U.S. Naval War College.