On November 7, the U.S. Department of State announced long-awaited plans outlining a path to better relations with Sudan, “designed to expand our bilateral cooperation, facilitate meaningful reforms to enhance stability in Sudan, and achieve further progress in a number of areas of longstanding concern.” USIP’s Aly Verjee and Payton Knopf discuss the initiative, and identify where broader U.S. regional objectives could cohere, including in the war in Yemen.

Locals walk pass a paused development project in Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 26 2012. (Sven Torfinn/The New York Times)
Locals walk pass a paused development project in Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 26, 2012. (Sven Torfinn/The New York Times)

The Trump administration revoked most economic sanctions on Sudan in October 2017. What does the November 2018 announcement mean?

Verjee: The Government of Sudan has long hoped that engagement with the United States would lead to the de-listing of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST). Under U.S. law, the SST designation prevents a wide range of cooperation, aid and investment. More broadly, the Sudanese government believes the SST designation heavily discourages economic growth and foreign direct investment in Sudan. To the chagrin of the Sudanese, more than a year passed before an agreement on “phase two” of the process, as it is known to negotiators. But now that it has been announced, the Sudanese hope that they will ultimately be successful in ridding the country of its pariah reputation, obtaining debt relief and spurring new investment.

Phase two consists of multiple tracks, which include Sudan severing ties with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions on the DPRK; enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation; and, adequately addressing claims and judgments related to terrorism in U.S. courts, namely over the U.S.S. Cole bombing (a judgment the Sudanese government has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court) and the claims of victims in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 2001. 

Phase two also requires progress continue on earlier themes, including the Sudanese government taking steps to resolve internal conflicts, and improving humanitarian access. For the first time, an explicit human rights focus, including the freedom to religious practice, has been included in the process—a gap in phase one that was heavily criticized.

How will progress in phase two be measured?

Verjee: Citing diplomatic precedent and the need for discretion, the U.S. government has not disclosed the specific indicators, benchmarks and measures it will use to determine progress. However, with regard to normalization processes in Sudan and elsewhere, there is, in fact, a long history of transparency. For example, in 2001, the “four tests” of Senator John Danforth, then U.S. special envoy, were public and monitored by both U.S. and independent, international professional staff. The wholesale political reform commitments of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement were publicly known and publicly monitored, both by the U.N. and by a U.S.-backed independent body, the Assessment and Evaluation Commission. Beyond Sudan, consider the transparency required by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran.

U.S. law allows Congress to block a move by the Trump administration to remove Sudan from the SST list. With legitimate concerns over the pace, quality and sustainability of reform within Sudan, both American and Sudanese civic groups will scrutinize and likely be skeptical of any U.S. government decision. To get these constituencies on board, the U.S. will need to show the basis for any decision made in phase two, which again calls for specific benchmarks, verifiable means of measurement, and transparency. The alternative is negative perceptions of the process and suspicions that the outcome is pre-determined. 

Further, secrecy makes it much more difficult for Sudanese outside of government to raise concerns and to know where to expect progress. As the process continues, it would help if the government of Sudan explicitly permitted open consultation with Sudanese citizens, unimpeded by state authorities. In recent months, journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates have all faced restrictions as a result of voicing dissent or opinions contrary to those of the government.

What are the implications of phase two for Sudan, and the region?

Verjee: Sudan no longer meets the narrow criteria defining a SST, which requires a country to have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” The high point of Sudan’s terrorist sponsorship was in the 1990s, a period that saw Khartoum back attempts to assassinate foreign heads of state and figures like Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal lived in the country. While today there are still terrorist groups that operate in Sudan—as the State’s Department own travel advisory warns—this is not the same as saying that such terrorist activity is state-sponsored.

At the same time, Sudan is in persistent domestic crisis, and conflicts in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur remain unresolved. With the timetable of phase two expected to be about a year, and without an explicit expectation to see a lasting peace reached in that period, it is likely that disputes in these regions of Sudan will continue to fester. 

Further, the economy is in trouble. The Sudanese pound has been officially devalued, but continues to fall in value on the parallel market, while inflation is increasing. The government has launched an austerity program, but it is unclear whether such reforms will stabilize the economy. As Sudan’s foreign minister observed on his recent visit to Washington, initial sanctions relief did not have “any particular impact in Sudan,” as USIP research demonstrated earlier this year. U.S. trade statistics with Sudan also show there is little change, year over year, after the sanctions were lifted in 2017, and the U.S. could do much more to help the Sudanese private sector flourish. In isolation, phase two will not fix Sudan’s economy either. 

The U.S. offers strategic incentives to the Sudanese government in exchange for tactical concessions because the United States has struggled to understand and respond to the evolving regional environment in which Sudan—and its leadership—operates.

Knopf: Whether Sudan meets the SST criteria is a technical judgment. However, Western governments have often inaccurately assessed Sudanese support for armed groups, extremist or otherwise, in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Egypt and Libya. And this fact underscores the fundamental flaw in efforts to improve the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship since the Obama administration: The U.S. offers strategic incentives to the Sudanese government in exchange for tactical concessions because the United States has struggled to understand and respond to the evolving regional environment in which Sudan—and its leadership—operates.

Tectonic geopolitical shifts are underway from Libya to Egypt and into the Horn of Africa and yet, since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the United States has failed to articulate how Sudan fits into broader U.S. political, security, and economic priorities. Sudanese compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions or temporary improvements in humanitarian access fall well short of this mark. As long as the imbalance between the strategic and the tactical persists, a genuine re-alignment in the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship will remain elusive, despite rhetoric on both sides. That phase two does not appear to include a meaningful conversation with Sudan on South Sudan—or on Ethiopia, Eritrea or Yemen—is shortsighted, particularly since there are indications that Sudan would in fact welcome such a dialogue with the United States.

Can the normalization process with Sudan be re-shaped more constructively?

Knopf: It is difficult to imagine phase two achieving anything more than token—and transient—wins without the Trump administration designating a senior official with full-time responsibility for coordinating diplomacy not just toward Sudan but across the Horn of Africa. Regardless, U.S.-Sudan discussions over the long-term could nonetheless benefit from a clearer articulation of what the United States is actually trying to achieve in the relationship.

For Sudan, rescission of the SST designation is a means to an end: debt relief and other economic assistance to stabilize the economy. Contrary to expectations created since the beginning of the bilateral normalization discussions, such relief is years off, however, even if the U.S. were to rescind the SST designation. 

For example, to be eligible for debt relief, Sudan would first need to enter an unfinanced International Monetary Fund monitoring plan requiring significant macro-economic reforms and a poverty reduction program and a social safety net for Sudan’s people, among other provisions. It is hard to imagine the Sudanese government pursuing and financing such sweeping changes, however. The economy is deteriorating rapidly, which is in turn compounding the intensifying political competition among the ruling elites in advance of the 2020 elections. Yet President al-Bashir cannot rely on debt relief or a significant Western aid package to stabilize his rule in the foreseeable future. 

Verjee: In addition to improving consultation with Sudanese outside of government as part of the phase two evaluation, strengthening U.S. public communications, and addressing trade promotion, the U.S. has an opportunity to join up thinking and serve multiple U.S. interests. For example, in Yemen, it is Sudanese ground forces that are doing the fighting, and dying, in service of the Saudi-led coalition. In light of the fragile truce agreed in Hodeida this week, securing Sudanese cooperation to continue to help de-escalate the conflict should not be overlooked; it could be an important step.

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