Among the many unexpected shifts in American foreign policy is the recent rapprochement with Sudan, where longstanding economic sanctions on the regime are being reduced in exchange for half-measures and promises of good behavior. Lifting the sanctions leaves the Trump administration without the leverage it needs to ensure Sudan’s half-hearted commitment to its end of the agreement, and allows the regime to go on destabilizing a region in which the U.S. and its allies are elsewhere spending billions to fight extremism.
The Obama administration laid the groundwork for the détente in 2015, when it was decided that the existing sanctions regime had been ineffective. Taking a friendlier approach, the U.S. and Sudan negotiated a “five-track” process, which systematically eased the sanctions pressuring Sudan’s economy in exchange for several conditions, such as beginning negotiations to end to the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and South Kordofan and allowing humanitarian groups access to conflict zones. As part of the process, Sudan was granted temporary sanctions relief in January 2017, and used its renewed access to U.S. businesses to mount a charm offensive on Washington. Khartoum paid D.C. law firm Squire Patton Boggs $40,000 per month to lobby the Trump administration on its behalf. Satisfied that Sudan met the requirements of the five-track process, the administration formally lifted the sanctions in October.
But, for all the claims that Sudan is now, in the words of one U.N. official, a “different country,” it is not. Sudan’s actual adherence to the five-track process was questionable, and U.S. policymakers were overly accommodating when Sudan continued to engage in problematic behavior. Consider, for example, Sudan’s commitment to negotiate with rebel groups in Darfur and South Kordofan. When the five-track process began in 2016, Sudan was launching an offensive against rebels in Darfur that did not cease until months into Sudan’s arrangement with the U.S. Rather than censuring Sudan, the State Department claimed that the offensive took place prior to the agreement.
Even when hostilities were supposedly ceased, Sudan’s military operations were simply rebranded in friendlier terms. The pro-government Janjaweed militias are now called “Rapid Support Forces” and their violent counterinsurgency missions are now “disarmament operations” supported by the U.N. Mission in the area. Unilateral disarmament activities do not contribute to the stability of Darfur, and, ironically, undermine the stated U.S. desire for a political settlement by putting arms directly into the hands of militias.
Sudan also failed to expand humanitarian access to the extent required by the five-track process. While parts of Darfur were opened to humanitarian groups, much of the region is still closed, and the entirety of rebel-held territory in the south remains inaccessible to aid groups. Accessibility is even more difficult for non-humanitarian groups, as the Sudanese government still refuses visas to U.N. officials and prohibits U.N. forces from traveling to the newly-opened areas.
It is unclear whether Sudan is complying with the remaining parts of the agreement out of genuine commitment or happenstance. It is easy, for example, to oppose the Lord’s Resistance Army when the group is hundreds of miles from the Sudanese border. Similarly, the lack of large offensives against rebel groups in the south may reflect a lack of funds and the country’s economic crisis. If Sudan’s compliance is indeed temporary, then easing economic sanctions will only allow the country to continue waging its bloody conflicts with greater means and less international attention once the economy recovers.
Neither the Obama nor the Trump administrations considered Sudan’s intransigence to be overly problematic. Rather than holding Sudan to account for failing to engage in ceasefire talks or a substantive peace process, U.S. policymakers simply decided that Sudan’s declaration of a unilateral cessation of hostilities and limited expansion of humanitarian access met the conditions laid out in the five-track process.
For all the flexibility the U.S. has shown in pretending that a unilateral cessation of hostilities is a peace process and that slightly expanded access to conflict zones is the same as full access, the U.S. has gained very little from the rapprochement. While Sudan benefits enormously from being able to access U.S. banks and convert their currency to dollars, the country lost most of its oil reserves when South Sudan seceded in 2011, limiting American companies’ opportunities in the country. The much-lauded Sudanese contributions to counterterrorism operations in Yemen have been small in scale and do little to improve either the strategic picture or the dismal humanitarian situation there. Sudan has helped halt the flow of trans-Saharan migrants heading north, but often mistreats those they detain.
Meanwhile, bending over backwards to label Sudan’s actions “positive” does little to benefit American interests. Sudan’s arms shipments to rebel groups in neighboring countries, which could be resumed at any time, escalate conflicts that U.N. peacekeepers — bankrolled by the United States — are struggling to resolve. Khartoum’s relationship with Chad could once again sour over the Darfur conflict, threatening a far more reliable counterterrorism partner for the U.S. Failing to secure a truce between Khartoum and the rebels also exacerbates the situation in Libya, where Sudanese armed groups routinely engage in mercenary activity to the detriment of the European-led efforts to halt the violence and refugee flow.
The Trump administration needs to hold Sudan accountable. The weak enforcement of the five-track process fails to deter Khartoum from backsliding. By permanently lifting the sanctions, the U.S. has sacrificed their economic leverage for no significant gain. Should Khartoum continue placing its strategic interests over the five-track process, the U.S. will have to enter a lengthy process of re-imposing sanctions in the midst of political crises in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea. For those the five-track process was meant to save, it will already be too late.