After removing long-standing comprehensive sanctions against the government of Sudan, the United States is considering next steps on the path to full normalization of relations, driven by the U.S. intelligence community’s belief that such a development would enhance U.S.-Sudan intelligence cooperation. However, moving at this time towards normalization ignores critical developments and new circumstances that affect core U.S. national security interests.
Sudan has entered a new moment where a spiraling economic crisis – fueled by decades of grand corruption and gross economic mismanagement – has come to a head, sparking ongoing popular protests which have led to fatalities and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, protesters, journalists and other independent voices. Capital flight has intensified as regime kleptocrats capitalized on the removal of U.S. sanctions to move their money out of Sudan.
This regime is a classic case of state hijacking by a small group of political, military and commercial allies who have repurposed governing institutions to privatize the natural resource wealth of the country, from gold to oil to the gum arabic that goes in our sodas, candy bars and cosmetics. The state budget has been reduced to funding internal repression and war-making, while nearly everything else is stolen. The financial chickens have finally come home to roost, as inflation spikes, the currency devalues and hunger deepens.
This is a moment of reckoning for the Khartoum regime. To accelerate U.S.-Sudan normalization with this imploding economy and increasing repression as an intensely volatile backdrop would be severely ill-timed at best and harm U.S. interests at worst.
Furthermore, there are other extremely troubling policy directions being taken by the government of Sudan that should give further pause to normalization. First and most alarmingly, even while sharing some intelligence with the CIA, the Sudan regime has maintained extensive ties with active extremist organizations and clerics within Sudan. Some call for jihad; others recruit or advocate for the Islamic State group or al-Qaida, against an historical backdrop that includes being implicated in – and held liable for – the bombings of U.S. embassies and the USS Cole as well as hosting Osama bin-Laden for years.
Second, the Sudan government continues to harshly repress Christians and some minority Muslim sects. Just last week, government authorities in Khartoum sent a bulldozer accompanied by police to demolish an evangelical Christian church. Over the last 18 months, including during the time where the U.S. was deciding whether to lift sanctions and thus presumably when its leverage was high, churches were burned or razed, priests were detained and brought to trumped-up trials, and congregations harassed.
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Third, Sudan’s volatile foreign policy should flash red warning signals. Just since the U.S. lifted comprehensive sanctions, Sudanese President Omar Bashir traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin, during which time Bashir attacked the U.S. and offered Russia a military base on the Red Sea. Subsequently, an arms deal was concluded between the two governments. Bashir also offered a military base to Turkey at an unhelpful moment in the Gulf.
Fourth, this is the same regime that has designed and executed what two previous U.S. administrations have called genocide against the people of Darfur, and the same regime that has bombed and starved for years the populations in the Nuba Mountains and other regions in its south. Millions of Sudanese remain in internally displaced or refugee camps, too terrified to return to their homes.
Fifth, despite one of the conditions for the lifting of sanctions being improved aid access to civilians in war zones, the reality is that millions of Sudanese citizens continue to be denied access to humanitarian aid. Indeed, the Sudanese government improved some of the elements of aid access, but aid deliveries have hardly expanded and malnutrition rates are on the rise. U.S. benchmarks should be about people actually receiving aid and improving their nutritional status, rather than whether aid workers get visas with less red tape.
If the U.S. decides to press ahead with normalization negotiations, then significant benchmarks, pressures and incentives would make that process more impactful. Benchmarks could include ending persecution of Christians and repression of civil society groups, creating accountability for stolen public funds, stopping support for radical groups and clerics, securing peace agreements with the various groups in rebellion around the country, allowing aid deliveries to the millions who are now denied access, and laying the groundwork for a democratic transition away from a security state that has been in power for nearly three decades.
There is a huge obstacle to the U.S. achieving any of these policy objectives: insufficient leverage, which requires an integrated set of incentives and pressures tied to benchmarks. The incentives are easy: the Sudan regime wants to be removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, and subsequently wants access to massive debt relief through the Paris Club and elsewhere. Removal from the terrorism list should not occur until some of the core benchmarks outlined above are addressed. Otherwise, the unreformed state, once it has hoodwinked the U.S. into giving it what it wants, will revert back to its base instincts.
Pressures are equally important in achieving any benchmarks. There are spoiler elements throughout the Sudanese leadership, especially in the security services, who are prolonging war, entrenching dictatorship, blocking humanitarian aid, looting the state and maintaining ties with extremist groups. Smart, targeted sanctions – including through the dormant Darfur sanctions program and new Global Magnitsky authorities – should begin to be imposed on some of the worst offenders and ratcheted up in support of ongoing negotiations. Anti-money laundering measures should also be deployed, including through direct engagement with banks to ensure they are not processing transactions that are the proceeds of corruption. Sanctions removal should not equal a clean bill of health for Sudan vis-à-vis the U.S. private sector.
Ultimately, the U.S. and other concerned governments should seek the end of the kleptocratic system that has warped the Sudanese state and left it for sale to the highest bidder, whether it is Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, Turkey or terrorist organizations. Inclusive peace deals leading to free and fair elections would move that process in the right direction. In considering any normalization of relations involving removing Sudan from its terrorism list, the U.S. should not settle for anything less.