The expectation that the United States will completely lift economic sanctions against Sudan is by no means certain. Just days before the 12 July deadline, Sudanese diplomats around the world are getting ready to either welcome the lifting of sanctions and see Sudan amerced into the international community; or defend a dramatic new foreign policy direction which could see a return to an anti-US stance should sanctions be re-imposed.
The uncertainty over the decision is being fuelled by the unpredictable mercurial nature of US President Donald Trump’s administration which has broken the normal convention of taking decisions weeks prior to official deadlines. To date the administration has been officially silent but there are mixed signals coming out of Washington about the outcome.
On the one hand, the progress made on the five-track plan seems to confirm that Sudan has performed well in the past six months and has managed to implement all the requirements of the five-track plan which included counterterrorism, preventing Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army from operating on its territory, ceasing hostilities in Darfur and two other areas, allowing humanitarian access into conflict zones and ending any negative interference in South Sudan.
The US ambassador to Sudan appear to support the complete removal when he said the sanctions were not imposed in response to Sudan’s human rights record but a strategy to prevent Sudan supporting terror groups and waging war in Darfur.
Nevertheless, there has been increasing pressure on the US administration to tie the removal of sanctions to an improved human rights record. Hollywood actor-activist George Clooney raise the stakes in a damning opinion piece criticising lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs for acting on behalf of the Sudanese government.
“The firm will be paid $40,000 a month by a government that is on the US state sponsors of terror list, with a head of state, Omar Al-Bashir, wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court,” wrote Clooney and co-author John Prendergast, a fellow activist and former Clinton administration official.
Clooney’s long-standing condemnation of Sudan is supported by rights organisations like Human Rights Watch but unusually this week the US Embassy in Khartoum said on its Facebook page it wants to see the Sudanese government make “stronger progress” towards improving the situation.
“The United States remains very concerned about Sudan’s human rights record, including the continued closing of political space, and restrictions on religious freedom, freedom of expression, including press freedom,” the statement said.
Adding fuel to the fire are recent references to the demolition of churches and persecution of Christians by the Sudanese authorities. This might sway Trump to pull the plug on the deal made by President Barack Obama in January. Not just because Trump enjoys the support of the Christian right led by his Vice President, Mike Pence, but the decision may also give Trump an opportunity to defend his unenviable record of reversing almost all the legislation or agreements put in place by his predecessor!
The declaration by the Embassy in Khartoum has served to increase the tensions and Washington’s partial implementation of the “travel ban” which includes Sudan has served to further complicate the issue. Sudan was quick to raise concerns, “We hope that this ban decision will not affect next month’s decision to lift US economic sanctions, especially because Sudan has completed all the roadmap requirements that were asked of it,” Foreign Ministry official Abdel-Ghani Naeem told Reuters.
Domestically, the pressure is also mounting on the President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir not to allow the US government “off the hook” if it decides to weaken Sudan’s economy by a decision not to lift sanctions. Such a move would be interpreted as a betrayal of the hard work, cooperation and compliance that Sudan has put in place to satisfy the demands of the US and the international community. Sudan would be keen not to lose face and would have to respond decisively – “the world would see a completely different Sudan,” a diplomat, who did not wish to be named, told MEMO.
A source also confirmed that an economic and political plan B was already in place. The alternative economic plan would lead to austerity and a further tightening of the public purse in an attempt to stem the rising rate of inflation. In terms of the political plan B, MEMO was told by one source: “This would almost certainly involve Sudan’s withdrawal from the counter terrorism initiatives, the human trafficking strategy sponsored by the European Union and may even result in the voluntary withdrawal from agreements with the Gulf states which may lead to removal of Sudanese troops from Yemen.”
Al-Bashir would not want to be seen sending troops to Yemen while the country’s economic situation goes further and further into decline.
There is also another factor which has not worked in Sudan’s favour and that is the Gulf crisis where Sudan has had to maintain a neutral stance neither supporting the GCC bloc and Egypt in their dispute with Qatar or severing diplomatic ties with the tiny Gulf Kingdom State. A diplomatic offensive by Saudi Arabia and the rejection by Qatar of the 13 demands made by the GCC countries and Egypt may push the quartet to deliver Sudan an ultimatum – support for the lifting of sanctions in exchange for the diplomatic boycott of Qatar. There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have forged closer ties with Washington and especially with the US President Donald Trump.
However, this week Khartoum gave the clearest signal yet that it was ready to put a plan B foreign policy on the table when it officially announced plans by Al-Bashir to visit Russia next month. Support for Russia’s foreign policy and intervention in Syria may not sit well with Sudanese parliamentarians and the public at large but increased corporation with Russia would align Sudan with the BRIC countries and may even see a return of Iranian influence in Khartoum.
Not so much “a completely different Sudan” but a possible return to square one!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.