Forging a Path to Stronger U.S.-Sudan Relations: Keeping Up the Momentum

Four months have passed since the Trump administration ended many of the sanctions prohibiting economic and trade activity between the United States and Sudan. The decision was a significant first step that could eventually lead to the full restoration of relations between the two countries. But reaching that point will be difficult, requiring commitment from both sides and a willingness to compromise.

Many Sudanese have high—arguably unrealistic—expectations of the economic boost that normalized relations will confer. Their initial optimism has been tempered as they wait for the United States to outline its next moves and endure an economic crisis brought on by years of poor governance and corruption. Richard Downie recently traveled to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to gauge the mood and meet with nongovernmental organizations, academics, business leaders, and politicians. He was hosted by Yasir Zaidan of the Center for Development and Public Policy (CDPP), a newly established think tank. Here, the two share their thoughts on the way ahead.


Last October, President Donald Trump signed an executive order removing some trade and economic sanctions against Sudan. The decision, which followed initial outreach by the Obama administration, reflected modest improvements in the conduct of a Sudanese regime that has brutally held power for almost three decades. It was also a tacit admission that sanctions had achieved little beyond fostering hostility between the two governments and reducing Washington’s ability to positively influence events, allowing nations such as China and some of the Gulf states to fill the gap. The easing of sanctions is a welcome first step toward improving a bilateral relationship that has been frozen since the 1990s, when Khartoum’s support for terrorists isolated Sudan from the global community. Sudan’s pariah status was cemented in subsequent years when the United States determined that a genocide was being conducted by the government of Omar al-Bashir in Darfur.

The Situation Today

While some of the conditions that justified U.S. sanctions have eased, Sudan is still governed by President Omar al-Bashir, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide. The regime’s record on human rights and political freedoms remains poor. Although a national dialogue led to the formation of a government of national unity in 2017, the process was boycotted by most of the opposition parties, which dismissed it as a charade. Religious freedoms are not respected. The security forces have beaten and detained protestors unhappy at the economic deterioration the country. A cessation of hostilities is formally in place in the conflict-hit areas of Darfur and the “Two Areas” of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but incidents of violence continue. These conditions explain why many U.S. sanctions have been left in place and suggest that the path toward full normalization of relations will be difficult and uncertain. Much will depend on the government of Sudan’s future conduct, which will be closely scrutinized by members of the U.S. Congress, many of whom remain skeptical that a regime with such a record should—as they see it—be “rewarded.”

Designing a Blueprint for U.S.-Sudan Relations

The biggest obstacle to improved bilateral relations is Sudan’s presence on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSTL), which prohibits many forms of cooperation between the two countries. Although Sudan has for some years been a solid counterterror partner of the United States, removing Khartoum from the SSTL is a complex process requiring a six-month-long review and the acquiescence of Congress.

In the meantime, the United States is designing a framework to evaluate Sudan’s domestic and international conduct, although it has yet to be published. The delay is causing disquiet in Khartoum, where the enthusiasm that greeted last October’s sanctions announcement has evaporated.

The purpose of the framework is to generate evidence that can be used to determine the future course of bilateral relations. The intention is that sufficient progress on the “Phase Two” process could trigger a review of Sudan’s SSST designation. It is expected that Phase Two will incorporate parts of the five-track process that was used to assess Sudan in the period leading up to last year’s sanctions removal. The five-track process monitored Sudan’s progress on ending hostilities in Darfur and the Two Areas; allowing humanitarian access throughout Sudan; refraining from interfering in South Sudan’s civil war; cooperating with the United States to defeat the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army ; and partnering with the United States on counterterrorism. The Trump administration added a requirement that Sudan support U.S. efforts to isolate North Korea. Phase Two will likely include some additional elements, such as demanding that Sudan uphold religious freedom and other human rights.

The process will be exacting for Sudan. During our meetings and presentations in Khartoum in January, officials linked to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) argued that they had delivered on one set of U.S. demands only to be presented with another, even more onerous list. They complained that sanctions relief had failed to improve economic conditions, partly because many international banks remained unwilling to process financial transactions from Sudan.

Policy Steps to Keep the Process on Track The frustrations and recriminations that have blighted U.S.-Sudan relations for more than a quarter of a century are likely to boil over once more unless decisive steps are taken to build on last October’s sanctions decision. By working together in the following areas, the United States and Sudan can accumulate trust, expand the progress made under the five-track process, and set bilateral relations on a more positive course:
  • The two countries should work creatively to stop the civil war in South Sudan. Instead of focusing on Sudan’s potential spoiler role in the conflict, the United States should consider the positive role that Sudan can play due to its unique knowledge of the situation and the protagonists and the influence it can wield over some of the rebel groups.
  • The United States should use its contacts with, and leverage over, the armed opposition in Sudan to push for an end to conflict in Darfur and the Two Areas and the agreement of a permanent cease-fire that leads to a comprehensive peace deal. Washington can encourage a reconciliation between rival factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), whose rupture complicates efforts to advance peace talks. It should be alert to the spoiler potential of armed opposition groups and be careful not to ascribe sole blame to the government if progress toward a permanent peace deal stalls.
  • The United States can use the run-up to Sudan’s 2020 elections as a timetable to press for (and evaluate) peaceful political reform and greater freedoms, in consultation with civil society and all political parties, including the ruling NCP. Through its partnerships with civil society and political groups, the United States should support an inclusive process to write a new constitution and pass robust election laws.
  • The United States and Sudan should engage with the international banking sector to address the problem of overcompliance. Both governments should provide clear, accessible information about the evolving sanctions landscape. At the same time, Washington should remind Khartoum that it cannot force banks to operate in Sudan and that even with the removal of legal barriers to entry, Sudan presents reputational risks to many companies.
  • Both nations should plan for the resumption of a development relationship in the event of removal from the SSTL, so that no time is lost if or when the day arrives. They should agree on mutual priorities and sectors to focus on.
Broadening the Dialogue

Doubts remain about the ability of officials in Washington and Khartoum to exploit last October’s sanctions opportunity. Sudan’s government has a history of reneging on deals and sabotaging positive steps with regressive and self-destructive blunders. There are legitimate concerns about whether the Trump administration has the appetite, resources, and attention span required to keep the effort on track. It is unlikely that the bilateral relationship will permanently improve if the only dialogue between the two nations is between their respective governments. To keep the momentum going, broader engagements should take place between Americans and Sudanese that involve business, academia, and civil society. A more wide-ranging set of conversations will help limit the risk that inevitable sticking points in the government-to-government track cause a complete breakdown. We suggest the following:

  • Practical steps to improve Sudan’s business environment and provide information to potential investors. This could include organizing conferences for key sectors such as aviation, agriculture, and medicine and facilitating more trade visits along the lines of the December 2017 mission organized by the Corporate Council on Africa. The U.S. government cannot and should not be a cheerleader for Sudan as an investment destination, but it can provide clear information to U.S. companies that are interested in taking a closer look.
  • Broader collaboration, trainings, joint research projects, and exchanges between universities, think tanks, and civil society organizations. Convene a summit to discuss ways to surmount barriers that deter these exchanges, such as the difficulty of transferring bank funds.
  • Harness interest in the rich cultural lives and traditions of both countries to forge warmer ties. This could include facilitating connections between musicians, artists, athletes, and writers and organizing events that build awareness about the two nations’ cultures.
Building Trust

Beyond the policy roadblocks, the United States and Sudan must work hard to overcome years of accumulated mistrust. To increase the chances of an eventual normalization of relations, mutual understanding will be required, as will an appreciation of each nation’s domestic constraints.

The United States can help the process by being:

  • Transparent, reasonable, and decisive. As it develops Phase Two, it will be important for the United States to consult regularly with Sudan and be explicit about its timelines and expectations. It should keep in mind the domestic pressures Sudan’s government faces, the distrust that many Sudanese feel toward the United States, and acknowledge—even if it does not accept—Sudan’s view that Washington has moved the goalposts during previous, failed, efforts to improve relations. Care should be taken to strike a balance between extracting firm, enforceable commitments from Sudan’s government that will satisfy Congress and making unreasonable demands that Khartoum is unwilling or incapable of delivering. Washington should avoid overplaying its hand and being portrayed as the partner that always asks for “more, more, more.” The removal of economic sanctions created an impatience among Sudanese for immediate improvements in their situation. While these expectations were unrealistic, the United States should bear in mind that the goodwill engendered by last October’s decision is time limited. Additional steps must be taken, without undue delay, to build on the opening.
  • Realistic about its relative influence in Sudan following more than two decades of virtual absence. The Sudanese want improved relations with the United States but not if the price set is too high or the benefits are intangible. There is a debate inside Sudan about whether normalization is worth the effort. Some constituencies favor a “look east” approach that downplays the need for a strong relationship with the United States.
  • Recognize that broader U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinians, feeds into negative perceptions of the United States and places additional obstacles in the way of improved relations.
  • Appreciate that the anti-Muslim rhetoric and polices espoused by President Trump and some members of his administration place serious barriers in the way of improved relations. They embolden hardliners within the NCP who ask why they should respect religious freedoms when the United States’ commitment toward its own religious minorities appears to be wavering.
Sudan should:
  • Recognize that the United States’ system is not monolithic and that the development of Phase Two must involve consultation if it has any chance of getting domestic constituencies on board. This process takes time. Khartoum should not assume that signs of delay are indications of bad faith or confirmation of the notion (often expressed by politicians in Khartoum) that a hidden agenda drives U.S. policy.
  • Avoid the misconception that improving relations with Sudan is a major foreign policy priority of the United States. The Trump administration has given no signal to suggest it is particularly interested in Sudan or is prepared to invest in the hard work required to normalize relations. The State Department bureaucracy is understaffed and lacks the clout to keep the issue in front of key decisionmakers in the White House. Sudan should understand that excessive foot-dragging or lack of commitment from its side will put the entire process at risk.
  • Recognize that senior members of the administration and U.S. Congress feel very strongly about religious freedom issues. Understand that this issue will be an integral part of U.S. evaluations of Sudanese conduct. Try to set aside justifiable grievances about President Trump’s prejudicial statements about Muslims; understand that they do not represent the views of the United States.
  • Realize that, irrespective of the future course of bilateral relations, very little will change in Sudan unless the government undertakes wide-ranging economic and political reforms. Currently, few U.S. investors would be attracted to Sudan even if there were no restrictions on doing business, because the economy is in dire straits, corruption is rampant, conflict continues in parts of the country, and political conditions are unstable.

Hard work is required to repair more than two decades of distrust and hostility between the United States and Sudan. Last October’s sanctions decision provides an opening, but now comes the hard part. Dedicated, daily effort is required by both governments to generate and sustain momentum that could ultimately lead to the full restoration of relations. Inevitably, there will be bumps along the way. By broadening the scope of engagement between Sudanese and American citizens, strong constituencies can be formed that can pressure their respective governments to keep the dialogue open.

Richard Downie is a senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Yasir Zaidan is a nonresident fellow at the Center for Development and Public Policy in Sudan.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Yasir Zaidan

Center for Development and Public Policy in Sudan

Richard Downie