The U.S. Toolkit to Address the Military Coup in Sudan

Earlier this month, a group of international envoys from the United States and Europe descended on Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, in what felt like a last-ditch effort to put the brakes on a new round of violence and salvage a political process intended to restore transition to civilian rule and avoid a costly civil war.

Sudan has been on this downward trajectory since the military’s October 25 coup d’état last year, which ended the country’s internationally brokered, civilian-led transition. Since that time, the security services have been methodically rebuilding the security-Islamist government that ruled for the last 30 years under former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

But the prospects of a failed democratic transition, as discouraging as that might be for the people of Sudan and a wider region struggling with similar transitions, could be overlooked by Washington and its allies. State collapse in this strategically sensitive region is something few in the international community can bear. But ironically, in working merely to avoid a worst-case outcome for itself, Washington could well be dooming Sudanese to their own worst case: the promulgation of military-Islamist rule.

Harassment, arbitrary arrests of opposition politicians, and the killing of nearly 100 leading pro-democracy protesters over the last eight months since the coup were only the first signs that the military was regaining strength and returning to the previous regime’s playbook of maintaining power through fear. That playbook was perfected by Islamist hardliners whom the military has steadfastly returned to public office in the absence of a civilian-led administration.

The military’s dismal economic performance—the original igniter of nationwide protests in 2018—is also contributing to the country’s precipitous decline. Cut off from international funding that was only starting to return after Bashir’s removal, the economy has descended into a full-blown tailspin that promises financial collapse and dire humanitarian consequences. Such a scenario would seriously test the international community’s ability to adequately respond in the wake of so many other external shocks to the international humanitarian system.

Knowing that their predatory management of the country’s politics and economics has only stoked the ire of the international community and steeled the resolve of Sudan’s pro-democracy groups, the security forces have sought to tighten their grip on power the only remaining way they know how—by inciting violence.

The military as both arsonist and firefighter is a classic in the Sudanese genre.

More than 400,000 Darfuris fled violence last year in Darfur alone, according to the UN office in Sudan, and just this month more than 200 people were killed, hospitals were destroyed, and tens of thousands of already internally displaced people were again displaced by a new bout of violence around the West Darfur capital of El Geneina. Like before, the security services contend that this was a spontaneous combustion of violence stemming from ancient tribal disputes over land and ethnicity. To be sure, these grievances exist across Darfur and in myriad regions across the country. But it is the security services’ willingness to weaponize and militarize these fissures again and again for their own political and economic purposes that make them responsible for this latest round of violence, and not the antidote to it.

In particular, firsthand accounts from burned villages and ransacked hospitals point to the active involvement of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), successor to the infamous Janjaweed Arab militia that conducted much of the scorched earth campaigns the region became infamous for, and which now counts itself as a legitimate part of the country’s security apparatus. Under the terms of the Juba Peace Agreement, notionally designed to address the region’s history of tribal and political violence, military and RSF units were charged with providing security since the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers more than a year ago.

Instead, RSF forces are fomenting the violence and clearing large areas of internally displaced populations to reportedly make room for new gold mining operations, in which the head of the RSF and putative second in command of the military government, Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and his family, also have a financial stake.

Watching this overlapping political, economic, and security collapse largely from the sidelines has been the international community. Its pleas to refrain from violence and inducements to restart lending to the country have not worked to get the military to relent in its single-minded dedication to extinguishing opposition to its rule, nor have the occasional condemnations of spreading violence, arbitrary arrest, or undermining the UN effort to restore a civilian transition.

A UN-led political process, strongly backed by the West and intended to facilitate direct talks between military and civilian authorities, has been on life support since its inception. A series of public relations missteps by UN officials, coupled with internal disagreements with the process’s African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development partners, who themselves appear more motivated by creating a soft landing for the military than in civilian rule, have done little to build momentum or confidence with local leaders. Now, this stammering international effort is losing the faith of the only ally it should have had: the democratic opposition, which is too besieged to take note of any international measures that do not ultimately force the military to change course. That is precisely what is required now, before it is too late.

Envoys from the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Norway, France, and Germany have traveled to Khartoum in an unprecedented display of unity against the military’s tactics. They should now use the military’s own tactics against it by imposing a campaign of increasing pressure on it that provides it no exit except through political talks.

As part of such an approach, it is no longer sufficient to promise to restart financial assistance and debt relief, frozen since the military’s coup, as diplomats have continued to do, in order to catalyze a change of heart within the military. While these initiatives are essential to aid Sudan’s long-suffering domestic economy, the military has never demonstrated a willingness to relent in response to incentives. Indeed, a military that demonstrates daily its hard power to civilians and diplomats alike has only ever shown a willingness to compromise when its back was against the wall and all other options were exhausted. It was true when military defeat was imminent prior to the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement; just as it was true when Khartoum signed a Darfur Peace Agreement to avoid the deployment of UN peacekeepers to the country; as it was again true when the threat of U.S. sanctions on massive oil revenues helped convince them to relent in South Sudan’s secession.

Deploying the Toolkit

To motivate the military to withdraw from governing at this stage requires the articulation of a credible set of sticks that directly targets the security services’ personal wealth and freedom and their international standing. Fortunately, because the United States has only sanctioned one entity in Sudan, to no appreciable effect, since the military’s coup, options abound for upping the pressure on the regime and limiting the consequences to civilians.

1. Create a sanctions framework. There has been a debate about whether to try to apply sanctions authorities already in existence or to create a new authority tailor-made for the moment. For multiple reasons, the latter approach, while a more time-intensive interagency process, will ultimately prove more effective. Sanctions enacted more than a decade ago related to the genocide in Darfur and separate authorities under the Global Magnitsky Act targeting corruption and human rights abuses, while a potential the short-term option, do not speak to the larger political moment in Sudan.

Instead, the Biden administration should pursue the creation of a new executive order sanction authority that is both contemporaneous, acknowledging the military’s current role in derailing the country’s transition to civilian, democratic rule, and prospective, looking ahead to the myriad opportunities the military will continue to leverage to its advantage over the next several years around elections, security sector reform, and institution building. Importantly, a new executive order would allow the administration to reset its own policy narrative on Sudan and explain how this new sanctions effort will be unlike past efforts. All Sudanese vividly recall past U.S. sanctions as comprehensive, capricious and unfair, instead of limited and targeted on those specifically responsible for crimes today. Until now, sanctions have been seen as a tool of last resort, but they should instead only be the opening salvo of a plan to reset the country’s transition.

2. Deliver a blow. Washington’s sanction in March of Sudan’s Central Reserve Police, which carried out some—though by no means the majority—of the arrests, detentions, and abuses of protesters, and also played no role in the coup d’état that ended the civilian transition, was seen by those on the ground as misinformed and misdirected, prioritizing nuance over impact. But if intended as a warning message, it failed. Similarly, a U.S. business advisory this week warning of “reputational risk” to U.S. companies potentially doing business with military-owned corporations in Sudan, felt anachronistic to events on the ground and tantamount to bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Instead, eight months after the coup, it is time for Washington and its allies to use a new authority to target individual leaders of the Sudan Armed Forces, the RSF, Military Intelligence and the General Intelligence Service—the true architects of violence and repression. Similar sanctions should follow on the leading corporate entities that they control, including those in the mining, transport, livestock, and arms manufacturing sectors. While these entities might not have large dollar holdings at U.S. banks or palatial homes in Washington’s suburbs, the international opprobrium associated with U.S. sanctions would suffice in upping the pressure on the leaders personally and causing their business partners in Europe and the Middle East to think twice about future dealings.

3. Target the biggest spoiler. If Washington is serious about helping to create a viable future in Sudan, the United States should also finally acknowledge the destructive role that an unregulated militia like the RSF continues to play in the political and security life of the country and take action to end its hostage siege.

With responsibility for the single largest attack on pro-democracy protesters during Sudan’s revolution in June 2019, along with the ongoing violence in Darfur, the RSF is a mercenary group whose track record of violence across the region, from Libya to Yemen, and deepening ties with Russia’s Wagner Group inside of Sudan make it a persistent threat to the country’s very viability and a menace to regional stability.

Because the RSF also has its own independent financial base outside of state control and an ability to carry out its own foreign policy to support the political and financial objectives of its leader, Hemedti, and his family, there is little that can be done internally to curtail this competing power center that will not also risk triggering a civil war within the security services. For these reasons, initiating the process in Washington to declare the RSF a state sponsor of terrorism (SST), as was done to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by the Trump administration, should be the next step in a U.S. sanctions strategy.

Importantly, such a move would hit differently in Sudan, which struggled as a country for nearly 30 years to remove itself from the SST list. By making the RSF a pariah within its own country, Washington would also finally acknowledge a fundamental truth in Sudanese politics: as long as the RSF exists as a separate force, arguably the most powerful in the country, Sudan has no chance of transitioning to the stable, prosperous, and peaceful country Sudanese hope for.

4. Pursue accountability. Talk of some form of international accountability should again be part of the diplomatic conversation. International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments against a handful of officials who carried out the worst abuses in Darfur more than a decade ago continue to loom large in the military’s psyche. Unfortunately, a domestic accountability process launched two years ago has been stalled under political pressure from the military, and no renewed effort has been made to promote investigations or accountability for the nearly 100 peaceful protesters killed since the military assumed absolute control last year. Beginning the conversation about opening international investigations into the atrocity crimes committed since the start of revolution began, including travel to Sudan by ICC investigators or Washington’s own ambassador for global criminal justice, would help give momentum to a process that would follow these leaders until well after the current crisis abates.

Sudan’s transition needs a hard reset. Without one, it will return to its recent past as a pariah state—isolated, impoverished, and a threat to the region. As it reaches this breaking point, the United States’ diplomatic engagement can no longer simply focus on the kind of ad hoc tradeoffs used to this point to walk back from moments of crisis. Nor can it rely solely on a tripartite dialogue process that has neither the confidence of Sudan’s civilian leaders it claims to be assisting, nor the muscle to push back against the military’s constant undermining of the process and the political environment in which it operates. Instead, for the military to take notice and for a genuine transition to civilian rule to restart, Washington should focus on consequential steps that strike at the heart of the military’s fundamental interests. Anything less will be seen as a hollow threat that the government can simply outlast.

Cameron Hudson is a non-resident senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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