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Sudan's terror delisting leaves US with less leverage in civilian transition

The US was expected to require Sudan to transition to a civilian-led government before removing it from its terrorism list. Could recent delisting affect that transition?
Sudanese protesters during a demonstration on 23 October demanding justice for a man killed in earlier protests over a deepening economic crisis (AFP/File photo)

A year ago, Sudan's removal from the US's State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list during President Donald Trump's first term seemed unlikely as the country struggled to recover from its April 2019 coup after months of popular protests.  

Nearly two years after longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was forcefully removed from office, the country still has a transitional government made up of a coalition of military and protest leaders which have been increasingly at odds in recent weeks. 

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In diplomatic circles, conventional wisdom indicated that the transitional leadership would need to form a civilian government before the US would remove Sudan from the SST list, which it had been on for the last 27 years due to Bashir's past support for al-Qaeda and its former leader Osama bin Laden. 

But on Monday, the Trump administration announced Sudan's removal from the SST list, subsequently lifting all restrictions on individuals and entities seeking to do business with the North African country after decades of isolation.

While Congress has installed stop-gap legislation seeking to help encourage a transition to a civilian-controlled Sudan, the SST delisting removes a major US pressure tool.

'Particularly problematic'

Jason Blazakis, former director of the US State Department's counterterrorism finance and designations office (2008-18), told Middle East Eye that he was disappointed in the move; first because it gives the US less leverage to encourage a smooth transition to civilian leadership, but also because it was done in a very "transactional" way just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden's administration is set to take over the White House. 

"Removing Sudan from the list about one month before the start of a new administration, obviously, is bad form," said Blazakis, who is now the director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. 

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"Making a major foreign policy decision during a lame-duck administration is particularly problematic. I think the Biden foreign policy team should be given the opportunity to review the dossier of information related to Sudan and make their own decision," he said. 

The US's terror blacklist was established in 1979 for countries that "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism". 

The sanctions cut countries off from financial markets, which tends to devastate economies. They also limit the kind of weapons countries can have and what goods they can export.

After Sudan's delisting, there are currently only three countries left on the US blacklist: North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Usually, adding a country to the list is just as difficult as removing it, requiring the country to meet a series of benchmarks established in an agreed-upon plan of action toward delisting.

Before the Trump administration's abrupt change of policy, part of that plan of action for Sudan was the transition to civilian leadership. 

Blazakis said repercussions for the premature delisting could go one of two ways: it could give more relevance to civilian players, highlighting the importance of civilian leadership by establishing their clout within the international community; but it could also take away some of the incentives for military powers in Sudan to step aside. 

"I hope that transition is smooth because one potential carrot has been removed from the table to ensure that," Blazakis said. 

"[The delisting] could empower and embolden the wrong actors, and now, [the US doesn't] have that carrot anymore. The stick," he said, referring to widespread sanctions or re-designation under the SST list, "would be hard to use unless you're able to show clearly that Sudan is sponsoring acts of terrorism."

Just last week, concerns over a military coup in Sudan were heightened amid disputes between the civilian and military elements of the transitional government after the country's military chief and de facto leader created a new body with broad military powers

The new military-led council, opposed by the civilian leadership, is set to be "responsible for leading the transition period, resolving differences [between those in power] and having all the necessary prerogatives to exercise its power".

The tens of thousands of refugees crossing into Sudan since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive in the country's northernmost region last month also poses a threat to Sudan's stability, as it reels from its own economic crisis.  

Congress sets conditions

Still, Sudan's removal from the SST list enjoyed large bipartisan support in Congress, with neither chamber objecting within the 45-day period allotted to the legislature to block the Trump administration's move. 

But both parties remain concerned about the Sudanese military's influence in the country. 

While Sudan's military rules alongside a civilian coalition, it currently controls numerous businesses in the agriculture, mining and energy sectors.

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Included in this year's recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a bill requiring financial transparency and civilian control over Sudan’s state-owned enterprises as a condition for US assistance. 

First introduced by the House in March, the bill also authorises sanctions against anyone deemed to be undermining the political transition in Sudan, as well as anyone in the country that commits human rights abuses or participates "in the illicit exploitation of natural resources", among other measures. 

Asked about the legislation during a press conference on Monday, Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok agreed it was "unacceptable" for the military to control major enterprises and called for a transition into open joint-stock companies in which the public can invest. 

"All the world’s armies are involved in investments ... in military manufacturing," he said. "But for the military to invest in the productive sector, and to displace the private sector, is unacceptable."

Hamdok said Congress' condition on US assistance will "surely help the democratic transition", but was still hesitant over whether it will be enough to pressure the military into giving up control over its enterprises. 

"It’s easier said than done, but we will work on it and see what we can achieve," he said.

Trump has yet to sign the $740bn NDAA into law. He previously threatened to veto the legislation because it would strip the names of Confederate generals from military bases and did not repeal protections - unrelated to defence - for social media companies.

The law, however, passed with the two-thirds majorities needed for a veto override, so he is not expected to attempt to overturn the legislation before the 23 December deadline. 

Tit-for-tat: Normalising relations with Israel

Meanwhile, Sudan's delisting is seen as a major foreign policy goal for the Trump administration. 

In return for its removal from the SST list, Sudan's transitional government paid $335m in compensation to American victims of a deadly 1998 bombing and agreed to normalise relations with Israel.

Sudan at first refused the US's request to normalise relations with Israel during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's regional tour in August, during which he visited several Arab countries hoping to boost support for the United Arab Emirates' normalisation deal.

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At the time, the civilian side of Sudan's transitional government said it had "no mandate" to take such a weighty step, given that the country had never in its history had relations with Israel. 

It was not until the US became serious about SST delisting that the military element of the transitional government seemed to come around to the idea, stirring tensions between civilian and military leadership. 

The military, which is close to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, had pushed for the move, while Prime Minister Hamdok had opposed it.

While Khartoum has sought to downplay the connection between the normalisation deal and the terror delisting, the tit-for-tat became clear earlier this month when Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country's de facto leader, issued an ultimatum to the US: remove Sudan from the list before the end of the year or lose Sudan's Israel normalisation agreement. 

"The way in which the determination [to delist] was made was particularly problematic and very transactional kind of decision making," Blazakis said. 

Having directed the office charged with monitoring the SST list for ten years, Blazakis said that while he supports Sudan's normalisation deal with Israel, the way the whole thing came about "seems a little sordid". 

"There are a lot of things that are taken into consideration in the context of these larger issues related to state sponsors of terrorism," he said. 

"But the only truly relevant data points are whether there is an absence of terrorist activity during the preceding six months and [whether] Sudan provided assurances that it's no longer engaged in terrorism," Blazakis said, noting that while the answers to those questions are likely "yes", such points cannot be completely clear while the government is in a state of transition. 

"Essentially, [to get off the list] Sudan had to do two things... that really have nothing to do with its status as a state sponsor," he said.