WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Friday the end of a U.S. economic embargo on Sudan, lifting trade and financial sanctions in an eleventh-hour push to expand ties with the long-estranged African government and build on positive signs of counterterrorism cooperation.
A week before leaving office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to permanently revoke a broad range of sanctions after a six-month waiting period, designed to ensure that Sudan doesn’t backslide on improved efforts to counter Islamic extremism. In the meantime, the Treasury Department authorized Americans to do business in Sudan and export products there, effective immediately. It also unfroze Sudan’s assets in the U.S.
Washington has maintained sanctions on Sudan since the 1990s. But Obama told Congress in a letter that the situation had changed over the last six months and Sudan had taken “positive actions.” Sudan’s economy has plummeted since its oil revenues crashed with South Sudan’s secession in 2011, which may explain Khartoum’s desire for closer cooperation with the West.
Human rights groups howled with disgust, reflecting the Sudanese government’s long record of atrocities and the International Criminal Court’s indictment of the country’s president. But the Obama administration cast it as a carrot-and-stick strategy, offering Sudan incentives to improve while retaining leverage by preserving the ability to take the incentives away.
The announcement followed more than a year of U.S.-Sudanese talks to boost cooperation in five areas of U.S. concern: counterterrorism, access for aid groups, ending Darfur’s conflict, eliminating safe havens for South Sudanese rebels and fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army.
It will be up to Donald Trump’s administration to decide whether to continue the outreach or re-impose sanctions. Obama’s order would lift the economic penalties on July 12. Trump also could act sooner.
The president-elect, who takes office Jan. 20, hasn’t commented publicly about Sudan sanctions. During the campaign, Walid Phares, a Trump adviser on national security, suggested Trump was opposed to lifting the sanctions.
The policy shift authorizes all U.S.-Sudan trade previously blocked by sanctions to resume immediately. It also unfreezes property and other assets that had been locked up in U.S. banks. Business with oil and gas industries in Sudan, such as pipelines and oilfield services, is now permitted. Americans can facilitate financial transactions between Sudan and other countries.
Senior U.S. officials said they expected the eased sanctions to give way to increased trade of agricultural products and machinery, medical supplies and transportation and computer equipment.
The administration briefed Trump’s team on the plan, officials said, but added they couldn’t predict whether Trump would reverse the policy. The officials weren’t authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.
Some U.S. sanctions tied to Sudan’s “state sponsor of terrorism” designation remain in place, including a ban on weapons sales and restrictions on U.S. aid. Sanctions related to Darfur also remain in effect.
Human Rights Watch called the decision “inexplicable,” accusing Sudan of ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“The Obama administration is sending the worst possible message to Sudan and other repressive governments: If you cooperate on counterterrorism, then all abuses — including by your president — will be ignored,” said the group’s Africa director, Leslie Lefkow.
But U.S. officials said the new approach signals an admission that isolating Sudan for so many years hadn’t worked and that engagement might prove more effective. Such an acknowledgement fits with a general pattern under Obama of rapprochement with rogue or antagonistic states, including Cuba, Iran and Myanmar.
Last fall, the State Department issued an out-of-the-blue statement welcoming Sudan’s cooperation in fighting Islamic extremist groups, even as it expressed grave concerns about Sudan’s handling of unrest in the western Darfur region. It surprisingly described normalized relations as a possibility.
The department first labeled Sudan a terrorism sponsor in 1993. Among those Sudan harbored was Osama bin Laden, prompting President Bill Clinton to launch airstrikes in 1998.
Sudan’s changes have largely occurred beneath the radar. But the U.S. credits the country with limiting travel of Islamic State militants and shifting toward greater alignment with Saudi Arabia, and less with Iran. Israel also has pressed the U.S. to adopt a friendlier relationship with Sudan after it cracked down on shipments of suspected Iranian weapons to groups hostile to the Jewish state.
Still, Washington’s outreach will be limited. It’s unlikely that the U.S. would commit to any engagement directly with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide charges.
Darfur has been gripped by bloodshed since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The United Nations says 300,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.7 million have fled their homes.