Why the current standstill in relations between the US and Sudan is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.At 2210 Massachusetts Ave. in Washington an uneasy silence pervades through the air within the small structure that houses the Embassy of the Republic of Sudan. Little diplomatic work is actually conducted here today given the tenuous state of relations between the US and Sudan; its presence in the US, in many ways, is little more than a formality.
The US Embassy in Khartoum is slightly more impressive, but is operated by a Charge D’Affaires, not an ambassador. Moreover, the embassy conducts its work with a constant attitude of disapproval, monitoring Sudanese actions closely while keeping its distance from the National Congress Party (NCP) led government.
“A Charge D’Affaires is our way of saying ‘we disapprove of you,’ ” says Andrew Natsios, former administrator of USAID and former special envoy to Sudan from 2006 to 2007. “We have an embassy in the Sudan but are unwilling to completely extend full diplomatic relations.”
The United States cut ties with the Republic of Sudan nearly 30 years ago and there have been few attempts to truly bridge relations ever since.
Although Sudan, for the most part, abided by many tenets in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the lead up to South Sudan’s independence on July 9, and was the first nation to recognize South Sudan’s independence, reconciliation has been consistently undermined by mistrust and what the US perceives as Khartoum’s unjustified and excessive responses to conflicts within its borders.
This is also the reason being provided by the US government for its unwillingness to lift some of its current sanctions against Khartoum and remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism—a process that Washington and Khartoum had agreed on as an incentive for the latter’s good behavior in the lead up to the South’s independence.
In July, after Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) planes bombarded Abyei, John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former presidential candidate (D-MA), stated that President Obama had initiated a review of Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. “Completion of that process rests on the review itself as well as the resolution of all the major issues outstanding from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including Abyei,” he said. “Obviously this process will not move forward if gross human rights violations are taking place.”
Since then, as violence has spread to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, relations between the countries have only deteriorated. On August 5, senior US lawmaker Chris Smith, who heads the House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on Africa, said there were credible signs of systematic attacks by the Sudanese army against the indigenous non-Arab Nuba people in South Kordofan and warned of a risk of “genocide” by government forces.
Sudan’s foreign ministry responded by saying that certain decision-making institutions in the US were intent on destroying the reputation of Sudan and weakening the country, “to benefit the agenda of interest groups.”
“There is a general view in Sudan that the Americans are not up to their commitments, and they’re just buying time, in order to put pressure on the government,” said Ibrahim Ghandour, a senior NCP member, in early August. “Many politicians here feel that the idea of regime change is still at the forefront of the American political plan.”
A month later, Princeton Lyman, the US envoy to Sudan, repeated these accusations in reference to the increasingly dire situation in Blue Nile. “We continue to want to move along that path to normalization,” he said, but warned that “if we have a major conflict going on, and we have humanitarian and human rights issues that haven’t been addressed,” it would not be possible.
For some analysts such as Georgetown University Professor John Voll, who also works as the university’s director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, ties between the two countries are unlikely to be repaired in the short run.
“I think it’s a matter of convenience. The United States has no incentive to take Khartoum off the ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ list,” he says. “There continues to be a great deal of ‘South-on-South’ fighting and people are starting to wonder whether it will fall into a Somalia-like state. And in this scenario, the only friends the South has are evangelical Christian conservatives. The Obama administration has little reason to anger the conservative right and has no reason to take the Sudan off the list. When you look at it, there is very little the US needs from the Sudan. There is a huge political cost in taking Sudan off the list and very little benefit.”
“Similarly, Bashir has no reason to sincerely push for a lifting of sanctions or a removal from the list,” Voll continues. “If anything goes wrong in Sudan, he can easily blame the US. It’s very convenient for him.”
Natsios, who has met Bashir numerous times in his career, concurs that the Sudanese president has never personally been overly interested in resuming relations with the US. “The last time I met him, he said ‘but Andrew, we recognized South Sudan’s independence. Why aren’t you lifting your sanctions?’ And this is what I always told him—what I always told all of them: ‘Omar, you and I both know what’s happening out there. We can’t normalize relations and we won’t normalize relations if you keep killing your people!’ He immediately changed the subject. That’s what he always did.”
The fact that the Sudanese government has been staunchly unapologetic of its actions in any of its trouble spots makes compromise between the two countries even more difficult.
In late June, as SAF bombings caused mass displacement in the Nuba Mountains, Mubarak Mahgoub Musa, the deputy head of mission for Sudan in Kampala, rationalized that his government’s actions were within reason. “They are insurgents!” he said, referring to what the UN and US alleged were civilians. “What is being reported is a lie. The SPLA chose to arm within our region, within South Kordofan. Obviously, we had to put down the rebellion. It was a sort of coup that needed to be stopped.”
The US also expressed dismay at Khartoum’s constant dismissal of international law and humanitarian norms. “Today, there are no fewer than three peacekeeping missions in Sudan,” continues Simon Adams, the Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, “and at a certain point, you have to take a step back. You have to look at the ongoing atrocities and make the call. Is Sudan terribly unlucky in having repeatedly found itself on the guilty side of many human rights violations? Or does it truly have a patent on committing horrible atrocities? There is a reason why the UN is there.”
Finally, any future relationship will also have to overcome the countries tumultuous history. Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, relations between the two nations remained cordial.
However, in 1973, Palestinian terrorists stormed the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum killing U.S. Ambassador Cleo A. Noel and Deputy Chief of Mission Curtis G. Moore. When Sudanese officials later released the captured terrorists into Egyptian custody, the US Ambassador to Sudan resigned in protest.
Relations remained tense for a decade and further declined among speculation that Khartoum knowingly harbored a sizable group of Libyan terrorists. Despite this unfavorable scenario and as a means to keep relations in tact, Sudan remained the single largest recipient of U.S. development and military assistance in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the U.S. Embassy in Sudan’s website. But following the 1989 military takeover by General Omar al-Bashir, American development assistance was terminated.
Furthermore, al-Bashir stubbornly angered the U.S. government in the 1990s by backing Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait and providing a sanctuary for numerous terrorist leaders including Osama bin Laden and Abu Nidal. Due to these links, Sudan, in 1993, earned itself a designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Embassy operations were put on hold in 1996 and a year later, economic sanctions were subsequently imposed.