The United States Must Get Its Sudan Policy Right

Last week, after roughly 30 years under the oppressive rule of the president and accused war criminal Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese people achieved a victory and Bashir was removed by the same military that once cemented his rule in Khartoum. Seeking to quell protesters’ concerns, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), led by Bashir’s longtime ally General Awad Ibn Auf, announced that it would act as a kind of caretaker government for two years. Ibn Auf lasted just 24 hours in his position, though, before the sight of tenacious protesters occupying the space in front of military headquarters convinced the TMC that Ibn Auf—himself an alleged war criminal and deeply despised by many in Sudan—was an unacceptable head of the military’s rule. With the chief of Sudanese intelligence Salah Abdallah Gosh, Ibn Auf stepped down and was replaced by yet another regime stalwart, Lt. General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan.

Whether influenced by Sudan’s own history with coups d’état—it has gone through five since gaining independence in 1956—or a more recent military takeover in neighboring Egypt, Sudanese protesters are unrelenting in their demand to see a civilian government erected as soon as possible. They are under no illusions that the military will be the savior. As the authoritarian regimes in the region that have influence in Sudan have already blessed what is essentially a military junta, the United States must determine its course of action. Will the US administration be content with leaving protesters’ demands unmet—a practice it always decries in a country like Iran—for the sake of stability and security? Or can Washington find a way to leverage its global influence to support the formation of a civilian government in Khartoum while using economic and security assistance as a means to ensure a somewhat stable transition?

International Responses to Bashir’s Ouster

So far, the responses to the ouster of Omar al-Bashir have been mixed. The United States, United Kingdom, and Norway released a joint statement calling on the TMC to turn over the government to civilians. The African Union went further, giving the junta in Khartoum 15 days to step down before Sudan is suspended from the group and sanctions are considered. But other key actors with more influence have offered statements in support of the TMC. Sudan’s neighbor, Egypt, gave an ambiguous statement about “support[ing] the Sudanese people’s choices and free will” without commenting on whether Cairo believes the people truly wanted another military regime. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia were all more open with their support for the TMC.

Though the United States responded early, its more recent statements on the matter have muddied any clarity there might have been about Washington’s position. During a State Department briefing, the spokesperson flatly refused to call the deposition of Omar al-Bashir and subsequent elevation of military officials to power as a coup. Others in Washington, however, were less shy about naming the event just that. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel (D-New York) plainly called it a coup; the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) called it a “military takeover,” as did a number of other senators on the committee.

US Policy Toward Juntas

The question about whether or not to call the events in Sudan a military coup has real policy implications. Per a reoccurring provision in appropriations bills (section 7008), the United States cannot provide certain types of economic or security assistance to governments that come to power through putsches. This assistance includes bilateral economic assistance (e.g., economic support funds), international security assistance (e.g., international military education and training or foreign military financing programs), multilateral assistance through entities like the African Development Bank, and export and investment assistance through entities like the US Export-Import Bank.

What Will Washington’s Sudan Policy Be?

Now that the TMC and protesters are at odds about how long a transition to civilian rule might take, it is worth asking what policy the Trump Administration will put forward if the military regime refuses to cede power in the near term. In bygone eras of full-throated democracy promotion, one might expect the president and his administration to ratchet up the pressure on Khartoum’s military junta to expedite the transition process. However, the current administration has made it clear in actions and in words that it will support any kind of regime, democratic or otherwise, if it believes such a regime furthers US national security interests.

With that in mind, it is easy to assume that the United States under the Trump Administration will refrain from calling Bashir’s deposition a coup. In the case of Sudan, it would be quite simple for the administration to make that argument. Section 7008 provides that economic and security assistance are prohibited when an entity comes to power by overthrowing the “duly elected” leader—though hardly any person would seriously claim Omar al-Bashir was duly elected. In any case, such a determination would have few practical implications as Sudan is already blacklisted from receiving US assistance due to miscellaneous sanctions, including those associated with the label as a state sponsor of terror.

But refusing to call it a coup, and thus alleviating any hard prohibition against providing assistance, would be completely different from support the Trump Administration provides to Khartoum before the military has ceded power. This would squander any potential leverage Washington might wield and could essentially bless the military junta. In fact, reports suggest that administration officials are already considering removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, paving the way for Khartoum to access crucial multilateral assistance like loans. Offering assistance, for example, through aid to nongovernmental organizations, the United States could help alleviate some of the economic pain the Sudanese are feeling without letting the current members of the military regime—holdovers from the same regime that warranted the sanctions in the first place—off the hook. Any normalization with Khartoum should be predicated on the quick transition to civilian rule, the demilitarization and professionalization of domestic security services (to which the United States could give assistance), and the clean-up of corruption (to ensure any future US aid is not mismanaged).

Unfortunately, US partners in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are heavily invested in seeing a military leader take power in Sudan, so one could fathom the current administration simply following Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s policies toward Sudan. In fact, a journalist who has spent some time covering Sudan said his government sources have been quite clear that they believe the administration will adopt whatever policy Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt want. If the United States truly desires to see a democracy arise from the momentous events in Sudan, this policy is absolutely the wrong one; the Saudis, Emiratis, and Egyptians, for largely ideological reasons, have a vested interest in ensuring that a military regime remain in power as opposed to opening up elections, in which Islamist groups could potentially succeed.

Instead of acquiescing to US partners’ policies that prioritize authoritarian control, the United States should use the promise of bilateral economic and security assistance to ensure that a civilian government is ushered in quickly and that it is afforded the protection necessary to dismantle the institutions that kept Bashir and his military allies in power for so long.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

No BAN Act. On April 10, a group of lawmakers from both chambers held an event to mark the introduction of a bill called the No BAN Act (introduced as S. 1123 and H.R. 2214). The legislation looks to reverse all three iterations of President Trump’s executive orders restricting travel to the United States of citizens from several majority Muslim countries (it is noteworthy that the final version also barred citizens from North Korea and Venezuela).

Reaffirming US NGO-IDF Collaboration in Providing Humanitarian Assistance to Syrians. That same day, Senators James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) introduced S. Res. 153, reaffirming what they say is unique collaboration between US nongovernmental organizations and the Israel Defense Forces to deliver humanitarian assistance to Syrians. Members of the House introduced a companion resolution, H. Res. 310.

Anti-Iran Maritime Training. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California) introduced H.R. 2280, a bill that would allow the United States to provide training and assistance to countries that share regional waters, like the Arabian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea, with Iran and its partners, for the purpose of countering illicit shipping activities.

Terminating the Use of US Armed Forces in Support of the Saudi Military Intervention in Yemen. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Wisconsin) renewed his efforts to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen with H.J. Res. 56. Amash introduced a similar measure last Congress but it was not considered for passage.

Consideration for Strengthening US Defense and Security in the Middle East. Last week it was noted that Republicans in the House want to force a vote on H.R. 336. GOP Reps. Lee Zeldin (New York) and David Kustoff (Tennessee) introduced H. Res. 314 to that effect, outlining the rules for consideration of the bill on the House floor, though the legislation has not been taken up in committee yet.

Requesting a Statement Regarding Saudi Arabia’s Violation of Human Rights. On April 11, a group of senators introduced S. Res. 169, calling on the administration to abide by the Global Magnitsky Act and notify Congress who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The resolution also asked for reports detailing other aspects of Saudi Arabia’s poor record in upholding human rights.

US Should Restore Aid to Gaza and the West Bank. That same day, senators also introduced S. Res. 171 expressing their sense that it is in US interests to restore bilateral aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Review of the Fiscal Year 2020 State Department Budget Request. On April 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the SFRC for yet another round of congressional testimony regarding the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request. Like previous appearances before Congress, Pompeo was criticized for the administration’s paltry budget request for the State Department. However, senators on the SFRC pressed the secretary on the administration’s positions on issues such as the possibility of war with Iran, the status of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Qatar Airways’ business practices, and more.

Ending the Yemen Quagmire. On April 11, the International Crisis Group held a briefing in one of the Senate office buildings for an early look at its recent report, Ending the Yemen Quagmire: Lessons for Washington from Four Years of War. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), a leading critic of the Saudi-led war, spoke at the briefing to outline his view of Congress’s role in ending the fighting and the lessons lawmakers should take from this situation.

The Future of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East. On April 12, congressional staff were briefed by the Middle East Policy Council on prospects for US policy toward the Middle East. One panelist was Joan Polaschik, the Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who offered the administration’s perspective. For the remainder of Trump’s time in office, Polaschik said the United States would remain “a force for good in the region” and will be engaged with regional actors to address critical problems. She said Washington would do this through coalition building, countering Iran, and “remain[ing] the world’s largest single donor of humanitarian assistance.”

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Rue Netanyahu’s, Israel’s Rightward Shift. On April 11 two supporters of Israel, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), penned an op-ed in the Washington Post warning of the perils of ignoring “Netanyahu’s embrace of the far right.” Other House members drafted shorter statements, with prominent Democrats like New York’s Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey writing in support of the two-state solution. Fellow New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) went even further than her colleagues, saying in an interview that cutting aid to Israel is “on the table,” in response to Netanyahu’s reelection and the implications it has for Israeli policy.

CODEL Visits Lebanon, Jordan. This week, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), Tom Graves (R-Georgia), and Vicente González (D-Texas) took a Congressional Delegation (CODEL) to Lebanon—to visit with UN peacekeepers and Syrian refugees—and Jordan.

4) Nominations

Abizaid Confirmed, Cohen Tapped for Post in Cairo. On April 10, the Senate voted 92-7 in favor of confirming John Abizaid as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. On the following day, the White House notified the Senate of its nomination of Jonathan R. Cohen to serve as ambassador to Egypt.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Vetoes Legislation Ending Support for Yemen War. President Trump issued the second veto of his presidency, this time on the War Powers Resolution (S.J. Res 7) that recently passed both chambers and sought to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

2) Department of State

Deputy Secretary Sullivan Meets with Tunisian Foreign Minister. On April 10, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui to discuss ongoing areas of cooperation and support. The following day, Sullivan met with Kuwaiti Minister of Commerce Khaled Al Roudan to discuss continued economic cooperation and integration.

Ambassador Sales Attends Dialogue in Israel. Ambassador Nathan Sales led a delegation to Israel on April 16 for a meeting of the US-Israel Joint Counterterrorism Group.

US, Turkey Trying to Setup a “Safe Zone” in Syria. On April 15, it was reported that the Trump Administration, spearheaded by Ambassador James Jeffrey, is pushing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to allow some Turkish troops through its area of control in order to establish a safe-zone in northeastern Syria. Enmity between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey will prove difficult to surmount for the United States—which is aligned with the SDF in Syria—to work with Ankara to stabilize Syria and ensure security in the northeast. Richard Outzen, Senior Advisor for Syrian Engagement at the State Department, touched on this theme at a briefing with the SETA Foundation that same day.

Deputy Special Envoy Visits Iraq. Deputy Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS) Ambassador William Roebuck is in Baghdad to discuss stabilization efforts and the enduring defeat of IS.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Commander Meets with Saudi Arabian leaders. On April 15, the new commander of Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, met in Riyadh with Saudi Arabia’s king, crown prince, and other officials overseeing issues of defense and national security. The two sides spoke about issues of mutual concern in the region.

US Air Force Deploys New Jets to Middle East for First Time. On April 15, the US Air Force announced that it had deployed F-35A Lightning II fighter jets to the Middle East for the first time, dispatching them to the United Arab Emirates.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Lebanese Money Launderer for Ties to Hezbollah. The Treasury Department announced it would designate Kassem Chams a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker for his work in laundering narcotics money for Hezbollah.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here