January 16, 2017 | Policy Brief

Easing Sanctions on Sudan Erodes U.S. Leverage

January 16, 2017 | Policy Brief

Easing Sanctions on Sudan Erodes U.S. Leverage

The U.S. Department of the Treasury on Friday eased sanctions against Sudan based on improved behavior, and with the expectation that Sudan “sustains [the] positive actions it has taken over the last 6 months.” The move, which comes after months of rumors that Sudan would be removed entirely from the U.S. terrorism sponsors list, punts the six-month review to the Donald Trump administration.

Treasury was quick to note that the move “will not impact Sudanese individuals or entities blocked pursuant to [executive order] 13400,” which imposes sanctions on persons in connection with the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. And the action did not address the role that Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has reportedly played in fomenting the civil war in South Sudan, with both countries accusing the other of supporting the other’s rebels.

Al-Bashir, it is also worth noting, still has a warrant out for his arrest at the International Criminal Court for five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes, and three counts of genocide.

Sudan also remains listed by the State Department as a designated State Sponsor of Terrorism, and reports suggest that sanctions evasion, corruption, resource trafficking, and other illicit financial activity are rife in the country.

The “positive actions” cited by Treasury reportedly include Khartoum’s cutting ties with al-Qaeda, Iran, and Palestinian terrorist groups, and contributing to Saudi-led efforts against Iran-backed extremists in the region. Indeed, Saudi Arabia reportedly played a significant role in convincing the Obama administration to ease sanctions against Sudan.

However, unwinding U.S. sanctions for these positive steps without addressing the full range of Sudan’s illicit activities will pose challenges for the next administration. Specifically, it will erode U.S. leverage and make it more difficult for Washington to pressure Sudan for many of its continued destabilizing activities.

Indeed, Washington is likely to run into the same complications it is currently experiencing with Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of July 2015 relaxed sanctions on Iran in exchange for certain Iranian nuclear concessions. But Tehran’s support for terrorist groups, its backing of rogue states, and its human rights violations at home continue apace.

To help maintain leverage, the Obama administration should have provided a limited general license to reward Khartoum for its cooperation in some areas, while keeping overall U.S. economic pressure intact.

It is now upon the incoming Trump administration to assess Sudan’s malign activities before July 12, 2017 to determine whether Khartoum has earned the full easing of sanctions proscribed. But even more important will be its policy of whether “strategic unwinding” of sanctions is advisable with any actor, particularly when problematic behaviors still persist.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.