U.S. Balked at Sanctions on Sudan

The Trump administration feared that taking action against the junta for killing protesters might upend peace talks.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, the de facto military ruler of Sudan, gives a speech in the village of Qarri, north of Khartoum, on June 15.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, the de facto military ruler of Sudan, gives a speech in the village of Qarri, north of Khartoum, on June 15. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

The United States halted plans to sanction Sudanese security forces over the massacre of protesters in order to pave the way for a power-sharing deal between military and civilian leaders, current and former U.S. officials told Foreign Policy.

In mid-June, the National Security Council convened a series of meetings to discuss the U.S. response to a violent crackdown on pro-democracy activists by security forces in the East African country, the officials said. Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on June 3 launched attacks against protest sites and hospitals in Khartoum, killing more than 100 people. The violence dashed hopes of a bloodless transition to a civilian-led government after longtime Sudanese ruler Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a coup in April. 

The State and Treasury departments were tasked with crafting a sanctions strategy on Sudan, aimed in part at targeting the RSF and its commander, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti. 

But those plans were tabled, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations, so as not to upset the fragile peace talks between civilian leaders and figures in Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC). 

The internal deliberations illustrate the diplomatic tightrope the United States is walking as it tries to shepherd Sudan’s transition to democracy after 30 years under authoritarian rule. U.S. officials and experts are torn on the policy options. Some believe Washington needs to sanction Sudanese military figures for the widespread violence—including allegations of murder, rape, and torture in the June 3 violence—to show such crimes won’t go unpunished by the international community. Others fear the move could do more harm than good in the long run by potentially upsetting the tenuous power-sharing deal and plunging the country into further chaos. 

Tibor Nagy, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has voiced concerns over Sudan’s instability. “There are some possible scenarios which frankly would be very negative,” he said in a press briefing last month. “We could end up with the type of chaos that exists in Libya or Somalia, and the last thing Egypt wants is another Libya on its southern border.” 

One current and one former official said the State Department’s special envoy on Sudan, Donald Booth, was one of the leading advocates of stopping sanctions from moving forward, lest they derail the peace talks. But a State Department spokesperson called these allegations “false.”

“The U.S. government continues to work to support the establishment of a civilian-led government that enjoys the broad support of the Sudanese people,” the spokesperson said. “The situation in Sudan has been and remains fluid and fast-moving, and the U.S. government has been using, and will continue to use, its diplomatic tools to facilitate that transition in a peaceful and orderly manner.” The spokesperson said the State Department does not comment on sanctions before they are enacted. 

“Right now, given the sensitivity of negotiations, given the precariousness, [sanctions] feel premature,” said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. diplomat and National Security Council staffer who worked on Sudan issues. 

Other experts and officials believe the United States needs to use sanctions more actively, or at least the threat of sanctions in public posturing, when dealing with senior military figures in Sudan to ensure they adhere to a transition to civilian-led rule. 

“I don’t think we’re going to get an agreement the TMC will live up to unless we show them there will be consequences for violent crackdowns,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Otherwise, we’ll get the same results again if we play with the same players … with the same tactics.”

The United States has publicly backed an independent investigation into the June 3 violence against protesters. 

“There’s been no incentive for the TMC or Hemeti or others to engage meaningfully or sincerely in negotiations in relinquishing power completely,” said Joshua White, a former Treasury official who is now director of policy and analysis at The Sentry, an investigative team with the nonprofit group Enough Project. “Using sanctions proactively in combination with diplomacy is probably the best chance the Sudanese people have” for a democratic transition, he said.

The Trump administration has also faced pressure from Congress to pursue sanctions. Last month, Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to sanction Hemeti and the RSF for “gross human-rights violations” to “send a powerful message to the Sudanese people.” 

Hemeti is a powerful and influential figure in the military council that assumed control of the country after Bashir was unseated. Hemeti and the RSF have been implicated in serious war crimes, including in Darfur. The International Criminal Court indicted Bashir, the deposed president, for genocide and war crimes over the ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur. The RSF has also sent ground forces to fight on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war. 

Egypt and wealthy Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, view Sudan as a strategically important country in the region. They have ramped up their political and financial involvement in the country since the coup against Bashir.

Under the power-sharing deal negotiated this month between the TMC and an alliance of pro-democracy civilian groups called the Forces of Freedom and Change, an 11-member body will govern the country for just over three years. It will consist of five military members, five civilian ones, and an 11th civilian chosen by both sides. A military general will head the council for the first 21 months, and then it will transition to a civilian leader for 18 months. Negotiations on other aspects of the transition are still ongoing.

Some experts and Sudanese activists fear the political settlement gives the military time to cement its power and see it as only a minor victory for pro-democracy forces. 

Hudson, the former diplomat, believes the United States should align itself more closely with the Forces of Freedom and Change as negotiations continue. “The fact of the matter is, one side is a brutal military ruling junta that has shown every willingness to put down peaceful protests with force, and the other side is a democratic uprising of civilians who want freedom after 30 years of dictatorship,” he said. “It feels like a no-brainer what side we should be on.”

Update, July 26, 2019: This article was updated to specify Joshua White’s current title.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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