The Trump administration on Friday announced a pair of historic events in U.S.-Sudan relations: the official notification to Congress that, after 27 years, the president intends to remove Sudan from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and that Sudan has begun the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Both developments are welcome news and have the potential to contribute to a more stable and prosperous Middle East and East Africa.
Sudan has been on the terrorism list since 1993 for its support of notorious groups such as al Qaeda and Hamas. Following the 9/11 attacks, however, Khartoum, fearing the same fate as Afghanistan, began cooperating with the U.S. on counterterrorism issues.
Intermittent efforts since then to remove Sudan from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism were derailed, often because of human rights concerns over the Khartoum regime’s brutality in places like its Darfur region.
However, a popular uprising in Sudan triggered a military coup that toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, and then forced the putschists to agree to a power-sharing transitional government with civilians.
The U.S., recognizing the unprecedented opportunity for a civilian, non-Islamist, friendly government to take power, has been seeking ways to support the transition ever since.
One of the most obvious was to remove Sudan from the terrorism list. In its waning days, the Obama administration began the process of lifting other sanctions the U.S. had on Sudan. The Trump administration completed the process, but Sudan’s inclusion on the terrorism list remained a drag on Sudan’s economy that was already in desperate straits.
Before the terrorism designation could be lifted, Sudan had to meet all the requirements. The final one was to settle the lawsuit filed by the families of the victims of Sudan-supported terrorist attacks: the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000, and the killing of a U.S. diplomat in 2008.
Sudan transferred the agreed-upon $335 million to an escrow account on Thursday, and the next day President Donald Trump gave the official, required notification to Congress that he intends to remove Sudan from the terrorism list.
Congress has 45 days from the notification to act if it wants to block the measure. A potential sticking point is that there is an ongoing court case concerning Sudan’s possible complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
Sudan wants its sovereign immunity restored, which would require congressional action, so that it could not be held liable for potentially many billions of dollars in damages in an adverse ruling in the 9/11 case or any future case.
One possible solution being raised is that Sudan would remain liable for damages arising from the current 9/11 case, but that Congress would restore Sudan’s sovereign immunity against any future cases.
Hot on the heels of the Sudan rescission announcement, the administration confirmed that Sudan and Israel had started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations. The administration has long worked to persuade Arab states to take that step. Sudan is moving toward becoming the third such country, following the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to do so in the past two months.
There is some uncertainty about the exact nature of the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel. The process is initially focused on building economic links—some military links already exist, as Sudan has been cooperating with Israel on counterterrorism for years—but there has been no public announcement that the countries will open embassies in the other’s capital.
It is also reported that the transitional government in charge of Sudan will submit the deal for ratification to the country’s legislative council, which has yet to be formed.
Regardless of the exact contours of the final agreement, it is for now a win-win-win:
- Sudan, gripped by economic and political crisis, will receive a large U.S. assistance package and can benefit from Israeli expertise in relevant fields, such as agricultural technology. (But the government will have to carefully manage its domestic Islamists, who are sure to be enraged by warming ties with Israel.);
- Israel chips further away at its diplomatic isolation in the Arab world; and
- The U.S. simultaneously helps its ally Israel and, by facilitating a deal that can help Sudan economically, supports the fragile but hopeful political transition in Sudan.