Earlier this month, on Nov. 7, the State Department announced what appeared to be a significant step forward in relations between the United States and Sudan. A spokesperson said the U.S. would consider removing Sudan from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list if it helps Washington advance some of its foreign policy priorities in Africa and beyond—including cooperating on counterterrorism, ending Sudan’s internal conflicts and isolating North Korea. The statement also called on Sudan to improve its human rights record, respect religious freedoms and meet legal claims related to its previous support of terrorist attacks against American citizens. Removal of the terrorism sponsor designation has long been Sudan’s top priority in Washington because it would potentially unlock access to much-needed U.S. development assistance and international debt relief.
The State Department’s announcement activates the second phase of a re-engagement strategy with Sudan that began under the Obama administration in 2016. The policy shift was a tacit acknowledgement that attempts by successive administrations to isolate Sudan for supporting terrorists and waging war in Darfur had failed to radically shift the conduct of longtime President Omar al-Bashir’s regime. The rapprochement has continued under President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order in October 2017 ending some trade and economic sanctions against Khartoum; a series of sanctions imposed by Congress remain in place. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan visited Sudan a month later, the most senior U.S. official to travel to the country in many years.
In the months that followed, progress appeared to stall while the State Department finalized what it has called “Phase II” of the re-engagement process. Momentum was lost due to bureaucratic inertia in both countries, which have been grappling with other foreign policy priorities. In Khartoum, officials voiced suspicions that Washington was dragging its feet and lacked the sincerity to follow the process through.