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The Increasingly Ominous Fate of U.S. Sudan Policy Under President Trump

Among the myriad Executive Orders that President Trump has inherited from the Obama administration is one essentially lifting sanctions on the regime in Khartoum, Sudan. During his last week in office Obama declared there had been sufficient “positive action over the past six months” by the very regime the former president had repeatedly accused of genocide—both before and after taking office. Obama used his UN ambassador, Samantha Power, to make the case in detail: during her last press conference, Power declared, falsely, that a “sea change” in improved humanitarian access throughout Sudan justified the administration’s decision. She cited one unrepresentative example, even as every humanitarian and human rights organization that has spoken about Power’s claim denies its validity. Human Rights Watch declared Obama’s decision simply “inexplicable.”

Samantha Power, former UN Ambassador under the Obama administration

So it falls to the conspicuously dysfunctional Trump administration to decide whether during the upcoming six-month “testing period” Khartoum deserves to see a finalizing of this lifting of sanctions.

It can choose to ignore realities on the ground, as the Obama administration did in its assessment of the past six months; or it can take a hard look at what is widely reported from those on the ground and in the Sudanese diaspora. Humanitarian embargoes, imposed by Khartoum, continue to affect many hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the long-marginalized regions of Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. The “sea change” Ambassador Power spoke of is certainly not visible in South Kordofan, where an experienced and highly informed humanitarian wrote to me, declaring:

“there's been absolutely no change in humanitarian access. Not a single grain of sorghum nor one tablet of medicine has entered Nuba Mountains from any of the usual humanitarian agencies.” (email received from the Nuba Mountains, January 14, 2017)

The new administration can look at compelling evidence that an epidemic of rape continues to be part of Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, now in its fifteenth year. It can look at the continuous shelling and bombing of clearly civilian targets in the three regions. It can look at overwhelming evidence that chemical weapons were used in Jebel Marra, Darfur last year—evidence assembled assiduously by Amnesty International.

Victims of chemical weapons assault in Jebel Marra (2016); photograph from report by Amnesty International

It can look at the rapidly escalating and increasingly violent repression by the regime in suppressing civil discontent—discontent that follows from an economy imploding not because of U.S. sanctions but because of massive corruption and self-enrichment that have always defined what is essentially a kleptocracy. “Shoot to kill” orders have been both given and threatened in the face of rising unrest.

In light of Trumps immoral and badly confused Executive Order on refugees coming to the U.S. from Sudan and six other countries—affecting countless real or potential Sudanese refugees—there is precious little reason for optimism.

Moreover, the Trump administration, burdened by its policy myopia, is unlikely to understand that the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions—particularly financial sanctions—has been undermined by massive money-laundering on the part of French banking giant BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to criminal violations of U.S. financial laws in 2015, primarily because of activities that directly benefited the Khartoum regime. A civil suit filed on Federal District Court (Southern District of New York, Case 1:16-cv-03228-AJN) lays out in highly revealing detail the way in which BNPP served (in the words of the former U.S. Deputy Attorney General) “as a de facto central bank for the Government of Sudan.”

Despite the declaration today (Sudan Tribune, February 3, 2017) by President al-Bashir that the Obama administration lifted sanctions on Sudan because of their “futility,” the truth is that their efficacy has not been tested: BNP Paribas saw to that during their long tenure as “central bank” for al-Bashir and his genocidal regime. Those in the world of Washington-based pundits who proclaim their agreement with al-Bashir only reveal their ignorance of the potency of the U.S. financial sanctions that BNP Paribas so effectively undermined.

The regime in Khartoum has not changed in the 27 years since it seized power in a military coup as the “National Islamic Front.” It continues to wage genocidal counter-insurgencies against the marginalized regions of the country in order to maintain a monopoly on national wealth and power. And the regime has assessed with uncanny skill the willingness—or lack thereof—by the international community to confront the regime over these multiple genocidal assaults—in what is now South Sudan, in the Nuba Mountains during the 1990s, in Darfur beginning in 2003, and now South Kordofan and Blue Nile. If it believes that refusing to acknowledge a cholera epidemic in these regions serves its purposes, it will deny—until facts become so overwhelming as to compel acknowledge of this vast threat to hundreds of thousands of civilians, especially in the eastern regions of Sudan.

Darfuris have long since given up trying to keep records of the dead during 14 years of genocidal counter-insurgency against non-Arab/African civilians in Darfur. Extant data and reports make clear the number now exceeds 500,000.

The Trump administration looks at once badly confused—and dismayingly indifferent to all but major geopolitical events—and here Sudan clearly does not qualify except as a resource for counter-terrorism intelligence, “red meat” for the wolves in the intelligence community that increasingly dominates U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, the odds-on favorite to become Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Peter Pham, has put himself decisively on record—even before Obama’s Executive Order—as strongly favoring the lifting of sanctions against Khartoum.

Peter Pham, the leading candidate for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Trump administration. His credentials are questioned by many.

Congress, which once took Sudan seriously on a bipartisan basis, is presently nowhere to be found in responding to the Executive Order. It was not always so: in July 2004 every member of Congress—in both houses and from both parties—declared that Khartoum was committing “genocide” in Darfur. But the present wait-and-see Congressional attitude only makes more likely a de facto lifting of sanctions (without another Executive Order they will disappear on July 13)—or encourages the Trump administration to believe it can not only lift sanctions but proceed apace with the rapprochement the U.S. intelligence community strongly favors—a supremely callous trade-off in which U.S. favors are given to Khartoum in return for counter-terrorism intelligence—in many cases about the very terrorists previously supported by the regime, which hosted Osama bin Laden during the formative years of al-Qaeda (1992 – 1996).

Osama bin Laden, circa 1992; his time in Sudan (1992 - 1996) were formative years for the terrorist organization al-Qaeda

Just this week Sudanese intelligence General Hanafi Abdallah boasted of Khartoum’s important to American counter-terrorism intelligence:

"There is communication between the two bodies and regular meetings. The CIA office in Khartoum is the largest office in the Middle East. Because the United States is aware of the Sudan strategic importance in the region, it has established one of the largest diplomatic missions in the region, even they had to expand their buildings," said Hanafi in an interview with the Khartoum based Al-Sudani newspaper published on Tuesday. (Sudan Tribune, January 31, 2017)

Although the regime lies shamelessly, there is on this occasion little reason to doubt the truth of this statement, which has not been denied by the U.S. State Department. For a long time the Khartoum regime held hostage the opening of CIA operations in the new building and embassy in Khartoum, knowing how desperate the agency was to gain access to what was designed to be the premier listening post in North Africa. The date of the Obama administration’s gaining operational permission from Khartoum was never publicized, but clearly—whenever the final terms of the quid pro quo were settled upon—things are humming for the CIA in Khartoum now, and this more than any other factor governs any future decision by the Trump administration concerning reinstating sanctions and Sudan policy generally. And it will be a decision only nominally made by the State Department.

Massive new U.S. embassy in Khartoum--and key CIA listening post for North Africa

It is hard to be optimistic, with Washington-based pundits lauding Obama’s Executive Order, and an incomprehensibly thoughtless Trump administration that gives no sign of heeding Sudan’s agony as it pushes for “America First.” This may well be Sudan’s darkest hour.


Eric Reeves, Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights


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