Peace efforts in Sudan have failed in the past, in large part because of insufficient international leverage over the Sudanese government, but now the Obama administration has an unprecedented opportunity in its final months in office to make a policy investment that could pay big dividends. The Obama administration can further build on new, emerging leverage with the Khartoum regime in support of an inclusive peace deal in Sudan leading to a transition to democracy.
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Peace efforts in Sudan have failed in the past, in large part because of insufficient international leverage over the Sudanese government, but now the Obama administration has an unprecedented opportunity in its final months in office to make a policy investment that could pay big dividends. The Obama administration can further build on new, emerging leverage with the Khartoum regime in support of an inclusive peace deal in Sudan leading to a transition to democracy. Sudan has become increasingly financially isolated during the last year, resulting largely from new types of sanctions measures and tightened enforcement measures that were principally focused on Iran. Sudan has been impacted because foreign banks moved to reduce their exposure to risky accounts and institutions in the wake of large fines paid for sanctions violations involving Iran and Sudan, as well as to protect against broader sanctions and money laundering risks. The spillover effect on the commercial activities, investments, and finances of leading military, security, and civilian officials associated with the Khartoum government has caused sanctions relief to replace debt relief as the regime’s primary preoccupation.
To maximize this newfound leverage with the Sudanese regime, the Obama administration should adopt a strategy based in part on an approach that was effective over time in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. While the economic and political contexts of Iran and Sudan are quite different, as are the underlying U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and exigencies, the fact is that both governments have become severely compromised due to isolation from the global financial system, largely as a result of banks de-risking in the wake of tighter global enforcement of sanctions. This financial isolation has created leverage with the government of Sudan—leverage that so far is not being utilized in a broader peace strategy—and opened a new opportunity to press for concessions on issues that have seemed intractable for decades. Iran, like Sudan, had been the target of comprehensive U.S. sanctions for more than two decades, but it took a series of innovative, intensified, and targeted measures, principally from 2009 to 2013, to finally turn off Tehran’s lifelines and push the Iranians to engage in serious negotiations. At the same time, Washington used a range of approaches to ease the burden of some of these pressures on the Iranian people. What followed was an intense, serious, and engaged multilateral diplomatic process that led to the signing of a landmark agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Today, Sudan more closely resembles the belligerent and uncooperative Iran of 2007 to 2010: deserving of and susceptible to modernized sanctions that can finally support an end to the Khartoum regime’s violent kleptocratic behavior.
U.S. leaders should adopt elements of the playbook used with Iran and other recent crises that are appropriate to the Sudanese political and economic context. Leaders should begin by immediately ratcheting up financial pressure and tightening sanctions enforcement on Sudan, deploying more focused, enhanced, and modernized sanctions that more sharply target the military and financial assets of those most responsible for continuing conflict, atrocities, and mass corruption in Sudan. At the same time, the Obama administration should quickly provide needed guidance to minimize the unintended consequences of the existing sanctions measures that have harmed the medical, humanitarian, people-to-people, and academic sectors in Sudan.
The United States should deploy this combination of tightened and eased sanctions measures to bring the Sudanese regime to a more inclusive, single, unified peace process that aims for a negotiated political transition in Sudan. The U.S. role would be to provide the leverage to catalyze such a unified peace process that leads to a truly inclusive peace deal in Sudan, the verified implementation of which would trigger the eventual removal of sanctions and bring debt relief and normalized relations with the United States.
Previous roadmap approaches to ending atrocities and pursuing peace in Sudan featuring incremental quid pro quo exchanges have failed, in part because of a lack of more effective pressures and meaningful incentives. Stove-piped, non-inclusive peace processes separating the parties and conflicts in Darfur, the Two Areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and the political opposition have likewise failed. The current efforts by the African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) reinforce this conclusion. The regime in Khartoum has undermined every peace process aimed at addressing Sudan’s internal conflicts since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the North-South war in 2005. The Sudanese government effectively uses these peace talks as a means to divide opposition and undermine progress toward an end to conflict, because leading regime figures have benefited financially from the state of insecurity and absence of rule of law which this hijacked government has cultivated. The regime has thus undermined any potentially promising political agreement, and the United States and other partners have not heretofore cultivated the leverage necessary to change the calculations in Khartoum from war to peace.
Suddenly, however, that leverage has emerged serendipitously as a result of the Iran sanctions push. To build on this opportunity, robust efforts on three simultaneous fronts are needed in a new strategy: enhanced, targeted financial pressures; measures to ameliorate the impact of sanctions on humanitarian efforts; and a much more robust and internationally supported peace strategy.
The Obama administration—backed by a bipartisan group of congressmen and congresswomen—can use enhanced financial leverage to press the Sudanese government to unify the three currently disaggregated and ineffective negotiations forums (Darfur, the Two Areas, and the National Dialogue) and ensure that the root causes of conflict are addressed inclusively and comprehensively.
Ideally, this enhanced and modernized sanctions regime could be implemented through a new presidential executive order and, potentially, legislation on Capitol Hill, where the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan pursues congressional action to peace and human rights in the two countries. The United States should also deeply engage other countries with influence to pursue their own targeted pressures and incentives on the Sudanese government in order to buttress a wider international push for peace in Sudan.