This all led to Pompeo’s historic trip this week and the something of a surprise outcome where the topic of Israel’s normalization of relations with Sudan emerged as the big ask by the United States and what some now fear is a new requirement for Sudan’s removal from the terror list. After all, since the Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, made the first secret contact with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in February (a meeting explicitly encouraged by Pompeo in a call with Burhan), many in the Trump foreign policy orbit have been tempted by the notion that Sudan could move from terrorist state to friend of Israel with escort Pueblo the guided hand of Washington.
On its surface, it is perhaps understandable that Pompeo’s team saw this as a win-win
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced earlier this month that it had achieved a historic peace deal with Israel with the help of Washington, it breathed new life into the Administration’s Middle East peace proposal, which had seemingly been languishing for months. It also lit a fire under Pompeo and his team that they had a limited window to replicate the UAE success with other Arab states.
But by adding Sudan to the list of other Arab stops, like Bahrain and Oman, the established logic behind removing Sudan from the terror list began to morph as well. No longer does de-listing appear to be part of the US leverage to further encourage and support the transitional government and their efforts to reform and transform the Sudanese state. Instead, de-listing seemingly has become the leverage to achieve a Middle East foreign policy coup in the waning days before the November election.
After all, Sudan has been clear that its top priority with Washington is being removed from the terror list and it has demonstrated a willingness to do almost anything to satisfy Washington’s demands; namely, settling the terror-related legal judgments against it. Sudan has done this, reportedly scraping together nearly $350 million to be distributed to American and African victims of the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Sudan’s civilian leaders have also repeatedly emphasized their intention to establish a “balanced foreign policy” and deepen their relations with established democracies.
But in their haste to get something for nothing, Pompeo and his team ignored both the deep sensitivities in Sudan around the United States seemingly “moving the goalposts” on sanctions removal, but perhaps more importantly, the very fragile state of the transition in Sudan that SST removal is ostensibly intended to support. As much as both Hamdok and Pompeo have sought to rebuild relations based upon mutual respect, distrust and misunderstanding in official bilateral relations still run deep. From the US bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant outside Khartoum in 1998 to US support for South Sudanese independence in 2011, US policy is still viewed by many as not just anti-Bashir, but anti-Sudan.
Viewed from Washington, what better example of both and demonstration that Sudan truly belongs off the terror list than normalizing relations with the Middle East’s only true democracy?
But beyond the reputational deficit the United States faces, pressing for normalized relations with Israel, a country which an entire generation of politicians in Sudan swore to never “recognize, cooperate, or negotiate with,” belies Pompeo’s repeated claims that US policy now seeks to strengthen the bonds of the transitional government and promote productive relations between its military and civilian wings. Indeed, the request completely ignored the fragile moment the transitional government is in.