Date: Wednesday, 19 July 2017
Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir seeks to cement ties with Russia. But while one of Sudan’s traditional supporters, Moscow is increasingly wary of political Islam, writes Haitham Nouri
Wednesday,19 July, 2017
Sudan will have to endure another three months under already difficult economic conditions as the US has renewed sanctions against Khartoum that began two decades ago, due to it being “a state that sponsors terrorism”. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir will head to Russia, which challenges an arrest warrant against him ordered by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The US decision to renew sanctions came as a shock to Khartoum since Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour had said his country expects nothing other than a lifting of sanctions, especially since “it has complied with all US demands”.
Two of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s top aides recommended lifting sanctions. A statement was issued stating Khartoum “has made significant progress in [many] areas”, but added that another three months are needed to ensure Sudan has completely addressed all of Washington’s concerns. The State Department said the US “will lift sanctions if it is assessed that [the Sudanese government] is making constant progress on these issues (terrorism and human rights) by the end of the review period”.
Sudan preempted the decision by declaring it will not accept any decision that is not a complete lifting of sanctions, insisting it had met all required conditions in the five-track plan.
The five tracks include allowing humanitarian organisations into conflict zones; facilitating peace in South Sudan; ending fighting in civil war provinces (Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan); cooperating with the CIA in combatting terrorism and fighting Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army. A sixth demand was added on prevention of human trafficking.
In response to the US decision, Bashir decided to freeze participation in the negotiating committee with Washington for three months. Nonetheless, Ghandour said cooperation between Khartoum and Washington will continue at the level of foreign ministries. Parliament Speaker Ibrahim Ahmed Omar warned against anti-US mobilisation and escalation in Sudan.
Sudan’s Finance Ministry estimated losses of $45 billion as a result of sanctions, as well as an inflation rate that has reached 33 per cent. It expected that once sanctions are lifted, US firms will return to work in the oil, agriculture, transportation and infrastructure sectors, which were harmed the most by sanctions.
In August 1993, the US added Sudan to the list of countries sponsoring terrorism in reaction to Khartoum hosting late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (who lived in Sudan several years before returning to Afghanistan). In 1996, the US shut down its embassy in Khartoum, and the next year then US president Bill Clinton issued the first sanctions under the pretext that the war in the south was raging on. Clinton’s successor George W Bush decided to continue sanctions in 2006 as a result of what Washington called at the time the Sudanese government’s collusion in the Darfur war.
Some 15 years ago, Washington linked sanctions to peace making in Sudan (the Sudan Peace Act), which allowed Bush to order a freeze on the assets of 133 Sudanese companies and figures. Former US president Barack Obama partially lifted sanctions against Sudan, allowing financial transactions between the two countries and trade, but at the end of Obama’s term the White House said lifting sanctions would be postponed for 180 days.
According to Fayez Al-Slek, a Sudanese journalist, “Obama’s decision to lift sanctions or [US President Donald] Trump’s decision to delay are linked to Washington’s bets in the Middle East and Horn of Africa. Obama was betting on the Islamists and thus eased the sanctions because Sudan has been ruled by Islamists for three decades. The opposite is true of Trump.”
American activists oppose lifting sanctions because of Sudan’s human rights record. According to the Website KAFA (Enough), which monitors civil war regions in Sudan, lifting sanctions would be rewarding Khartoum despite an order by the ICC for Bashir’s arrest on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. Sudan and its president persistently deny the accusations and claim they are politically motivated.
Bashir continues to defy the court, which has asked all countries to arrest and hand over Bashir for trial. But this did not happen when Bashir attended the Arab summit in Jordan, or the African summit in South Africa. However, he did not attend the Arab-Islamic-US Summit in Riyadh in May because the US delegation refused he participate since Bashir is wanted by the ICC.
Nonetheless, Bashir is planning to visit Russia in the second half of August upon an invitation by President Vladimir Putin, which will be yet another challenge to the ICC. Moscow withdrew from the ICC in November 2016 because “the court failed to meet expectations”.
In fact, South Africa and Burundi asked the African Union to discuss withdrawing African countries from the ICC, but the suggestion had little traction despite assertions that the majority of ICC cases and claims are related to African countries. Indeed, the ICC is looking into claims in Uganda, Democratic Congo, Sudan (Darfur), Central Africa, Kenya, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Libya as well as Georgia. The court is also investigating claims in Burundi, Nigeria, Guinea as well as Asian and Latin American countries.
Over the past two decades, Sudan has relied on Russian and Chinese support in defending its views in the Security Council. Sudan has also used Russian weapons throughout its civil wars in South Sudan, Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. But Al-Haj Warraq, chief editor of hurriyatsudan.com (Sudan Freedoms), said: “Russia does not need Sudan after it established a military presence in the Middle East in Syria.” Warraq added: “Russia will have a greater economic and political presence once Iraq and Libya stabilise. Russia also sees Islamist parties as a threat, no matter how far away from its borders.”
Although the trip to Russia was scheduled before the US’s recent decision, Waleed Sayed, political science professor and member of the ruling party in Sudan, believes it can also be seen as a response to Washington. “The two countries will sign several economic and cultural agreements which will strongly shore up Sudan’s economy,” Sayed said. “Life in Sudan did not stop as a result of US sanctions imposed 20 years ago. We had strong Chinese and Russian support. Washington should know that Sudan has many alternatives.”
China is the top investor in Sudan’s oil sector, which essentially ended up in South Sudan after independence in 2011. Russia, meanwhile, has minimal economic presence in the country. Since the early 1990s, Sudan remained a close ally of Iran until severing ties in 2016 in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. “Russia is a political supporter of the regime, nothing more, and cannot be relied on economically. There is no alternative to Washington,” according to Warraq.