U.S. Readies New Sanctions on Warring Sudanese Forces

The Biden administration is readying plans to roll out new sanctions on members of rival military factions in Sudan, according to four current and former officials familiar with the matter, as a power struggle between two rival generals erupted into a full-scale conflict across the capital of Khartoum in recent days.

The Biden administration is readying plans to roll out new sanctions on members of rival military factions in Sudan, according to four current and former officials familiar with the matter, as a power struggle between two rival generals erupted into a full-scale conflict across the capital of Khartoum in recent days.

The sanctions package, which is still being drafted, is aimed at targeting members of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and its rival, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which have thrown Khartoum into chaos as the leaders of both groups vie for control of the country.

The sanctions, if finalized and implemented, could send a shot across the bow to the SAF and RSF leaders who have dragged their country into conflict and derailed the years-long transition to a democracy. Yet, privately, some U.S. officials fear new sanctions packages could be too little, too late, amid a broader debate within the Biden administration on whether it’s been too timid with sanctions programs against human rights violators in Africa.

“As a general matter, we do not preview potential sanctions,” said a State Department spokesperson in response. “We are looking at the full range of options available to us, and we are working with our partners to ensure the response is coordinated and consistent wherever possible.”

Pro-democracy activists in Sudan and international human rights organizations have criticized the United States and other Western countries for not implementing sanctions against the military leaders in Sudan in recent years following a 2019 massacre of pro-democracy protesters and a 2021 coup that upended Sudan’s efforts to transition to a democracy. The criticisms mirror those leveled against the Biden administration for refusing to issue any sanctions against Ethiopian government officials as the country carried out atrocities and ethnic cleansing campaigns during a two-year war that may have killed up to 600,000 people.

The leaders of the SAF and RSF—Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti), respectively—paired up to seize power in a coup in October 2021, derailing efforts to transition the country to a democracy following years of autocratic rule and conflict. The previous transitional government was led by Burhan, but was supposed to cede power to civilian authorities by 2022 prior to the coup. While Washington sharply protested the coup, high-ranking Biden administration officials, including the top State Department envoy for African affairs, Molly Phee, argued against issuing sanctions against top SAF or RSF figures, as Washington sought to bring both factions to the negotiating table to restore Sudan’s path to a civilian-led government, several officials said.

The efforts to slow-walk sanctions drew backlash from some officials within the administration as well as civil society organizations, which argued that Washington’s stated commitments to democratic transition in Sudan would be viewed as hollow rhetoric if it didn’t issue reprisals for the coup. In March last year, the Biden administration issued sanctions against Sudan’s Central Reserve Police force for its role in a violent crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protesters, but the administration never issued sanctions on the military commanders who orchestrated the coup.

Biden administration officials drafted an executive order for Sudan-related sanctions shortly after the coup in October 2021, but it was never released, the officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said. All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The Biden administration has “cried wolf too many times now—they’ve threatened sanctions in the past and not made good on them, or the sanctions they’ve implemented are totally feckless,” said Cameron Hudson, an expert on the region with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So they’ve lost a lot of credibility.”

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement urging the Biden administration to hold the military junta in Sudan accountable with sanctions for “human rights abuses, corruption, and anti-democratic actions.”

“[T]he international community gave these selfish and brutal leaders more time to run out the clock through a conspiracy of optimism,” Risch said.

A new sanctions package could be a point of leverage to make both Burhan and Hemeti cease fighting. Besieged Sudanese citizens sheltering from the conflict are running out of food and water, and reports are flooding in of RSF fighters killing or assaulting civilians and ransacking homes—including foreign diplomatic compounds. The fighting has killed an estimated 300 people and injured another 3,000.

The conflict pushed Washington and other foreign capitals to draw up evacuation plans from Sudan for their government personnel—though some officials question whether such an evacuation could even be safely carried out amid the fighting and closure of the Khartoum airport. The conflict has also spread to other regions of Sudan, including Darfur, where an estimated 1.6 million internally displaced people were already facing insecurity and a humanitarian crisis.

Tensions between Burhan and Hemeti have been mounting ever since the 2021 coup, exacerbated by a political deal both generals signed in December in which they agreed to fold the RSF into the SAF. Burhan and Hemeti met with U.S. and British negotiators to discuss political deals in the days leading up to the war between their two factions while they simultaneously built up their own military forces around Khartoum.

“Many people would say that the writing was on the wall, the buildup of armaments and mobilizations, movement of troops 48 to 72 hours preceding the eruption of fighting in Khartoum,” said Mohamed Osman of the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch. “There was a buildup in which key issues of accountability were left unaddressed” in the run-up to the current conflict, he said.

Phee, officials said, has taken the reins of U.S. policy on Sudan and had pressed for Washington to continue engaging with Burhan and Hemeti, even as international negotiations between the two generals sidelined Sudan’s pro-democracy organizations and civil society leaders. Phee also feared that sanctions wouldn’t be effective and could push Burhan and Hemeti closer to the orbit of other powers vying for influence in Sudan, including Russia, the officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said. The RSF has ties with Russia’s Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit that operates in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Africa.

In Washington, the Biden administration has set up an emergency task force on Sudan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken separately to both Burhan and Hemeti in recent days to try to bring a stop to the fighting. Senior Biden administration officials, including Phee, briefed Capitol Hill on the crisis and U.S. response on Wednesday.

“Sudan’s military leaders must engage in dialogue without delay. Their actions across Sudan have placed countless people at risk and set back the Sudanese people’s rightful call for a peaceful democratic transition,” the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum said in a joint statement issued on Wednesday with a dozen other allied countries and the European Union.

“The inability of humanitarians to safely operate impacts millions of already vulnerable Sudanese, now including those displaced by the ongoing fighting,” the statement said.

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