The Trump Administration has two weeks remaining before a July 12th deadline for a decision on whether to permanently lift economic sanctions on Sudan.

One of Barack Obama’s last acts as US president was to issue a decree ending a decades-old US trade ban on Sudan. Obama’s move was hailed in Khartoum as a landmark decision that would greatly improve US-Sudan relations and help Sudan economically.

However, the decree was designed to take effect only in July, contingent upon a review of Sudan’s cooperation with the US in five areas or ‘tracks’. The final decision on lifting of the sanctions was thus left in the hands of Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, among other top advisors.

Two news agencies reported this week that US officials are positive about Sudan’s progress in the five ‘tracks,’ which include addressing the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); ending hostilities in the “Two Areas” and Darfur; improving humanitarian access in Darfur; and ending ‘negative interference’ by Sudan in South Sudan.

“Key aides” in Washington are cited in a recent Bloomberg report saying that Tillerson hasn’t made a final decision but supports the idea of lifting the sanctions. AFP, meantime, quoted a US diplomat in Khartoum as saying that Sudan’s progress on the five tracks has been “positive.”

Options on the table now for the Trump Administration include going forward with Obama’s decision, countermanding the decree in order to keep the sanctions in place, or partially lifting the trade embargo while keeping full removal on the table and conditional upon further progress in the five mentioned areas.

The Messenger explains why US officials are considering either lifting or easing the two-decades long trade embargo on Sudan:

#1 – Counter-terrorism cooperation

Sudan’s role in the international arena has changed significantly since the US government first imposed sanctions in the 1990s, following Sudan’s alleged support for Al-Qaeda bombers who attacked US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Counter-terrorism cooperation, which first picked up under President George W. Bush after the 9/11 terror attacks, continued into the Obama era and remains a significant area of cooperation.

Sudanese newspapers reported in March that the head of the country’s intelligence service visited Washington on the invitation of Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo. In the meantime, Sudan has taken actions against the so-called Islamic State, which also is a US foe, including by arresting several domestic supporters of the group.

In an interview with AFP this week, US Chargé d’Affaires to Khartoum Steven Koutsis pointed out that the original purpose of the US sanctions, first imposed by President Bill Clinton, had been to pressure Sudan into ending support for extremist groups. Later measures were added by George W. Bush in response to war in Darfur. Koutsis says that Washington differs with Khartoum over its human rights record but doesn’t think the decision on lifting US sanctions should be linked to human rights.

#2 – Fewer attacks in Two Areas, Darfur

Sudan did not launch a major dry season offensive in the Two Areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile in 2016-2017, instead declaring ceasefires that were interrupted only by some localized incidents of fighting. Reduced fighting in these partly Christian territories may reassure policymakers and lawmakers in Washington, for whom questions of religious freedom have been a concern.

Security has also partly improved in Darfur, according to a joint UN-AU strategic review of the Darfur peacekeeping mission that concluded in March. The government and several rebel groups have largely adhered to a ceasefire, though SLM-Minni Minawi rebels clashed with the government in May and were defeated after the Minawi forces were expelled from South Sudan.

The last major government offensive occurred in February-June 2016 against the Sudan Liberation Movement-Abdelwahid (SLM-AW) in Jebel Marra. In November, a prominent SLM-AW field commander known as Toro defected to the government along with dozens of fighters and other rebel officials, including the group’s military spokesman Shihabeldin Ahmed Hagar.

SLM-AW strongholds in Darfur’s mountainous central area have been thus significantly reduced, opening the way for aid access into the area, which hitherto had been cut off.

#3 – Humanitarian access32882227233_1f9a2189c9_kDisplaced people at a clinic for medical care in East Darfur, March 2017 (Credit: UNAMID / Abdulrasheed Yakubu)

Over the past six months the US Agency for International Development and US State Department have repeatedly pointed to signs of Sudan’s progress in improving humanitarian access for aid organizations in the western Darfur region. Aid groups late last year reestablished services in Golo, Central Darfur, landing civilian aircraft there for the first time in five years. US aid group International Medical Corps set up some health services in the area.

The US also in January welcomed amendments by Sudan to earlier restrictions on humanitarian aid. “We believe when implemented, these revised regulations will facilitate humanitarian actors’ efforts to get aid to those in need. We recognize this as a positive step and we expect to see sustained gains in humanitarian access,” said a State Department spokesman.

#4 – Qatar Crisis

A diplomatic row in the Middle East has left Washington in a difficult position. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all US allies and each have their own lobbyists and respective points of influence in Washington. Rex Tillerson’s State Department is keen to find a quick solution that prevents a prolonged, destabilizing struggle among the Gulf powers. But Tillerson also cannot necessarily afford to casually dismiss the demands of the Saudi-led coalition and risk alienating the Saudis, who lead the more powerful set of Middle East allies.

The Qatar Crisis ‘raises the stakes’ on the Sudan sanctions decision

This means that Washington may be inclined to tread lightly in the weeks ahead in its relations with the Sunni Arab powers of North Africa and the Middle East — Sudan among them — as it seeks to mediate a solution to the Qatar Crisis. Easing sanctions on Sudan would be welcomed not only in Sudan but potentially elsewhere in the Middle East too.

Payton Knopf, a former US official and coordinator of the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan, says that the timing of the July deadline on Sudan sanctions — in the midst of the Qatar Crisis — “raises the stakes” on the decision. Writing on Twitter on June 21st, Knopf noted that Saudi Arabia had advocated for the lifting of sanctions on Sudan.

#5 – Ending the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army

Both the United States and its ally Uganda have recentily deprioritized a long-running fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic and northern Democratic Republic of Congo. US Special Forces and Ugandan troops both withdrew from CAR in April, ending their search for LRA leader Joseph Kony empty-handed.

Kony’s was previously reported to have been based in Sudan’s remote Kafia Kinji region, but his present whereabouts is unknown. His troops have been reduced to about 150 after allied efforts to eliminate LRA safe havens, encourage defections and capture key leaders, according to General Thomas Waldhauser, head of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).

“The LRA is not a threat to central governments and populations centers, but reduced to areas of ungoverned spaces,” Waldhauser said in testimony to the US Senate in March.

LRA troops were reported in Darfur as recently as 2016, but some Western foreign policy analysts nonetheless see Sudan as a potential partner rather than a spoiler; International Crisis Group, a thinktank, wrote in a new report that “Khartoum is believed to have distanced itself from the LRA.” The thinktank cited Sudan’s attendance at a meeting of the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2017 as a sign of “willingness to cooperate” in US-led efforts to eradicate the group.

The lower priority given to anti-LRA operations in recent months, coupled with a belief that Sudan is cooperating in efforts targeting the group, may be to Sudan’s advantage as US officials weigh ending sanctions against it.