Sudan's transitional government secured a major victory in the US Congress on Monday night that will grant Khartoum partial immunity, marking a turning point in its relations with the United States.
Almost two months since US President Donald Trump announced the deal with Khartoum on October 23, promising restoration of Sudan’s sovereign immunity, and removal from the state department list of state sponsors of terrorism – on which it has been since 1993 – Congress has passed the Sudan Claims Resolution that addresses both. In return, Sudan will pay $335 million to compensate US victims of Al Qaeda attacks in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania that Khartoum backed. Sudan will also start political and economic relations with Israel.
The Sudan resolution is included in the $900 billion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed on Tuesday, with bipartisan support.
The 20-page bill is carefully drafted in a way that honours the deal that the White House made with Sudan’s transitional government, while at the same time grants compromises that few senators were seeking for families of the victims in terrorist attacks involving the deposed Omar Al Bashir government.
For the families, the bill preserves "the rights of 9/11 [September 11 terror attack] victims and families by allowing the 9/11 multi-district litigation to continue unharmed". It also goes beyond US citizens affected at the time and extends protections to those naturalised, which was a major sticking point between the Trump administration and the Senate.
“Securing $150,000,000 for dozens of naturalised US citizen victims and family members of the East Africa embassy bombings, which was necessary because the Trump administration’s deal with Sudan compensated naturalised US citizen terrorism victims at a rate that was approximately 90 per cent less than natural-born US citizens,” a summary of the bill read.
For Sudan and its young transitional government, the bill secures US help of $700 million in assistance and $230 million in debt relief. It highlights "recognition by Congress that the United States needs to support Sudan's democratic transition, particularly in light of the country's dire economic situation".
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former chief of staff for the US special envoy to Sudan, saw the deal as major progress in US-Sudan relations.
"It means that Sudan has partial restoration of its immunity, but also has allocated assistance ... a huge win at the cost of a small compromise," Mr Hudson told The National.
“With this deal, the US becomes a financial and political partner in Sudan's success. It fundamentally redefines the relationship.”
For decades under Omar Al Bashir who came to power in 1989 and was ousted in April 2019, the US-Sudan relationship had suffered and was embroiled in disagreements over support for extremist groups, ties to Al Qaeda and close relations to Iran.
In 1993, the US added Sudan to the state sponsors of terrorism list, then imposed a trade embargo and crippling sanctions to punish Khartoum for ties to extremist organisations, Iran, and its role in the genocide in Darfur.
Bilateral relations saw some progress in 2015 but are not fully normalised. Barack Obama’s quiet engagement with Khartoum produced a loosening of some sanctions. In 2017, the Trump administration lifted a 20-year old trade embargo on Sudan, and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) opened an office in the country.
The Trump administration continued the Obama approach and quiet diplomacy with Sudan while injecting the normalization with Israel as another incentive to repair relations with Khartoum. With Congress’ vote certifying the deal, the Trump administration will see a major policy effort bear fruition before it leaves office on January 20.