SMC Exclusive Interview: US Chargé d’Affaires Steven Koutsis


President Barack Obama, with only a week left in his presidency, had made the decision to sign an executive order to lift sanctions and open up trade with Sudan. Since 1997, the United States has imposed economic, trade, and financial sanctions against resource-rich Sudan. The eased sanctions will enable trade and investment transactions to resume. The White House announced the decision as part of a five-track engagement process. Obama built in a six-month waiting period before the benefits for Sudan go into effect. By July 12, several US agencies would have to affirm to the White House — which will be controlled by President-elect Donald Trump — that Sudan is continuing taking positive steps before the sanctions would be eased. In a letter to Congress, Obama said he’s determined that the situation that led the US to impose and continue sanctions had changed over the last six months in light of Sudan’s “positive actions.” “These actions include a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, and steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism.”

To further understand the implications of the move and the shift in policy, the Sudanese Media Centre (SMC) was given the opportunity to interview the US Chargé d’Affaires Mr. Steven Koutsis at the US Embassy in Khartoum. His Excellency was interviewed by Salma M.A. Ismail.

Q. Thank you your Excellency for giving us this opportunity. Let us begin by asking you about the role the embassy played in the recent shift in relations and policy change in Sudan, remembering that a former US Envoy {Gerard M. Gallucci} had criticized US policy towards Sudan.

A. Welcome to the embassy. We are happy to have you here. The engagement that has happened since June of last year began between the US government and the Sudanese government. The role that the embassy played was an interlocutor between our two governments. We had a series of meetings held between the Sudanese side and the US side. From the US side there was a mixture of officials coming from Washington and officials from the embassy including myself to discuss the progress of the discussion towards lifting the sanctions. I think my predecessor was signaling that we wanted to seek a new approach to the sanctions, but I doubt he criticized them.

Do you really think Sudan has made that significant progress to have the sanctions eased, especially that there are many Western entities that are criticizing the US move. What is your opinion on that and what do you say to them?

I have seen some criticism and I have seen a lot of support for it as well. We have always said that lifting the sanctions should be the result of Sudan being at peace with itself and with its neighbors. When Minister Ghandour {Sudan Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour} asked our government through our Secretary of State what that precisely would mean. We devised a plan of action to bring to that result as best as we could. And we realized that given the timetable of the US government, that a six-month period would be required to see that through so we gave them certain conditions that we would like to meet in order to lift the sanctions and in fact they made great progress on all five areas that we asked them for improvement. Is it enough? Obviously not, it’s for that reason that the lifting of sanctions is designed to allow for a six-month review period beginning now and annual reviews following that. But we are confident that the government of Sudan has understood that the main way to return to the family of nations is to bring peace to itself.

A lot can happen in six months. There are some worries that the president –elect policies might not agree with Obama’s policy and might want to change things. What is your opinion on that?

Of course the new administration will have the legal authority to do what it wants. It can make it more restrictive but they also take this as a stepping stone for further normalization of our relations. This is something I can’t speak of yet but I can say a lot will depend on how the government of Sudan continues in the next six months. If they continue on the path that they have put themselves, I think they will get a favorable view from the new administration.

How fast will this executive order roll out into laws and regulations in the US? What kind of cooperation do you foresee in the future?

The actual lifting of sanctions in fact are lifted as of today. It’s done through what’s called a general license that the treasury department has issued. The executive order that President Obama issued will revoke the two executive orders that are the foundation of this general license in six months which will make it basically permanent. But in reality there’s no real difference in effect between now and six months. So over the last twenty years the levels and layers of sanctions on Sudan over various laws are very complicated of course and they stretch across many different acts of congress and many different executive actions. So they have to be unwound one by one obviously. And that takes some time.

The decision came as a somewhat surprise to many Sudanese businessmen and investors who are not sure how to navigate them. How will the US government during the next six months assist the Sudanese government and businessmen in adapting to these changes?

Yes. We have lifted the legal impediments for these businesses but obviously businesses have to make their decisions based on their own risks and gains. But what we can do and what the executive order now allows us to do is to both talk to businesses and trades and to encourage exports from the United States to Sudan. We will continue as we have in the past to explain to banks what is permissible under the law. But again in the end it’s up to banks and businesses to determine their own plans.

Sudan is a very resource- rich country with an excellent strategic location and many untapped opportunities in invest, agriculture and others. What is the US interested to invest in Sudan?

That is something the US businesses have to decide. The US economy is not a status system that you see in other countries and it’s not centralized as you see in other countries. All we can do is encourage business investment and they can decide what areas they want to invest but I think the areas you talked about are really areas that not only US businesses but other businesses would want to look at and invest in.

Let’s go back to the decision itself. Did any regional countries play a role in the US decision to lift the sanctions?

Obviously over the last several years we have talked with other countries and other countries have encouraged us to review our sanctions policy but the decision to move forward with Sudan to lift sanctions over the course of this engagement was strictly a bilateral one.

There’s a recent and very significant shift of allegiances in the region, Sudan is already cooperating with China and with Russia and now with the US. Will there be any competition or rivalries played out in Sudan?

The issue of China, Russia and the United States in Africa is a very complicated one, obviously. It plays out in different ways in different countries in Africa but the bottom line is as long as everyone plays by the rules and follows international norms and other actions that kind of competition can be helpful.

Sudan is trying to distance itself from the conflicts in South Sudan and in Libya, but what is the US expecting from Sudan there?

I would not characterize it as distancing itself. In fact we are encouraging it to engage in both these issues, but what we are expecting is that they engage in a multilateral sense. And not to make decisions based solely on its own interests. Sudan has done that in South Sudan by working through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and also in Libya through multilateral discussions so what we want Sudan to continue as it’s been doing now is to work in a multilateral way to ensure that there is peace in South Sudan and Libya.

The Sudanese National Intelligence and Security System (NISS) has already been cooperating with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Do we see the cooperation increased, possibly something on the ground, perhaps an involvement in The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM)?

Our cooperation with the intelligence here has been primarily on counter-terrorism and I expect that to continue quite a bit. The cooperation with AFRICOM is hindered somewhat because our laws still do not allow us to provide for military sales and military assistance. But I think intelligence cooperation through the different security services can and must continue.

There are agreements between Sudan and Washington regarding the peace process in the Two Areas and Darfur. What does the US say to armed groups that reject peace now, especially now?

Ambassador Booth, the special envoy is actually in Paris right now trying to work with the members of the ‘Sudan Call’ and others to try to finalize an agreement on the roadmap of the AUHIP especially on cessation of hostilities agreement in the Two Areas and Darfur. We hope that he succeeds. But if he doesn’t we will continue to press the opposition to adhere to the roadmap. As well as the government by the way.

The Sudanese government has announced an extension of the ceasefire. But there are fears that the armed groups will try to undermine the government’s efforts and try to break the ceasefire. How will the US government support these efforts?

We appreciate the fact that for the last six months the government of Sudan has not made any offensive operations. Any military activity that has occurred has been limited. We will continue to counsel restraint on the side of the government to ensure that any attacks are responded to in self-defense only and not large retaliations. And we will continue to push the opposition again to choose the path of peace.

Sudan has been and continues to cooperate with the US for a long time now in the fight against terrorism. It has been exerting many efforts in this regard and positioned itself as a reliable US ally in the war on terror. Yet it remains on the US state-sponsoring terrorism list? How is this possible? Doesn’t it hinder efforts to fight terrorism? Do we see Sudan being removed from that black list?

Being placed on the list and taken off the list is governed by statutes. So the process to be removed from the list is a statutory effort. Since we are in the last few days of the Obama administration, I don’t foresee something happening this week. So I think this is something that we will engage with the Sudanese. Ministry Ghandour has already expressed his desire for Sudan to be removed from the list. And we will work with them to ensure the conditions can made for their removal from the list. I just want to stress this is not a purely political decision based on a whim or a decision for the moment. It’s based on statutory requirements and they have to be met.

Let us talk a little about education and cultural cooperation. What kind of programs do you see taking place between the two countries?

Because of all the sanctions there are still limitations on what we can do for developmental assistance. That said, we can do some cultural cooperation and we already have a robust program to try to strengthen academic exchanges with the United States. This embassy well before my arrival has done a wonderful job on doing that. We will try to find other ways to strengthen cultural ties. Other development assistance we are going to have to work with USAID to try to engage that role. We do have some educational programs but they are very small.

Are there any plans for the US in assisting with humanitarian needs in the Two Areas and Darfur? There is some talk that the US has suggested it will assist.

We have suggested that. It seems to be the main stumbling block for the cessation of hostilities agreement- a path providing humanitarian assistance to the Two Areas and this is what blocked progress in August. In the final signing of an agreement and we have been working since August to try to bring the two sides closer together. The SPLM-N are insisting that some of the assistance go across border from a neighboring country. Their view is that they cannot count on the government of Sudan to fulfill its commitments on any agreement on providing humanitarian assistance. The government on its part is concerned that opening a border would allow for trafficking of other goods and would make it more difficult for them to stop the flow of weapons and other things. We have to on the bottom line get the two sides to feel more confident of each other’s needs. What the United States has done is it has proposed a way that it can be an actor in ensuring that these flows will continue and that they will not be stopped by the government. We’re trying to reach an agreement with both sides that the United States can play that role.

Can you be a little more specific, on what you mean by the US being an “actor.” Exactly what do you see the US doing there?

Those details are actually being negotiated right now. So I don’t want to presume what the final outcome will look like. But the important thing to understand is that the United States is willing to take steps to ensure that humanitarian assistance will not be able to be shut off by one side or the other.

That was our last question, but would you like to add anything?

I want to say as I have been saying for the last couple of days following the announcement of the lifting of sanctions that it was a very complicated process for the removal of sanctions and that’s because the sanctions themselves are very complex and cover a myriad of laws. So trying to dig into the executive order and the general license and the commerce order you can have a lot of questions and we will receive a lot of questions. But the bottom line is that the sanctions are lifted as of today and the lifting of sanctions is comprehensive.

So I am very happy for that.

Thank you very much your Excellency.