FRESH AIR

West ignores the Sudan war at its peril

Feb 14, 2024 | Oved Lobel

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets his Sudanese counterpart Ali Al-Sadiq Ali in Tehran, Feb. 6 (image: Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets his Sudanese counterpart Ali Al-Sadiq Ali in Tehran, Feb. 6 (image: Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The civil war still raging in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese military – led respectively by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti, and the former chief of Sudan’s “sovereign council,” General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan – has taken a horrific toll on civilians.

The predominantly ethnically Arab RSF and its subordinate militias, for instance, have been conducting a genuinely genocidal campaign of rape, massacre and mutilation against the ethnic-African Masalit tribe in West Darfur, with 10,000-15,000 reportedly slaughtered in the provincial capital of El Geneina alone. Coupled with the displacement of whoever managed to escape the orgy of violence, including the RSF taking children and infants from fleeing mothers and bashing them to death or slitting their throats, the Masalit have been decimated. On top of this, 4%-5% of males under 44 among the 500,000 refugees that have fled to Chad are reportedly missing.

Unfortunately, Sudan is no stranger to genocide; the RSF is simply the latest incarnation of the Janjaweed, the militia mainly responsible for the previous genocide in Darfur during the former regime’s counterinsurgency campaigns. As horrific as this particular bout seems, it would arguably not by itself be a justification for substantial Western intervention any more than previous instances of ethnically targeted mass violence.

However, this time there is a strategically vital reason not to allow the Sudan war to simply play out: the Russo-Iranian alliance and the strategic gains it will likely reap. What is happening in Sudan is not simply a civil war or even just a regional war, but one key battle in the overall global struggle between the West and its allies and partners and the Russia-China-Iran axis, a battle in which even Ukrainian special forces are reportedly involved.

Russia’s pursuit of a naval base at Port Sudan

While there is a tendency among regional analysts to overemphasise domestic complexities and relationships to explain events, nearly everything that has happened in Sudan since the overthrow of its decades-long dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, including that event itself, has been driven largely by external powers.

In October 2021, Russia “actively supported” a coup against the civilian government, in part to preserve its decade-long history of plundering billions of dollars’ worth of Sudanese gold to help finance its invasion of Ukraine and provide a sanctions cushion. As one former US official described the coup to CNN, “Russia is a parasite. It pillaged Sudan. And it has exacted a very large political penalty by terminating a democratic project that could have turned Sudan into a great nation.”

But Russia likely has a different, even more important objective in mind; that is, a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, one it had been trying to negotiate since 2017. These plans were disrupted by the overthrow of Bashir, but the US still had considerable influence with the Sudanese military and therefore renewed negotiations stalled in mid-2022, with one US intelligence official telling Foreign Policy in July 2022, “They’re very hesitant to give them access to this port. They continue to try and delay and do delay tactics.”

In February 2023, Sudanese officials announced the military had finally concluded a review of the deal and would ratify it pending the formation of a civilian government and legislative body. This, of course, was another clear delaying tactic, as at no stage was the military ever going to allow the formation of a civilian government.

Thus, the Russians, via their Libyan client Khalifa Haftar, immediately began preparing the ground for another coup – including training hundreds of RSF in urban warfare in February – in order to get their long-standing proxy in the Sudanese junta, Hemedti, into power to sign off on the deal.

Previously, in 2019, Hemedti had reportedly dispatched a “large contingent” of RSF forces to help Haftar during the Libyan civil war at the behest of Russia and the UAE.

Hemedti duly launched Russia’s war two months later, backed to the hilt with weapons, including vital antiaircraft missiles, to negate the military’s air force advantage, and other logistical support from Russia and its frequent junior partner the UAE, which has also been a key Russian enabler in backing Haftar in Libya.

Somewhat ironically, the RSF had previously been providing thousands of fighters to assist the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis in Yemen. That, however, had not been an ideological struggle against Iran for the RSF, but a purely mercenary endeavour.

Iran back in Sudan

On October 9, while Israel was still fighting to clear its own territory of more than a thousand terrorists from Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups that had invaded the country and carried out mass atrocities and kidnapping two days before, Sudan and Iran suddenly announced they were normalising relations. This normalisation of relations, ruptured in 2016 at the behest of the Gulf Arab states, follows a broader normalisation between those states and Iran since 2022.

Up until 2016, and particularly during the 1990s, Sudan served the same purpose to the south of Israel as Syria did in the north: a command-and-control, training, financing and logistics hub for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Palestinian and Lebanese organs – Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) – as well as al-Qaeda and other terrorist clients. Missiles and other weapons were transferred by the IRGC to Sudan and then smuggled into Gaza, necessitating multiple Israeli airstrikes inside Sudan.

The IRGC was deeply intertwined with the former regime of Omar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi, and it is no surprise that former regime elements now fighting against the RSF are reportedly receiving Iranian drones and other weapons. I wrote in late 2022 that “It is likely that other Russian client regimes in Africa, such as the junta in Sudan, will also welcome back the IRGC.” However, Iran remains a bit player in this conflict and likely has contact with all sides.

The larger issue is that a Russian naval base at Port Sudan would grant the IRGC an immune transhipment point from where it could send arms to Gaza and avoid Israeli strikes as in the past. A similar function is fulfilled by Russia’s base in Syria.

The IRGC already has a substantial presence in the Red Sea, including on islands off Eritrea as well as in Somalia, where it arms al-Qaeda’s al-Shabaab – the current leader of al-Qaeda, Saif al Adel, has been based in Iran since 2003 – as well as, in the other direction, the IRGC’s branch in Yemen, Ansar Allah, widely known as the Houthis. The US recently intercepted a dhow off the Somali coast carrying cruise and ballistic missiles as well as air defence components intended for the Houthis.

There are now reports that the IRGC has already established – or re-established – camps and bases along Sudan’s coast involving the IRGC’s Palestinian, Yemeni, Lebanese and Iraqi elements. If accurate, these sites can still be struck if they come to pose a direct threat to Israel or commercial shipping. That, however, will cease to be true if Russia’s naval base becomes a reality, as the IRGC will simply start routing weapons through there.

The China-Russia-Iran axis

China already has a large naval base that can accommodate its rapidly expanding navy in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea, from which it harasses US forces and interferes with US operations. It is in the waters off this base that the IRGC intelligence ship Behshad protects itself from retaliation after guiding Houthi strikes against the US Navy and international shipping. The ship and its sister vessel are also “transshipment points for Iranian weapons,” according to Michael Knights. These ships, says Knights, “pretend to be anti-piracy garrison ships that Iranian and Syrian shipping can visit” – an irony given that they are in fact directly involved in piracy.

A Russian naval base further up the Red Sea coast in Sudan looks like a near-certainty if the Sudan war continues on its current trajectory, and would provide the same protection for IRGC assets. In addition, it’s quite likely that Russia, China or both could be offered military facilities in Yemen, something former President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered the Russians in August 2016.

This will happen regardless of whether or not the Houthis are able to seize control of the entire country or whether the UAE’s proxies manage to hold onto the South. The UAE, after all, is a strategic partner of both Russia and China, and has allowed the latter to build military facilities in its own territory while acting as a sanctions-busting hub for Russian imperial campaigns.

Giving the anti-Western Axis virtual control of the Red Sea would be a strategic catastrophe and could soon make the already difficult mission of securing international trade against IRGC piracy and missile and drone attacks all but impossible. A Russian naval base in Sudan, which will likely be the result of the current war in Sudan without Western intervention, will allow the IRGC to rearm Hamas and PIJ with impunity. The United States and its allies therefore have a strong interest in finding ways to prevent that outcome.

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