The surprise visit to Syria by Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to meet his counterpart, Bashar Al-Assad, has raised more questions than it answers. Why was there no official announcement? Why did he use a Russian military aircraft to get there? And what exactly were the substance of the talks between the two leaders?
What is certain is that the trip has drawn into sharp focus Sudan’s willingness to act unilaterally in its own interests and to ignore the collective regional policy of its neighbours. In November 2011, Syria was suspended from the Arab League over its failure to end the bloodshed of its brutal crackdown on civil protests, which has led to the deaths of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of over 11 million in the ensuing protracted 7-year conflict.
In the coming weeks, informed sources predict that Sudan will go one step further to pursue its interests by withdrawing its eight thousand troops from Yemen, effectively ending its strategic role against the Houthi rebels. It remains to be seen what has precipitated the expected announcement, although the presence of Sudanese troops in Yemen has been a thorny issue discussed for some time by the reconciliation government and parliament in Khartoum.
Nevertheless, despite the expected political fallout with the Gulf States, Al-Bashir’s visit seems to have been prompted by a number of factors. These include his annoyance that despite promises of investment, none of Sudan’s Gulf allies, with the exception of Qatar, have kept their word at a time when the economic crisis in the country is deepening.
Adding insult to injury, Sudanese observers say that the recent announcement by Saudi Arabia to form an alliance to control the Red Sea has produced the clearest signal yet that Riyadh intends to monopolise the Sea’s mineral wealth explored jointly with Sudan until recently, and establish a security corridor to prevent the entry of “unauthorised” vessels, naval or merchant. The move is seen in Khartoum as a decision designed clearly to allow Sudan to develop the Red Sea area for tourist purposes but curtail any ambition it may have to establish a military base on its coast with its Russian and Turkish allies.
It also seems clear that Al-Bashir is sending the strongest message yet that it supports the idea that the Syrian President will have a role in post-conflict Syria. Sudan has never supported the idea of removing Al-Assad from power although it did support sanctions against Damascus imposed by the Arab League. Sudan’s decision to become a public ally of the Syrian leader bodes well for relations that have always been extremely strong, although this leaves a cloud over Sudan’s foreign policy options with its allies in the Gulf. It has to be said that Sudan has not closed its embassy in Syria during the conflict nor did it sever ties or force the Syrian diplomatic mission in Khartoum to close.
However, there are genuine concerns that Sudan’s backing of Al-Assad could mean history is about to repeat itself. In 2003, after the second Gulf conflict when Sudan gave its support to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, it was forced to suffer the political and economic consequences. After the war, Kuwait and other Gulf countries stopped hiring Sudanese citizens and cut all investments and aid. At the time, Kuwait was a big investor in the south of the country before South Sudan’s emergence as an independent state, while Iraq had zero investment anywhere in Sudan.
Again, it is no accident that Russia was keen to facilitate the meeting between the two leaders as it seeks to legitimise its role in Syria as a peacemaker rather than a protagonist. Flying the first Arab leader since the start of the war to acknowledge Al-Assad’s presidency in a Russian military aircraft from Khartoum to Damascus was an extremely significant move. This not only puts Sudan in breach of official Arab League policy, but also in the vanguard of a changing attitude towards the Syrian President.
Russia has also made promises to Sudan that Al-Bashir expects Moscow to keep, not least the completion of a nuclear energy plant and major investment to extract petroleum residues in the east of the country. Sudan is also keen to renew its depleted military resources and there can be no doubt that cooperating with Moscow could bear fruit in that respect.
To that end, the two sides have signed 14 cooperation agreements in different areas, including oil, minerals and banking. The agreements include a concession for the Russian company Rus Geology to explore for oil in Sudan’s Bloc E57 and another accord for the geological mapping of the Jebel Moya area in North Kordofan State. Unconfirmed reports claim that Russia has deposited £1.26 billion in Sudan’s Central Bank in an attempt to stabilise the country’s currency, which has plummeted by 85 per cent against the US dollar.
It is just two years before the next general election in Sudan, in which Al-Bashir is expected to stand for a third term as President following an amendment to the constitution. There have also been new attempts by the outgoing UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, and the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran to prepare a new Syrian constitution. This is, therefore, an important time for Sudan and Syria to express hopes that a new phase in inter-Arab relations is possible, based on mutual respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. No doubt the rest of the Arab League, as well as members of the UN, will be watching and waiting to see how quickly new principles can be developed and applied on the ground.