Friday , 21 June 2024

Russia, China and Iran Must Not Seize Control of Sudan

gatestoneinstitute.org – Moscow has undertaken a radical change in its involvement in the Sudanese conflict, with the Kremlin now providing al-Burhan’s Islamist-aligned SAF its “uncapped” military support.

In return, Moscow is hoping the Sudanese leader will honour a deal struck in 2020 to allow Russia to establish a naval base in Port Sudan, a move that would enable the Russian navy to threaten directly Western trade routes passing through the Red Sea.

If, as now seems likely, both Russia and Iran, together with China, succeed in deepening their foothold in Sudan, as well as gaining access to key maritime bases such as Port Sudan, they will be in a strong position to challenge the West’s ability to protect key shipping routes in the Red Sea.

Iran’s presence in Sudan, moreover, will present a major challenge to Israel: it will complete Tehran’s strategic encirclement of the Israelis.

The Western powers must act urgently to protect this pivotal African state from falling into the hands of hostile autocratic regimes, such as Iran, Russia and China, which seek to use Sudan as a base from which to maintain their assault of the West and its key allies in the region.

Russia has undertaken a radical change in its involvement in the Sudanese conflict, with the Kremlin now providing General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s Islamist-aligned Sudanese Armed Forces its “uncapped” military support. Western powers must act urgently to protect this pivotal African state from falling into the hands of hostile autocratic regimes, such as Iran, Russia and China. Pictured: Al-Burhan in Gedaref State, Sudan, on April 10, 2024. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

A modern-day “Scramble for Africa” is taking place in war-torn Sudan, where an unholy collection of hostile autocratic states, namely Iran, Russia and China, are competing for a stake in the country’s key resources, especially the all-important maritime base of Port Sudan in the Red Sea.

Back in the late nineteenth century, the original “Scramble for Africa” was the term coined to describe the efforts of European colonial powers such as Britain, France and Germany to expand their influence throughout the African continent. Their campaign of expansion proved so successful that by the outbreak of the First World War, only Liberia and Ethiopia remained free from the shackles of European colonisation.

While Europe’s influence in Africa may have waned in recent decades, a new breed of foreign interlopers is today vying to consolidate their hold over key African states, with civil war-ravaged Sudan emerging as a prime target for the autocratic regimes in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.

Sudan’s precipitous decline into all-out war has proved disastrous for the long-suffering Sudanese population, with the UN estimating that at least 15,000 people have been killed during the violence of the past year, although aid agencies believe the figure is significantly higher.

In addition, more than 8.6 million people have been forced from their homes, while 25 million are said to be in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with Sudan achieving the unenviable record of having the largest population of displaced children in the world.

At the heart of the conflict is a deadly battle for power between the ruling Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo who is also known as “Hemedti”, which are battling to seize control of the country.

The civil war between the SAF, which has close ties to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and the RSF, which was established by Omar al-Bashir, the country’s former Islamist dictator, is the result of a deadly power struggle between two rival military factions.

While the conflict has inflicted widespread devastation on Sudan, it has also provided an opportunity for a number of autocratic regimes to seek to expand their influence within the strife-torn country.

For many years prior to the conflict, China had been one of Sudan’s most significant investment partners, with Beijing investing an estimated $6 billion in the country’s energy, agriculture and transport sectors since 2005.

China has also taken a close interest in Sudanese maritime assets such as Port Sudan, which it hopes will one day become a vital cog in its Belt and Road global trade route initiative.

Russia, too, had already initiated attempts before hostilities erupted to establish a foothold in Sudan in the form of the paramilitary Wagner Group which, under its former leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, served as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s private army.

Wagner mercenaries worked predominantly with the RSF, which benefited greatly from the support it received from Moscow, with Wagner reported to have supplied large quantities of weapons and equipment to Sudan, including military trucks, amphibious vehicles and two transport helicopters.

In return, Russia was given access to the east African country’s gold riches, thereby enabling Moscow to circumvent Western sanctions to fund its war effort in Ukraine.

Since Prigozhin’s death in a mysterious airplane crash last year, Moscow has undertaken a radical change in its involvement in the Sudanese conflict, with the Kremlin now providing al-Burhan’s Islamist-aligned SAF its “uncapped” military support.

In return, Moscow is hoping the Sudanese leader will honour a deal struck in 2020 to allow Russia to establish a naval base in Port Sudan, a move that would enable the Russian navy to threaten directly Western trade routes passing through the Red Sea.

While China has tried to maintain a degree of neutrality in the Sudanese conflict, Russia’s deepening support for al-Burhan and the Islamist-aligned SAF has laid the foundations for the entry of another hostile authoritarian regime into the conflict, in the form of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Given the vital support Iran has provided to Russia for its war effort in Ukraine, it was perhaps inevitable that Russia’s involvement in Sudan would ultimately pave the way for Iranian military hardware to be deployed on the Sudanese battlefield.

According to recent reports, the tide of the war is beginning to turn in favour of the SAF, after it began using Iranian-made drones earlier this year.

The newly acquired unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting during recent army victories in Omdurman, across the Nile from the country’s capital, Khartoum.

Iranian officials confirmed to the Reuters news agency that the SAF have had begun using the drones in its war against the RSF. The arrival of the Iranian drones in Sudan followed last year’s visit to Tehran by Ali Sadeq, Sudan’s acting foreign minister, during which he met with senior Iranian security officials.

The Iranian regime has a long history of cooperation with Khartoum, with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps regularly using Sudan as a base to ship weapons to terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah during Bashir’s dictatorship. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organisation was also based in Sudan for a time in the 1990s.

The deployment of Iranian drones in Sudan, together with Russia’s deepening involvement in the Sudanese conflict, should certainly be a cause for concern for Western policymakers given the country’s geographical significance in the Red Sea.

If, as now seems likely, both Russia and Iran, together with China, succeed in deepening their foothold in Sudan, as well as gaining access to key maritime bases such as Port Sudan, they will be in a strong position to challenge the West’s ability to protect key shipping routes in the Red Sea.

Iran’s presence in Sudan, moreover, will present a major challenge to Israel: it will complete Tehran’s strategic encirclement of the Israelis.

For this reason, it is vital that international mediation efforts are convened, as a matter of urgency, to bring this dreadful conflict to a close.

The Western powers must act urgently to protect this pivotal African state from falling into the hands of hostile autocratic regimes, such as Iran, Russia and China, which seek to use Sudan as a base from which to maintain their assault of the West and its key allies in the region.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.

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