On December 16, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir paid a surprise visit to Syria and held a meeting with Bashar al-Assad. It was the first visit for any Arab leader to the war-torn country since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011.
Omar al-Bashir and Bashar al-Assad discussed recent developments in Syria and the region and prospects of bilateral cooperation. However, the real reason for the visit remains unclear to the international community, though some consider it a favorable sign for Bashar Al-Assad, who is seen as having started attracting Arab leaders and officials to Damascus for future cooperation and dialogue.
Sudan is not a close partner of Syria in terms of economic relations. Sudan is weak and unstable, although its military capabilities might be a matter of interest for both Syria and Russia
Bashir, who himself was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, found a way to bust the sanctions imposed on him by the international community and make this trip through the logistical support extended to him by Russia. It is noteworthy that the ICC’s decision has not been recognized by the African Union, the Arab League, China and Russia. Bashir has ruled the country since 1989. Under his rule, Sudan has faced political instability and many protests due to poverty related issues. Recent protests in Sudan are also not related to Bashir’s visit to Damascus, but are driven by purely economic reasons.
Thus, the meeting of the Sudanese president with the Syrian leader was of one international pariah meeting the other. Not the norm, this is just a development related to Syria pointing towards settlement of the conflict. The Sudanese leader arrived on board a Russian plane that unmistakably points to the fact that Russia was the sponsor of this trip. Why has this visit taken place now? Why has Russia sponsored this visit? And what does it mean for Syria, Russia and Sudan itself?
Sudan is not a close partner of Syria in terms of economic relations. Sudan is weak and unstable, although its military capabilities might be a matter of interest for both Syria and Russia. Sudanese military forces are deployed in Yemen. As the Yemeni crisis seems to be approaching settlement in one way or the other, there are chances of Sudanese forces being redeployed to Syria.
The Syrian crisis is still far from any resolution. One of the major obstacles is the huge presence of Iranian forces on Syrian territory. The presence of Iran-backed troops in Syria is of major concern to Israel and Gulf States. They demand full withdrawal of Iranians from Syria. The sectarian divide is getting wider in the context of continuous confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran is seeking many ways to tackle Saudi power and is seeking to counter Saudi influence in the Levant and strengthening its position.
Israel also has its own reasons to oppose Iran and Iran-backed militias, which it considers as grave threat to its security. Iran has started understanding that in the current scenario, Tehran has to yield to international military pressure and at least partially withdraw its forces from Syria. Russia understands that Iranian withdrawal to some extent would weaken Russian military sites in Syria, which will also adversely affect and weaken Syrian army.
Sudan enters Syrian fray
Deployment of Sudanese military forces as replacement of Iran-backed militias and troops in Syria might come as a solution for Syrians and Russians. The presence of the Sudanese army in Syria, instead of the Shiite militias might be a satisfying solution for Israel, the GCC and the international community.
Russia took the initiative of strengthening ties with Sudan in 2017. The move gained pace in the beginning of 2018 when Bashir visited Moscow in June for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to boost bilateral cooperation in the sphere of oil production with the participation of Russian oil giants, such as Rosneft, Gazprom Neft and military support extended to the Sudanese army.
Sudan is interested in Russian experience in launching joint ventures in geology and minerals to mine gold and precious stones. Russia proposes Sudan to develop ties in the sphere of transportation, humanitarian cooperation and infrastructural development. Russia and Sudan have also discussed military and technological cooperation. Being in international isolation, Russia has extended its hand of friendship to Sudan to secure its borders and to equip Sudanese army with state-of-the-art weaponry. Thus, Sudanese involvement in Syria would not only enhance Syrian-Sudanese relations, but Russia-Sudan ties as well.
The deployment of Sudanese forces, instead of the Shiite militias in Syria would significantly ease existing tensions in the region and pave the way for a peaceful settlement of many conflicts in the Middle East. If Sudan, Russia and Syria accept this solution, will Sudanese army replace Iranian forces in Syria? It all depends on developments on withdrawal of US forces from Syria which is aimed at paving the way for the Turkish troops to have an upper hand in northeastern parts of Syria against the Kurds. This is the reason for the criticism of Turkish president Erdogan of Al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus.
Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub), expert of Valdai Club and RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council). Twitter: @politblogme.