Bashir, Onetime Crony of Bin Laden and Iran, Wants to Be Friends with the US & Israel

The only stable feature of Omar Bashir’s 29-years long rule of Sudan has always been his financial and political pragmatism. This has kept the 74-year old ruler oscillating wildly between friends and allies. Charged with heinous acts of genocide and war crimes, his past associations were mostly with unsavory characters. However, his latest pivot is taking Sudan in a new direction. From friend of extremists and enemies of the West and Israel, Bashir has turned to wooing Washington and Jerusalem.

At the beginning of the month, the chief of staff of the Sudan Defense Force (SDF), Gen. Kamal Abdul-Marouf al-Mahi, travelled to Washington – the first visit there by a Sudanese official for 25 years – on the invitation of Chairman of US Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. The Sudan’s top soldier and military intelligence chief, Gen. Mustaphi Mohammed Mustaphi, attended a conference on combating violent extremism on 6 October, but then spent another 10 days in Washington on a national mission. Although US sanctions on his regime were lifted in summer, Khaartoum is anxious to be removed from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. US officials tend to respond favorably. Gen. al-Mahdi was given a chance to present his case to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, Alan Patterson offering cooperation with US intelligence in return. Ashley proposed reinforcing that cooperation by permitting Sudan and the US African Command (AFRICOM) to reopen their offices in Khartoum and Washington. This took place on Oct. 12 and Sudan has since appointed Col. Abou Dar Dafallah as its new military attachê in Washington.

The Sudanese leader has had a checkered relationship with Washington.

From 1994 up until mid-1996, Bashir earned many millions of dollars as yearly stipends from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Bin Laden family, one of the richest clans in the oil kingdom, for granting the leaders of Al Qaeda and its partner-in-terror, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, permission to set up headquarters and operate out of Khartoum. Osama bin Laden also contributed to Sudan’s coffers from his personal fortune for a license to establish in Sudan VX nerve agent factories for Al Qaeda’s armory.

Those were the factories destroyed by US cruise missiles or the orders of President Bill Clinton, on Aug. 20, 1988 , two years after Bin Laden had relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan – ironically with the help of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

In his post-Al Qaeda era, the Sudanese ruler provided Iran with valuable strategic services. The Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) received licenses for the manufacture in Sudan of missiles and other weapons required for Iran’s operations in the Middle East, as well as to feed its supply route to the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Israel bombed those factories and the Iranian arms shipments twice – once in March 2009 and again in October 2012.

Between 2013 and 2016, Bashir granted the Iranian Guards Navy the use of Sudan’s naval bases on the Red Sea. He finally evicted IRGC ships upon receipt of a hefty Saudi annual stipend running to tens of millions of dollars. The deal was not purely financial. Khartoum also agreed to provide the Saudi-led coalition fighting pro-Iranian rebels in Yemen with a 10,000-strong contingent of Sudanese troops.

Turkey was Bashir’s next good friend. In 2017, he granted President Tayyip Erdogan the use of the Red Sea island of Suakin as a naval and surveillance base against Saudi Arabia. Ankara undertook to pay for the island by building Sudan a string of power plants and industrial factories, a commitment on which he never intended to deliver because Turkey is too broke.

The Sudanese ruler’s presidency has perpetrated the most brutal acts of genocide. In 2008, he was accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. In July, 2010, the court issued a second warrant containing more than three separate counts of genocide in Darfur, where he unleashed the fearsome Janjaweed militia to forcibly separate factions of “Africans” from “Arabs.” The non-Arab population was claimed by the Sudanese government to have suffered 10,000 dead in that conflict. UN estimates were much higher, closer to 300,000.

With all that history, Sudan’s Omar Bashir’s officials are welcomed in Washington and assiduously courting Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in pursuit of an advantageous military and economic pact with Israel alongside his military cooperation arrangements with the Trump administration.

The Sudanese ruler saw the advantage of turning to new allies after viewing six developments:

  1. Ever since 2011, Israel has maintained strong political, military and economic ties with Bashar’s most determined foes, the leaders of South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after Africa’s longest-running civil war. In 2013, the new state was itself engulfed by civil war after President Salva Kiir sacked his cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of instigating a failed coup.
  2. In Aug. 2018, after five years of civil bloodshed, the two rivals signed a power-sharing agreement in Addis Ababa. Israel helped the mediation effort. This week, the South Sudanese rebel leader Machar returned to the capital Juba for nationwide peace celebration, more than two years after fierce fighting forced him to flee into exile on foot.
  3. On Sept. 16, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement in Saudi Arabia, the second such deal reached between the two warring east African countries. Israel had a role in that deal as well.
  4. Israel’s strategic, military and economic ties are developing apace with Egypt, Sudan’s big northern neighbor. Netanyahu and President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi have a good understanding.
  5. The Sudanese ruler is also impressed by the deepening ties between Israel and the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and. Qatar.
  6. President Bashir sees a chance to clean up his image in the eyes of the American public and Trump administration and believes Israel can help him achieve this.

For all these reasons, the Sudanese ruler is willing to flip over from one of Israel’s most steadfast enemies to an enthusiastic friend. Although he is politically backed by elements closely allied with the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, he is opening the door to Israeli farming experts and inviting military instructors to advise Sudanese security military and security forces. He even welcomes Israeli economic and financial advisers to come over and look over the prospects for Israel investments in the country.

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