President Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, is in big trouble. Whereas the Sudanese president has always been able to ride out popular dissent, this week, demands for his resignation over economic mismanagement and corruption, have spread to loyalist regions and are fueling discontent in his party. The authorities have cracked down hard on the demonstrations first triggered by the cancellation of the bread subsidy. Dozens have been killed and more arrested, but the riots continue to spread. Although Bashir still has control of his army, he increasingly relies on help from the Russian security firm Wagner. This firm, headed by a former Russian Spetsnaz colonel Dmitri Utkin, provides mercenaries for trouble spots in which the Kremlin owns an interest and is reluctant to post Russian boots. One of its partners, the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin is close to President Vladimir Putin.
These days, Wagner’s men are a conspicuous presence on Sudan’s streets, arresting dissidents, grilling them and opening fire on demonstrators who refuse to disperse.
That was not always so.
Last year, Washington and Khartoum were fast developing mutually productive ties. As recently as October 6, Sudan’s chief of staff Gen. Kamal Abdul-Marouf al-Mahi spent 10 days in Washington, the first visit by a Sudanese official in 25 years. He was invited by Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, to attend a conference on combating violent extremism. With him was Sudan’s intelligence chief Gen. Mustaphi Mohammed Mustaphi.
Although the US had lifted its sanctions against Sudan in the summer of 2018, Bashir also sought to have his country removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The Americans rated the visitors important enough to meet with the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Gen. Robert Ashley and the Dep. Ass. Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, Alan Patterson.
What the US officials he met were after was access to the intelligence collected by Bashir’s agencies on Somali Al Qaeda-Al Shabaab movements. Some of the terrorist group’s commanders used to be trained in Sudan and, from 2015 to 2017, wounded jihadists were smuggled through the Red Sea to Sudanese military hospitals for treatment. DEBKA Weekly reports that Kenyan intelligence agencies were interested in the American “opening” to Khartoum, since their army is fighting the Somali jihadists.
During the summer of 2018, the US-Kenyan link with Sudan prospered to the point that Bashir was listening to Nairobi’s advice to establish diplomatic ties with Israel and talked about bidding for Israeli arms purchases.
But now that the Sudanese president has his back to the wall against violent popular disaffection and needs shoring up, he decided not to keep all his eggs in the American basket but to hear what the Russians had to offer.
The Kremlin was not slow to seize the opening for a major strategic ploy.
On Jan. 12, Russian media reported that Moscow is negotiating with Sudanese President Bashir for permission to establish a naval base on its Red Sea shore. Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh greeted the news with dismay. These discussions followed a request for a port call by the Russian navy to pave the way for more agreements.
Maj. Gen. Al-Hadi Adam, chair of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, predicted this week that the port visits requested by Moscow could “morph into a permanent Russian military presence on the Red Sea coast.” Even port calls, he said, could give the Sudanese Navy first-hand experience of Russia’s “cutting edge military equipment, help train its naval forces and boost strategic ties between the two nations.”
According to Russian sources, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved a draft accord with Sudan to make the port visit possible.DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that if the Russian-Sudanese cooperation moves forward as planned, Moscow will gain its first presence on a Red Sea coast to match its naval base at Tartus and airbase at Khmeimim on Syria’s western Mediterranean shore. Russia will then be able to offer Iran the same military back-up in the Red Sea where, Tehran has its expansionist eye firmly fixed, as it does in Syria.