Sudan Prepares Major Military Offensive To Divert From Internal Unrest

By Joe Odaby

Juba, South Sudan — September 30, 2013 … The leading South Sudan think-tank, The Fashoda Institute of Strategic and Regional Studies, has published a strategic analysis of the recent military buildup in the neighboring Sudan.

Northern Sudan (capital: Khartoum), from which the South has seceded in 2011 after a long civil war, is led by the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashar who was indicted in 2010 by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The Fashoda institute points out that “the escalating fuel riots in Khartoum, and increasingly other cities in Sudan, serve as a stark reminder of the inherent fragility and instability of the country”.

The riots were sparked by the spiraling prices of all fuel products following the abolition of subsidies and the growing shortages of all fuel products. The recurring shortages of fuel result in shortages of food and other products and goods brought into Khartoum from both the Red Sea ports and the countryside. Within a few days, the riots became the worst since the 1989 riots that led to the military coup that brought to power Omar al-Bashir. “What began early this week in Sudan as a protest against the removal of fuel subsidies has developed into a full-blown uprising that is threatening President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s 24-year rule,” Arab political observers warned on September 27.

As the Khartoum riots escalated and turned political, the Sudanese military was sent to the streets to crackdown the riots by force. By 27 September, the Sudanese government acknowledged that over 50 demonstrators were killed by the security forces, over 250 were wounded, and over 600 were arrested. Numerous opposition sources put the casualties tally in Khartoum alone at over 150 fatalities, over 750 wounded, and over 2,000 arrested and/or disappeared. The military’s violent crackdown in Khartoum sparked even bigger and more violent riots over the weekend throughout Sudan. The protesters are now openly demanding the overthrow of Bashir’s regime while calling Bashir himself “a killer”. Moreover, both the Sudanese government and Arab diplomats report a growing use of automatic weapons by the rioters starting the evening of September 27. On the morning of the September 28, four security personnel were shot and killed in Khartoum by unidentified gunmen in the ranks of the rioters.

The Fashoda Institute writes that “the oil crisis is unfolding and escalating at a time when Khartoum is spending huge sums of hard currency on advanced weapons – mainly weapon systems optimized for long-range strikes and major wars rather than handling insurgencies such as the never-ending insurgency in Darfur”.

The Juba-based think-tank unveils that “in recent months, Khartoum has embarked on an unprecedented military build-up – mainly of air power. The key weapon systems are being purchased from Belarus. Most important is the acquisition of 12 refurbished Su-24Ms (4-6 of them already supplied) and 18 refurbished Su-30MKs (originally leased by India from Russia but returned to Belarus for the legal reason that the Russian Air Force cannot operate them).

Sudan was also negotiating the acquisition of another batch of second hand Su-25s to augment the existing fleet of 11 Su-25s (out of 14 originally purchased from Belarus). Belarus has a large arsenal of high quality combat aircraft that was put on sale for hard currency. A total of 35-36 Su-24Ms were withdrawn from service in February 2012, and the remaining 22-23 Su-24Ms are available for purchase. As well, 17 Su-27P and 4 Su-27UBM1fighters were withdrawn from service in December 2012 and also put for sale. The Belarus Air Force also has around 20 Su-25s stored in Lida. Khartoum expressed interest in virtually every major combat aircraft available and the main lingering issue is the availability of hard currency”. 

The Fashoda Institute points at the scope of the Sudanese military buildup: “Sudan is also looking for additional MiG-29s which Belarus cannot offer. Sudan acquired numerous MiG-29s in the last decade. In late 2008, 23 of the MiG-29s were in active service. However, only 11 of these MiG-29s were operational in the first half of 2013. One MiG-29 was claimed by the South Sudanese air defense on April 4, 2012. Apparently, the aircraft crash-landed in a Sudanese airbase and was written off. The other 11 MiG-29s were grounded due to maintenance difficulties. Sudan is interested in a large number of MiG-29s and the main candidate source is Ukraine that has around 100 MiG-29s of various models stored in reserve”.

“The most important undertaking by the Sudanese Air Force in recent months is the large scale recruitment of mercenaries – aircrews, technical experts and ground crews – from all over the former Soviet Union”, discovers the Fashoda Institute. “Their main mission is to activate, up-grade and better utilize the existing arsenal of the Sudanese Air Force (that had suffered both combat and technical damage in recent years). The first visible result is the growing number of MiG-29s that are taking off for test and evaluation flights. The efforts of the ex-Soviet mercenaries have already returned 4-6 additional MiG-29s to flying status.

The revamped Sudanese Air Force has unprecedented long range reach covering northern Ethiopia and all of nemesis South Sudan. Indeed, the Sudanese government is also committing huge resources to the up-grading and expansion of all key military airbases in the southern parts of the country – including the extension of paved runways and the construction of new buildings, bunkers and other facilities.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese government is making strenuous efforts with Russia to expedite and increase the deal for assault helicopters and helicopter gunships. On order are 12+6 Mi-8T and 12+6 Mi-24D/V/P. Although Khartoum is ready to pay cash for everything – the Kremlin is not rushing the deal for political-strategic reasons. Again, the Sudanese acquisition of weapon systems is accompanied by the widespread recruitment of mercenaries – aircrews, technical experts and ground crews – to get Sudan’s existing arsenal of 20 Mi-8/Mi-17 assault and 24 Mi-24 combat helicopters into better operational status, and have highly qualified aircrews in the cockpits”.

The Fashoda Institute points out that “although the main emphasis of Khartoum is air power, the expansion and modernization of the military is not neglected either. The current priority of Khartoum is launching a concentrated effort to fully operationalize and activate the large quantities of heavy weapons (tanks and artillery) purchased from Ukraine in 2009-2010 and delivered over the next couple of years. The main weapon systems are T-72 MBTs, BM-21 MRLs, 152mm 1S3 SPGs, 122mm 2S1 SPGs, and 122mm D-30 guns. As well, the Sudanese army has embarked on the refurbishment and modernization of key military bases and garrisons in southern Sudan – including the installation of modern communications systems.

The Sudanese military build-up effort got a major boost on 9 September during the visit of Libyan defense minister Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani to Khartoum. Sudan’s defense minister Abdel Rahim Hussein signed an agreement with his Libyan counterpart on large scale weapons, spares and ammunition transfers mainly from Qadhafi’s stockpiles in southern Libya. In return, Sudan promised to restrain Libyan Jihadists that had sought and received shelter in Sudan and prevent them from returning to Libya. (The Sudan-Libya agreement is identical to the agreement signed with Egypt in 2001.) The supplies from Libya will also enable the Sudanese military to activate and return to operational use a sizeable force of older models of Soviet-origin weapons”.

“Taken together, these efforts point out to active preparations for a major land war rather than mere escalation of the fighting against irregular forces in Darfur or elsewhere in Sudan”, highlights the report of the Fashoda Institute.

“Khartoum needs a major diversion of the popular anguish and frustration”, says the Institute’s analysis. “Addressing external threats is a proven diversion from internal crises. The calls for the reunification of Sudan under the banner of Islam have been a popular rallying cry for the widespread Islamist and Mahdist constituencies – and thus a sure method for getting their supporters out of the swelling ranks of rioters. Moreover, it is also expedient for the Bashir administration to blame the oil crisis and shortage of funds on the lingering impact of the transfer of so many oilfields to South Sudan after the mid-2011 break-up of Sudan.           

Ultimately, Khartoum is driven by the grim realities of the region, and Bashir’s determination to get involved in crises with assertive offensive strategy. Irrespective of reassuring political rhetoric – Sudan and South Sudan are heading toward a major face-off that might easily escalate into violence. Abyei remains a volatile region with tension growing as a result of Sudan’s atrocious suppression of grassroots revolts in surrounding South Kordofan. The Abyei crisis will also keep lingering since the referendum is nowhere to be seen. Khartoum considers the Abyei oil reserves a shortcut to addressing the economic catastrophe and therefore won’t accept the secession the local population yearns for. The road to war from such irreconcilable quandary is very short. Abyei is not the only crisis point for the South Sudan-Sudan border demarcation as proposed by the AU is equally problematic and destabilizing, and thus might provoke crisis and war at any moment.

Furthermore, even though Cairo is currently focused on domestic issues in the aftermath of the military takeover – the crisis with Ethiopia over the Nile waters lingers on and is far from resolution. Dominance over the Nile waters is a sacred cause for both Egypt and Sudan – and thus no government in Cairo or Khartoum will ever allow itself to be portrayed as having compromised with the Nile Basin states. With no viable solution in sight, and with the work on the Ethiopian dams continuing apace – the crisis might still escalate into a major war. South Sudan will be dragged into such a war by regional geography”.  

“Thus, all of these are both ticking crises in their own right, as well as good causes for diversion and tension building for the besieged Bashir administration”, warns the Fashoda Institute. “Hence, Khartoum’s saber rattling and war preparations might prove self-fulfilling”.

The report on the think-tanks Website ends with assessment of the Juba’s options: “Little wonder that South Sudan is considering its own military build-up – as declared on September 22 by the new Defense Minister Kuol Manyang. Juba is determined to build a strong national army even if such undertaking might take nearly half of the national budget allocation. Manyang explained that Juba wants “the army to be at full military readiness to ensure victories in any military engagements.” Juba’s “strategic vision” calls for the building of “a strong and professional force” in regional terms. Manyang stressed that Juba’s ultimate objective is to deter the eruption of wars and crises, but that “the army, anywhere in the world, can only avoid wars when it is capable of winning them.”