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Is Sudan about to withdraw troops from Yemen?

Members of the Sudanese Army on 18 March 2011 [UNAMID/Flickr]
Members of the Sudanese Army on 18 March 2011 [UNAMID/Flickr]

In June, Sudan sent additional troops to support the Saudi-led military intervention into Yemen. Exact numbers are not available but estimates and official briefings put the figure at close to 8,000 combat soldiers on the ground. In recent weeks reports of Sudanese casualties have increased with the Houthi media claiming that a ballistic missile launched towards Saudi Arabia’s Jizan Region killed “scores” of Sudanese soldiers days ago.

MEMO was not able to confirm that the incident took place but what transpired is that the report is part of a blistering Houthi media drive aimed at discrediting the Sudanese and to force Khartoum and the Sudanese people to rethink their support for the Saudi-led offensive.

In recent months, attacks on the Sudanese embassy building manned by a skeleton diplomatic staff brought condemnation from the Yemeni government and increased the pressure on some 5,000 Sudanese citizens residing in Yemen. Many have had to be moved to safe areas inside the capital.

Read More: Yemen’s former president denies Houthi alliance divide

Undated images of seemingly dead abandoned bodies of Sudanese soldiers are now all over social media. Certain websites known for support for the Alawite Syrian Shia minority government and the Iran-backed Houthi militia paste headlines that talk of “heavy losses” and the “annihilation” of Sudanese troops. While there has been a small steady stream of Sudanese casualties announced by the Sudan Armed Forces the claims of annihilation and “wipe out” seem not to have any real substance.

In May, a reputable defence publication, Janes, published a video shot by the Houthis showing a destroyed Soviet-designed T-72 battle tank purportedly belonging to the Sudanese army. The unverified pictures forced the publication to admit that the tank which was fitted with reactive armour resembled protection used by other Saudi-backed military groups but not by the Sudanese. The video also placed Sudan fighters in the north when it is known that most of its combat operations have been in the south.

Whilst, it is fully conceivable that Sudan’s theatres of operation are in both areas, the concerted media campaign by the Houthis to highlight the “slaughter” of Sudanese soldiers seems designed to send a message not only to the Sudanese government but to the Sudanese people and to ruffle public opinion.

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Sudan’s decision to cut ties with Iran is also a major bone of contention for the Houthis who continue to publicly deny links with Tehran despite evidence of Iran’s supply of weapons, money and training which reports say is being provided via Oman. Sudan’s switching of sides, after having been in the Iranian camp for decades, makes Khartoum’s courtship of Saudi Arabia “particularly treacherous” to the Houthis.

Sudanese political commentator, Yassir Abdullah Ali, told MEMO that the Houthi attitude and condemnation of Sudan’s presence in the conflict has hardened. “Up until now, the Houthis regarded Sudan’s contribution as peripheral, but with the last batch of soldiers boosting the Sudanese numbers to around 8,000, they now consider the Sudanese as the most experienced combatants; unlike the Gulf states who have not had the front-line battle experience!”

It remains to be seen how resilient Sudanese public opinion will be if the Houthi portrayal of the Sudanese as “cannon fodder” takes hold and the talk of annihilation becomes a reality. Despite the concerted Houthi campaign, there continues to be some convincing reasons why Sudan’s presence in the coalition is unlikely to end in the short or even medium term.

The first, from a Saudi point of view, is Riyadh’s weak military campaign up until the point of Sudan’s entry on the battlefield in October 2015. According to experts, Khartoum’s forces have consolidated and stemmed the “rot” in the conflict. Sudan Armed Forces and its Rapid Response Units are among the most elite forces on the ground in the coalition. Saudi would be extremely reluctant to countenance a Sudanese withdrawal.

Second, as far as Sudan is concerned, whilst the neighbouring states may have joined the coalition out of a sense of solidarity or for national security reasons, the Sudanese government, struggling in a deep economic crisis, could not ignore the “business opportunity” that presented itself. Saudi is paying $2.6 billion for “services rendered” and good relations with the other Gulf countries have also opened-up other major avenues of investment.

Read More: Sudan’s opposition head launches new peace initiative

However, perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for Sudan is that its support for Saudi puts it on the same side as the Americans in the war against the Houthis. Washington is backing Saudi’s attempts to dislodge the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iranian-backed Houthis in a conflict that is increasing being viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch rival, Iran.

With President Donald Trump’s American policy hardening against Iran, Sudan’s determination to stand with the Saudi coalition is without doubt part of an insurance policy to safeguard the lifting of US sanctions next month and to ensure that Khartoum is no longer considered a rouge nation.

Therefore, the intense Houthi campaigns, both on the battlefield and in the media, to target Sudan may continue to be a losing struggle as Sudanese troops appear to be staying in Yemen for some time to come.

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