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Sudan’s Deputy PM says calls for normalisation with Israel are limited

Ahmed Bilal Osman, Deputy Prime Minister of Sudan seen during an interview on January 8, 2018 [Mahmuod Hjaj / Anadolu Agency]
Ahmed Bilal Osman, Deputy Prime Minister of Sudan seen during an interview on January 8, 2018 [Mahmuod Hjaj / Anadolu Agency]

Sudan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmed Bilal Osman, has downplayed the significance of calls to normalise relations with Israel and warned against plans to “divide and rule” countries across the Middle East. In a wide-ranging discussion, he also praised the visit to Sudan by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as it came within the context of a “turbulent region” and “establishes a range of relations and common interests.” Osman also noted that Turkey “has played a positive role in various areas” in Sudan.

Since US President Donald Trump’s decision last month to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, some Arab academics and politicians are calling for normalisation with the Zionist state even though it is still occupying Palestine. There has also been talk of changing the official positions of some Arab states on the issue of Jerusalem. According to Osman, such calls are “limited and isolated.”

“Why should there be normalisation? In exchange for what?” he asked. “It is fortunate that the calls for normalisation have come from limited figures with no impact or influence.”

Nevertheless, such calls have resurfaced at a time when anger casts its shadow on the Arab and Muslim world, due to the public commitment to East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The Palestinians have clung to the city as the capital of their proposed state, based on the resolutions of the international community and the 1949 Armistice Agreement.

“The Three Noes” conference

Osman is Sudan’s Minister of Information as well as Deputy PM, so he is well-placed to explain Sudan’s position on the Palestinian issue. The government in Khartoum, he told me, sticks to the position it has held since 1947. “The blood of many Sudanese martyrs was shed for the Palestinian cause, throughout all of the campaigns led by the Arabs against Israel.”

He laid a lot of stress on the famous 1967 Arab Summit in Khartoum, a few weeks after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and the start of its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The summit established “The Three Noes”: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.

This, he said, was a major turning point towards steadfastness and led eventually to the victory of Egypt and Syria over Israel in the October 1973 war. “Based on this, Sudan’s position remains authentic and ongoing. No internal affairs or conditions can dissuade it from its supportive position of the Palestinian cause.”

Turkey and Sudan

Turning to Erdogan’s visit to Sudan, Osman pointed out that it was part of an African tour by the Turkish president and a large senior-level delegation. This included nearly 200 businessmen who reached 21 agreements in various sectors. The Sudanese official described the visit as “historic”; it was the first visit of a Turkish President since Sudan’s independence in 1956.

“President Erdogan is very popular and loved by the Sudanese people, and has been since he was Prime Minister. Turkey has had a positive influence on Sudan in a number of areas.” The President’s visit came at a time of regional turbulence that requires a lot of focused efforts, cooperation and communication among the peoples of the region, Osman said. “It was, though, the right time to form a major link in the chain of cooperation between the two countries, through the signing of several agreements.”

Osman believes that Erdogan’s visit to Khartoum will lead to good relations around common interests, and will have a positive impact, especially regarding the activation of agreements and developing relations. “Sudan is considered a key gateway to Africa and a link between the Arab world and the African and sub-Saharan countries.”

The Iranian revolutionary model

One of the most prominent features of Sudanese foreign policy in the region is Khartoum’s participation, since 2015, in the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia which supports Yemeni government forces against the Houthi militias. The Houthis are believed to be supported by Iran.

“Sudan is a supporter of the legitimate government in Yemen and will continue to be,” insisted the Deputy Prime Minister. “We believe that Iran’s attempts to intervene in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon stem from the Iranian revolutionary model, and are, therefore, attempts to export revolution based on the same approach.”

Tehran has denied accusations by Arab countries, including those in the Gulf, of meddling in the internal affairs of Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It claims to stick to a policy of good neighbourliness. Osman believes otherwise: “Iran’s attempts to apply the revolutionary model in Sudan is what prompted Khartoum to sever relations with Tehran.”

This took place on 4 January, 2016, when the government in Khartoum announced that it was severing diplomatic relations with Iran in solidarity with Saudi Arabia and in the face of what it called “Iranian plots”. It followed Iranian protesters attacking the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in the northern city of Mashhad.

“We do not have Shias in the Sudan, but we have recently witnessed the emergence of Shi’ism, and this is the beginning of sedition [in an officially Sunni state]. We believe that the restoration of international legitimacy in Yemen will defend Islamic moderation. Saudi Arabia is a symbol in this context, and we will stand by it until Yemen regains full legitimacy.”

With regards to the possibility of the Sudanese army withdrawing from Yemen, Osman said that Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir stressed in his speech last year on the anniversary of the country’s independence that the troops will remain in Yemen because, “There is no logic to withdraw them.”

New Sykes-Picot

In a reading of the general scene in the region, Ahmed Bilal Osman said that there is “unrest” across the Middle East. “Its instigators aim to fragment Arab unity, followed by Muslim unity, in a manner that resembles the circumstances surrounding the Sykes-Picot agreement 100 years ago.”

This was a reference to the 1916 agreement between France and Britain to divide some of the Ottoman-ruled territories in the Middle East into specific areas of influence. “Today,” warned Osman, if any country is isolated, it will be subject to this sort of division, and Sudan is one of the countries targeted for division into several mini-states. Hence, the more that our positions are united and our ranks are cohesive, the more difficult we can make the task of those who want to harm us.”

In 2011, South Sudan separated from Sudan as a result of a popular referendum supported by Western countries and international organisations.

Libyan weapons

For years, the border between Sudan and Libya has been a major source of concern for Khartoum, largely due to the security unrest in its neighbouring state following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. “There is a need to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis in Libya,” stressed the Sudanese official, “not least because Sudan is one of the most vulnerable countries to the flow of Libyan arms.”

If the Libyan crisis continues in this way, it will remain a source of concern for Sudan, he noted, especially since Sudan’s borders are in the desert and are not inhabited. “It is difficult to monitor them. We will support any effort that unites the Libyan position without engaging in further violence and wasting Libyan resources,” he added.

Since 2011 many armed entities have been fighting in the oil-rich North African country, while two competing governments are fighting each other for power: the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord in the capital Tripoli, and the “interim government” in the eastern city of Al-Bayda. Both governments have loyal armed forces.

Al-Bashir’s presidency

President Omar Al-Bashir came to power in June 1989, was elected President of Sudan in 2010, and was then re-elected in 2015 for a term ending in 2020. When I asked if the President is going to stand for another term in office, Osman said that his term does not end in two years.

“We in Sudan have a very high sense of nationalism towards national cohesion now, especially given the circumstances that surround us. We have a pioneering experience of national dialogue, based on which we have reached many outcomes. They include the formation of the current government. President Bashir is the guarantor of this process.” This national accord, he emphasised, is the hope for good for the country, beginning with sustainable peace.

“As such, the issue of Bashir’s Presidency, in our eyes, does not end in two years, but rather when peace and stability prevail and when the internal and external threats are eliminated. Then we can talk about the circulation of power and the departure of Bashir.”

After the Almighty, he concluded, President Bashir is Sudan’s only guarantee if such factors and challenges are still present. “This is a consensus about a man who is very popular amongst his people, regardless of what is happening now and the suffering that the people of Sudan are being subjected to.”

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