Despite the growing domestic disquiet, the Sudanese government has again confirmed it has no plans to pull its estimated 10,000 troops out of Yemen. The calls for withdrawal have made headlines in the country’s national newspapers reporting on a growing political movement and demands to bring the troops home.
Claims that the presence of Sudanese troops on foreign soil is unconstitutional without parliamentary approval have been dismissed by the government. However, in the last few days and months attempts by opposition groups, such as the Reform Now party, to table a bill demanding the immediate withdrawal has reawakened a national debate.
Government officials who claim President Omar Al-Bashir has the right to act unilaterally point to the stationing of Sudanese troops in 2001 on the Comoros Island at the request of the African Union when no parliamentary sanction was given or required. Sudanese troops were part of a contingent backing the Comoros government’s bid to oust a renegade colonel who had seized control of Anjouan Island. The 2,000 Sudanese troops returned to the Sudanese capital in April 2008 upon completion of the mission.
However, other objections to the Sudanese support of the Saudi-led coalition point to the futile loss of life and the absence of political or economic benefits for Sudan’s participation. Precise numbers of fatalities are not available and while commentators suggest that the figures are probably much more than the hundred or so officially announced by the government, most agree that the death toll is far less than the tens of thousands claimed by Houthi rebels’ propaganda media outlets.
Sudanese political commentator, Abbas Mohammed Salih, maintains: “The presence of Sudanese troops is purely a political arrangement designed to keep favour with the Gulf states. Sudan finds itself in the middle of the continued Gulf crisis and the row over accusations that Qatar sponsors Muslim Brotherhood terrorism and is aligned to the region’s enemy – Iran.”
With the growing displeasure by the Gulf States and Egypt at Sudan’s continued cordial diplomatic relations with Qatar and Turkey, Salih argues: “Troops in Yemen remain the overriding gesture of reassurance and demonstrates Sudan’s commitment to the Saudi push back against the increasing influence of Iran and it gives Sudan the appearance of not objecting to Saudi Prince’s Mohammed Bin Salman’s peace initiatives and overtures with Israel over the Palestinian issue.”
In truth, pulling the Sudanese generals and regular infantry out, reported to be paid up to 50,000 Sudanese pounds ($2,778) per month, is a financial benefit that regular soldiers in Khartoum hope to avoid losing when the six-month rotation of duty is assigned. The reality is the Yemen conflict provides a stable source of income for Sudan Army Forces and Rapid Support Unit fighters.
Sudan appears to have given up hope that a series of promises made by Saudi Arabia on its entry into the war might be kept. So far, none of the pledges by the Gulf states to build water dams, to give material support to upgrade of the Sudanese Armed Forces and promises to invest in agriculture and mining have materialised.
Coupled with stalled initiatives by Riyadh and Dubai to use diplomatic leverage to persuade the United States to improve Western relations with Sudan; bearing in mind Khartoum’s need to lift its name from the list of states sponsors of terror, Sudan seems to have grown tired of waiting and has already partly shifted its foreign policy away from the Gulf in the hope of achieving some of its objectives elsewhere.
Influenced by the prevailing economic crisis, this week parliamentarians tabled a motion holding the government responsible for the “physical and psychological” damage inflicted on Sudanese servicemen and families and asked the government to explain what it has to show for the loss of life in a war that it said, “clearly doesn’t concern Sudan”.
The motion called on the government to use political means as an alternative to military deployment to call for the end of the conflict in Yemen to bring about a peaceful solution without favouring one side or another whilst respecting the wishes of the Yemeni people.
Earlier this month at the Arab League Summit held in Saudi Arabia, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir held meetings with King Salman and his son Mohammed Bin Salman and reiterated his support for the Yemeni offensive to establish the officially recognised government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi as the sole president of a united Yemen. The government of Hadi has been based in southern Yemen since 2015 where Sudanese troops in frontline areas have been protecting his rule and supporting an offensive to retake the north of the country held by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Also, last month in a closed parliamentary session Sudan’s Minister of Defence, Lt. Gen. Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibin Oaf, described the continued participation in the Yemen conflict as “quite natural” and in no way a breach of the constitution. Others, including the head of the Rapid Support forces, Mohammed Hamdan Daglu, have also publicly reaffirmed their commitment in following the directives of Al-Bashir to protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
What seems clear is that any private disquiet Sudan’s government may have about its involvement in Yemen and however intense domestic pressure becomes over the issue, the unique political leverage that threats the removal of its troops gives Sudan a valuable policy worth pursuing for the time being at least until the current political problems in the region are resolved, signs of which seem to be emerging with the appointment of the US’ new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.