Saudi Arabia, Israel, US All Sought Bashir’s Ouster: So How Real Was the Sudan Revolution?

Last week’s events in Sudan appear to be yet another example of foreign governments manipulating real dissent against an authoritarian government in order to install yet another authoritarian government more friendly to their interests but to the detriment of the people.

Last Thursday, the decades-long rule of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir came to an end, as the country’s long-time leader was ousted in a military coup that followed months of protests against his rule, which began in 1989. Bashir’s overthrow was widely hailed in the U.S. as a “revolution” brought on by a people-powered movement, in which women played a prominent role. Indeed, the symbol of this recent “revolution” has become 22-year-old student Alaa Salah, after a picture of her speaking to a crowd went viral last Tuesday, with some in international media dubbing her “Sudan’s statue of liberty.”

Given the intense news cycle that occurred last week — from Israel’s elections, to the Trump administration’s troubling declaration aimed at Iran’s military, to the recent arrest of Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy — little international attention was paid to last week’s military coup in Sudan. For many, last week’s events seem simply the logical conclusion of months of protests aimed first at rising food prices and subsequently at Bashir’s nearly thirty-year rule. Yet, the reality of what has recently transpired in Sudan could not be further from that assumption.

While Bashir’s lengthy rule over Sudan has been filled with many despotic, authoritarian actions and state-sponsored violence over the years, and while many Sudanese citizens were likely all-too-eager for a change in government, powerful forces — the United States among them — had long sought Bashir’s ouster for other reasons, much of their motive linked to the country’s oil reserves.

After South Sudan’s creation in 2011, Sudan lost control of most of its former oil reserves and then, in order to stall a burgeoning economic crisis and prevent the further destabilization of its economy and its government in the years that followed, forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Though the Saudi-Sudanese alliance worked for a time, it ultimately soured, largely thanks to the war in Yemen.


The Saudi interest

In 2015, after the Saudi-allied “puppet government” in Yemen was deposed, a coalition of countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, declared war against the Houthi rebels and their allies. The result, nearly four years later, has been a Saudi-led war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen, stemming from the coalition’s tactic of waging war against Yemeni civilians and critical civilian infrastructure — including hospitals, water treatment facilities, farms and schools.

Sudan has long been part of the Saudi-led Coalition, owing to Bashir’s effort to forge an alliance with the House of Saud that even saw his government cut ties with Iran — a long-time Bashir ally — to please the Gulf monarchies.

As part of the coalition in Yemen, Sudan has sent thousands of Sudanese fighters — many of them alleged to be child soldiers — in support of the Saudi-led effort to force Yemen’s people into submission. Though the Saudis and Emiratis bankroll much of the war and carry out most of the airstrikes, analysts have noted that Sudanese fighters often do “the dirty work,” including on-the-ground combat. This has meant that many of the coalition’s casualties are Sudanese. In return, Sudan’s government has received billions of dollars from the Saudi-led Coalition for “services rendered” and has been offered investment opportunities for its Gulf Kingdom allies. Saudi Arabia became the largest Arab investor in Sudan, with an estimated $15 billion in investments made in 2016.

Sudan | Yemen

Sudanese soldiers on a military vehicle gesture as they arrive to the port city of Aden, Yemen, Nov. 9, 2015. Wael Qubady | AP

Domestic discontent with Sudan’s involvement in Yemen first became clear in late 2017 — nearly two years after the African country had entered the war — when Houthi-aligned media outlets began publishing images of “slaughtered” Sudanese soldiers, an alleged effort by Houthi forces to portray the Sudanese as “cannon fodder” for the Saudis and Emiratis and aimed at reducing domestic support in Sudan for the war. The media offensive worked remarkably well and, after a major Houthi attack in April 2018 left scores of Sudanese soldiers dead, Bashir’s government was forced to reassess the country’s role in Yemen and many Sudanese lawmakers vocally called for an end to Sudan’s role in the war.

Declining domestic support for the war was combined with stalled investment initiatives that the Saudis and Emiratis had promised in Sudan, along with the Saudis’ failure to deliver on another key promise, to get Sudan removed from the U.S. government’s state-sponsors-of-terrorism list. Around this time, Bashir not only began to seriously reevaluate his government’s participation in Yemen, but also its regional alliances.

Indeed, not long before Sudan began to reconsider its role in Yemen’s war, Bashir began to cozy up to Qatar — the ally-turned-enemy of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. In late March 2018, it was announced that Sudan and Qatar finalized a $4 billion deal to manage Sudan’s port city of Suakin. Turkey, another ally of Qatar, also acquired a role in the port’s management. Soon after, Sudan finalized a $100 million oil-sector investment deal with Turkey, with the promise of much more to come, as ties between Khartoum and Ankara deepened just as Turkey and Saudi Arabia were at each other’s throats after the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Adding insult to injury from the Saudi perspective, Sudan’s vice president subsequently stated that “the martyrdom of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may be a reason to stop the war” in Yemen.

Bashir’s decision to inch further away from the Saudi-led bloc of Arab nations was made even more clear last December, when he unexpectedly made an unannounced trip to Syria to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The trip came just five days afterSaudi Arabia announced the formation of a new Red Sea alliance. According to analysts cited by Middle East Monitor, this Saudi-led alliance in the region was “the clearest signal yet that Riyadh intends to monopolise the Sea’s mineral wealth explored jointly with Sudan until recently, and establish a security corridor to prevent the entry of ‘unauthorised’ vessels, naval or merchant.”

Middle East Monitor further noted that “the move is seen in Khartoum as a decision clearly designed to allow Sudan to develop the Red Sea area for tourist purposes but curtail any ambition it may have to establish a military base on its coast,” particularly the port city of Suakin where Qatar and Turkey were set to play important roles. This concern appears to have been a major factor in Bashir’s mid-January visit to Qatar. Prior to that visit, Bashir had claimed that his government was being targeted by a “foreign conspiracy.”

Notably, the very day of Bashir’s visit to Syria last December marked the beginning of the protests that would result in the end of his rule. Given the context mentioned it above, is especially noteworthy that the man now in charge of the military council that ousted Bashir last Thursday, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman, “oversaw Sudanese troops fighting in the Saudi-led Yemen war and has close ties to senior Gulf military officials,” according to the Associated Press.

On Saturday, the Saudi government unsurprisingly voiced its support for Sudan’s now-ruling military council, stating:

The Kingdom declares its support for the steps announced by the Council in preserving the lives and property, and stands by the Sudanese people, and hopes that this will achieve security and stability for brotherly Sudan.”


Israel’s machinations

While the deterioration of Saudi-Sudanese relations seem to have played a role in Bashir’s ouster, recent events have suggested that another key player in last week’s coup was the state of Israel, particularly Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad.

As Saudi Arabia and Israel have become more and more open about the alliance between them, Arab and Muslim-majority nations aligned with the Saudis have been pressured to follow Riyadh’s example and normalize relations with the Jewish ethnostate.

Despite having ruled out any possibility of normalizing relations with the “Zionist enemy,” as Bashir had called Israel in 2013, his government began to openly signal its willingness to reconsider forging ties with Tel Aviv in 2016, soon after Bashir had cut ties with Iran and sought the Saudis’ good graces. At the time, Israeli media reported that the Israeli government was lobbying the United States to improve its relationship with Sudan.

Some in Sudan’s government said they would consider normalizing ties with Israel in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. However, there was resistance from within Sudan’s political establishment, given that many still bitterly remember the Israeli bombings of Sudanese military targets, such as those that took place in 2009, 2012, and 2014, as well as Israel’s decades-long arming of anti-government rebels. Since 1967, Israel has armed and trained anti-government fighters in Sudan, with that support intensifying in 1989 after Bashir took power in a coup that year. Israel’s clandestine involvement in Sudan had long been called a proxy war against Iran up until Bashir’s 2016 decision to cut ties with the Islamic Republic.


Sudanese students protest Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, outside U.N. headquarters in Khartoum, Dec. 29, 2008, as they hold anti U.S posters and burn Israeli flags. Abd Raouf | AP

By late 2018, Israel’s efforts to woo Sudan again made headlines as the visit of Chad’s president to Tel Aviv was touted by Israeli media as a sign that Israel would soon forge public ties with not just Chad but Sudan, Mali and Niger. That same report claimed that Israel and Sudan had been involved in talks since 2017 aimed at the normalization of relations.

Yet, the very day that Bashir made an unannounced visit to Syria to meet with Assad — who Israel has long set to overthrow — the protests against his rule put new pressure on Sudan’s long-time leader. Notably, Bashir openly stated in January, several weeks after the protests had begun, that he had been advised that he could ensure the stability of his rule were he to agree to normalize relations with Israel, suggesting that foreign interests eager to see those ties materialize were involved in Sudan’s protests. Bashir would not state publicly who had given him that telling advice. However, just days later, Bashir rejected an offer to fly to Tel Aviv and publicly declared his strong opposition to “any possibility” of forging ties with Israel.

News then emerged that Sudan’s intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, who was intimately involved in Bashir’s recent ouster, had met with the chief of Israel’s Mossad, Yossi Cohen, in February. The report, published last month by Middle East Eye, claimed that Gosh and Cohen had met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference as part of a plan led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel to oust Bashir. Gosh is also known for his past collaboration with the CIA. Notably, Gosh was one of the interim leaders of the military council that ousted Bashir last week, though he quit his leadership role in the council on Saturday as protesters demanded that the military council be replaced with a civilian-led government.

Israel’s apparent role in the military coup that ousted Bashir last week comes just days after a general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) revealed that Israel had been behind the 2013 military coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi and installed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has closely aligned Egypt with Israeli interests since taking power. Israel’s apparent role in Sudan’s recent coup suggests that the Jewish ethnostate’s efforts to force the normalization of relations with Muslim-majority nations that have long supported the Palestinian cause still continue.


The U.S. long game

Though the role of Saudi Arabia and Israel in Bashir’s ouster seems clear, the U.S. government also appears to have been involved to some extent in the effort to end Bashir’s thirty-year-long rule. Indeed, Bashir has long been targeted by the U.S. government, as government cables published by WikiLeaks have shown.

One such cable, written in December 2008, was titled “Plotting for Bashir Exit Intensifies.” It states, among other things, that efforts were being made within Sudan and even within Bashir’s own political party (the National Congress Party or NCP) “to broker a quick and graceful removal of President Al-Bashir within the next few months, with the President going into exile in Saudi Arabia,” though discussions of a transition “have stalled.”

The cable states that the U.S.-aligned Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) had “begun scouring the list of SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] generals trying to see if it can identify appropriate officers who fit the bill and will share its findings with the US Embassy,” and that this search would be discussed “with President Bush in early January in Washington and, hopefully, with Obama transition staff.” It also notes that some SPLM members hoped to “see aggressive action by the P-3 [the United States, the United Kingdom and France] over the next month to shape such a transition and ensure that Western … concerns are taken into account by the regime’s future leaders.”

Read the Wikileaks cable on Scribd

Though the planned “quick and graceful” exit of Bashir did not materialize as planned, the Obama administration notably played an outsized role in partitioning Sudan into Sudan and South Sudan in 2011, a decision that resulted in Sudan’s government losing access to 80 percent of its oil resources as well as in the brutal civil war still raging within South Sudan. The partition undeniably weakened Sudan’s economy and government, the effects of which are still very much felt today.

A major motivator in the U.S.’ efforts to partition Sudan into two countries was the prospect of gaining a foothold in its oil sector, which China had come to dominate. Yet, China’s dominance in Sudan and South Sudan’s oil economy remains unchallenged to date.

Notably, while the U.S. has had difficulty making inroads in South Sudan’s oil sector, Israel quickly forged ties with South Sudan’s government soon after its creation and signed a major oil deal with its government in 2013. Media reports on the deal claimed that Israel’s growing ties with South Sudan were aimed at weakening the Bashir-led government in Sudan. The same year this oil deal was signed, the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar were accused of orchestrating a “color revolution” against Bashir that failed to secure his removal from power.

Since then, U.S. involvement in efforts targeting Bashir’s rule have been mostly covert and achieved through “soft power” organizations aimed at “democracy promotion,” such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy NED).

Notably, according to the U.S. government’s own figures, funding of USAID’s activitiesin Sudan did not begin until 2011 upon the creation of South Sudan. During the failed U.S.-backed color revolution of 2013, USAID funding for activities in Sudan spiked from $93 million the year prior to $135 million. Notably, last year — as Sudan’s efforts to move away from the Saudi-led bloc became more clear — USAID’s funding of activities in Sudan reached an all-time high of nearly $197 million.

The correlation of increased funding of USAID’s activities in Sudan and increased unrest in the country are telling, given USAID’s documented track record in “hastening the transition” of governments that Washington seeks to destabilize or overthrow and, according to author William Blum, working closely with U.S. intelligence agencies since it was founded in the 1960s. Notably, a proposal authored last year for a branch of USAID called the Global Development Lab called for militarizing the agency and greatly increasing its coordination with both the CIA and elite branches of the U.S. military.

Similarly, the NED’s funding of “democracy promotion” activities in Sudan were substantial in 2018, with NED spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on programs aimed at “empowering youth and women leaders;” creating “a nationwide network of communities and civil society organizations to raise awareness of and counter-corruption in Sudan;” establishing “a nationwide network of politically and socially active youth to engage in key national issues;” and conducting “youth trainings on policy development and leadership for selected individuals from Sudan’s 18 states.”

Though the NED is ostensibly dedicated to “promoting democracy,” it has a long history of involvement in past regime change operations and other clandestine actions once reserved for U.S. intelligence agencies. Indeed, NED’s first president, Allen Weinstein, told the Washington Post in 1991 that “A lot of what we [NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” Since its founding, NED has been involvedin numerous regime-change coups, the manufacture of “citizen uprisings,” foreign election meddling, and public relations campaigns aimed at maligning governments targeted by Washington and promoting groups that Washington would like to see gain power. Notably, a NED-funded organization was responsible for training the U.S. coup leader in Venezuela, Juan Guaidó.

This track record makes NED’s very active role in promoting “youth and women leaders” and creating “nationwide networks” very troubling in relation to last week’s events. This is particularly true in light of the outsized role that students and women played in the protests that ultimately ousted Bashir from power. Were these students, including iconic protester Alaa Salah, participants in NED-funded programs in Sudan? The answer to that question remains unknown. However, the U.S. along with its allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel, had not only the means but the motive to oust Bashir.

As in past foreign-backed “revolutions,” coming events in Sudan are likely to reveal how people-driven recent protests in Sudan really were. A real, people-driven movement will likely be unwilling to quietly accept a military dictatorship like that installed in Egypt in the Israel-backed coup of 2013 and like that currently in control of Sudan’s government.

Regardless of what comes next for Sudan, last week’s events appear to be yet another example of foreign governments manipulating real dissent against an authoritarian government in order to install yet another authoritarian government more friendly to their interests but to the detriment of the people.

Saudi Arabia, Israel, US All Sought Bashir’s Ouster: So How Real Was the Sudan Revolution?

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