August 12, 2013 (WASHINGTON) – The Sudanese government has been selling Chinese and local-made weapons to the Arab Gulf state of Qatar which in turn has been shipping it to rebels in Syria who have staged an uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s rule since 2011, U.S. officials and rebels told the New York Times (NYT).
- A Free Syrian Army fighter peers through a hole in a wall in Aleppo’s Salaheddine neighbourhood August 12, 2013 (REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)
The shipments included newly manufactured small-arms cartridges and antiaircraft missiles which were desperately sought by rebels over the last year to neutralize Assad’s superior firepower.
Western nations have been hesitant to supply sophisticated weapons such as surface-to-air missiles or shoulder-mounted missiles for fear that it might fall into the hands of hardline Islamist factions for use against western targets.
Two American officials told NYT that Ukrainian-flagged aircraft had delivered the shipments. Air traffic control data from an aviation official in the region shows that at least three Ukrainian aviation transport companies flew military-style cargo planes this year from Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to a military and civilian airfield in western Turkey.
Western analysts and officials said Sudan’s clandestine participation in arming rebels in Syria suggests inherent tensions in Bashir’s foreign policy, which broadly supports Sunni Islamist movements while maintaining a valued relationship with the Shia theocracy in Iran.
Other officials suggested that a simple motive was at work — money. Sudan is struggling with a severe economic crisis after losing the oil-rich south in July 2011.
“Qatar has been paying a pretty penny for weapons, with few questions asked,” one American official familiar with the transfers told NYT.
“Once word gets out that other countries have opened their depots and have been well paid, that can be an incentive” the official added.
But officials in Khartoum speaking to NYT, vehemently denied the claims but nonetheless said that if Sudan’s weapons were indeed seen with Syria’s rebels then perhaps Libya had provided them.
Sudan supplied Libyan rebels with weapons during their war to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.
However, the NYT argued that this would not explain the Sudanese-made 7.62x39-millimeter ammunition this year in rebel possession near the Syrian city of Idlib.
The ammunition, according to its stamped markings, was made in Sudan in 2012 — after the war in Libya had ended. It was used by Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist group that recognizes the Western-supported Syrian National Coalition’s military command.
Also it would not explain the presence of FN-6 antiaircraft missiles in Syrian rebel units. Neither the Gaddafi loyalists nor the rebels in Libya were known to possess those weapons in 2011, analysts who track missile proliferation told NYT.
But detailed photos of one of the FN-6 missile tubes, provided by a Syrian with access to the weapons, showed that someone had taken steps to obscure its origin. Stenciled markings, the photos showed, had been covered with spray paint. Such markings typically include a missile’s serial number, lot number, manufacturer code and year of production.
Rebels said that before they were provided with the missiles, months ago, they had already been painted, either by the seller, shipper or middlemen, in a crude effort to make tracing the missiles more difficult.
Still Sudanese officials were adamant they were not part of the rebels’ supply network.
“Sudan has not sent weapons to Syria,” said Emad Sid Ahmad, the press secretary for Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir.
The spokesman of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) Colonel al-Sawarmi Khalid Saad for his part said that the allegations defied common sense, except perhaps as a smear.
“We have no interest in supporting groups in Syria, especially if the outcome of the fighting is not clear,” Col. Saad said.
“These allegations are meant to harm our relations with countries Sudan has good relations with” he added.
When told that the newly produced Sudanese cartridges were photographed with Syrian rebels, Col. Saad’s response was that “Pictures can be fabricated…That is not evidence".
A Qatari official on the other hand said he had no information about a role by his country in procuring or moving military equipment from Sudan.
Despite initial cheers over this line of weaponry, Syrian rebels later complained that they often turned defective.
One rebel commander, Abu Bashar, who coordinates fighting in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces, called the missiles, which he said had gone to Turkey from Sudan and had been provided to rebels by a Qatari intelligence officer, a disappointment.
“Most of the FN-6s that we got didn’t work,” he said. He said two of them had exploded as they were fired, killing two rebels and wounding four others.
If Sudan’s role in feeding weapons to Syria rebels is true, it will reveal a new aspect of Sudan’s frequently messy foreign policy.
Bashir and his government have initially called events in Syria a conspiracy caused by foreign meddling.
“Syria is exposed to a foreign conspiracy because of its firm position on Arab issues and any weakening of Syria is a free service to enemies of the Arab nation,” Bashir was quoted as saying in October 2011 after meeting with Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mikdad in Khartoum.
The Sudanese government may have been returning the favor for Syria’s strong backing of Bashir when an arrest warrant was issued for him in March 2009 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes he allegedly masterminded in Darfur.
The Syrian top diplomat Walid al-Muallem has reportedly chided then ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo in late 2008 in New York when he was addressing Arab foreign ministers in New York to explain his case against Bashir.
But as Sudan appeared to have a change of heart on the Syrian conflict, Damascus signaled that it feels betrayed by Khartoum.
“So how did Sudan act with us today? Total silence. Why? Of course they have their reasons but I don’t want to justify these excuses,” Yussef al-Ahmad, Syria’s ambassador to Egypt and the Arab League asked in response to Khartoum voting in favor of Arab League vote suspending his country’s membership in the Pan-Arab body in November 2011.
Sudan not only supported this resolution but convinced Mauritania and Somalia to back it, according to diplomats who spoke to Reuters at the time.
“You all remember that the president of Sudan was wanted [by the ICC] but when Sudan was partitioned do you hear now about any specific requests? That’s it. The required task was dividing Sudan,” al-Ahmad added.
Arab newspapers at the time had published that Syrian ambassador in a closed Arab League session admonished Sudan’s foreign minister Ali Karti for his country’s stance.
"Even Sudan and we are the ones who are defending it...This is a shame on Sudan and the Arab League," Yussef al-Ahmad told Karti again in the hallway after the meeting according to the London based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
In January 2012, the Sudanese leader who is shunned by the West for his government’s human rights record, called on his Syrian counterpart to embrace political reforms.
It remains to be seen how Sudan’s closest allies such as Iran, China and Russia will react to reports that it is supplying weapons to Syrian rebels.
All four countries are considered the main backers of Assad. China and Russia have blocked several United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions condemning the Syrian regime.
Beijing in particular may be irked by knowing that weapons it sold to Khartoum has ended up with anti-Assad insurgents.