The Sudanese army becomes Iran’s fifth militia in the region 

Comparing the existing scenarios in the region, and in other areas witnessing the expansion of Iranian influence, fears emerge here of the Sudanese Islamic army being transformed into a group of militias similar to the “Popular Mobilization Forces” in Iraq, obedient internally and externally to Iran, the source of funding and military support.

So how will the Sudanese army become Iran’s fifth militia in the region? After a video surfaced showing elements of the Rapid Support Forces carrying wreckage of one of these Iranian-made drones, concerns arise about the return of the former Sudanese regime, along with its allies of yesterday, who contributed to Sudan’s international isolation and placement on international sanctions lists for three decades.

Bloomberg reported that Iran is supplying the Sudanese army with shipments of Iranian weapons and drones of the “Mohajer 6” model manufactured in Iran. This highlights Iranian interest in Sudan, as Sudan’s maritime borders extend to about 670 km, and by controlling Sudanese ports, Iran and its allies will gain a foothold in a strategically important trade route near Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The army advanced in battles in Omdurman and Khartoum Bahri after receiving new “unspecified source” weapons, bringing about a change in its military and political strategy and representing a shift in the war’s course. In a speech delivered to officers and soldiers of the 11th Infantry Division in Khashm Al-Girba city in eastern Sudan, al-Burhan called on the army and allied armed movements to carry out a wide-ranging attack against the Rapid Support Forces, with the aim of expelling them from all areas under their control.

This shift comes after the army has followed a strategy of self-defense rather than attacking the Rapid Support Forces throughout the past period. In the context of political solutions and negotiations to stop the war, al-Burhan emphasized in a speech in Kassala the need for these negotiations to take place within Sudan and cannot be conducted through travel to meet any external party, indicating an upcoming meeting with the head of the Coordination Committee of Civil Democratic Forces “Taqadum” Abdallah Hamdok, saying that the initiative of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in East Africa does not represent the will of the Sudanese people or interfere with Sudanese affairs. He said, “No external party will impose solutions on us.”

As the war continues with no solution in sight, international interventions seeking their interests in Sudan have increased, betting on various factions to gain more influence in a country dominated by unrest. The control of the Islamic Movement axis “Kizan” has emerged strongly, especially after the suspension of the Jeddah platform and the cessation of negotiations to end the war, and Sudan’s rejection of the IGAD initiative, which he described as “biased towards the Rapid Support Forces and its leader, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.”

The commander of the army, Lieutenant General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, who made the eastern part of the country its capital, specifically in Port Sudan overlooking the Red Sea, faces accusations of being supported by the former regime of Omar al-Bashir and its Islamic leaders, and that they are the mastermind of the war. This group, called “Kizan,” still has ties with Iran, and its former leader, Hassan al-Turabi, was loyal to it.

Historically and consistently, there has been a strong relationship between the Sudanese Kizans and other Islamic organizations in the region such as Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. In the past, the relationship between Iran and Sudan, under the rule of the Sudanese Islamic Movement led by Turabi and President al-Bashir since 1989, was close. This relationship continued until January 2016, when it was publicly severed following the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Now, after the reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran, these tensions have eased, and relations based on interests between Iran and its traditional partners in Sudan have been resumed.

In fact, the possibility of continuing this relationship informally remains even in times of tension, as many individuals involved in the Islamic Movement have contacts outside Sudan, including with Qatar and Iran, even during periods of strained relations between Tehran and Khartoum. Recently, Egyptian authorities arrested businessman Abdelbasset Hamza in Cairo, who is close to former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his party. The US State Department confirmed that Hamza is classified as a global terrorist and indicated that he had provided financial support to Hamas amounting to approximately $20 million, indicating that Sudan’s relations with external armed groups have not been completely severed.

In a move many consider a revival of old relations, a statement from the Sudanese government in October 2023 indicated that the two states, Iran and Sudan, “discussed the restoration of bilateral relations between the two countries, and accelerating steps to reopen embassies between them.” Media outlets reported that “Tehran received a promise from figures affiliated with the Islamic Movement to cooperate with it and facilitate its expansion in the Red Sea if it provided generous military support to help it withstand the war.”

What makes the future in this situation even more bleak is Sudan’s history, which has hosted extremists and jihadists from both extremes of the political spectrum. Sudan has harbored figures like Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Carlos the Jackal. This was a reason for placing Sudan on the list of countries supporting terrorism.

Comparing the scenarios in the region and in other places witnessing the expansion of Iranian influence, fears arise here of the transformation of the Sudanese Islamic army into a militia group similar to the “Popular Mobilization Forces” in Iraq, obedient internally and externally to Iran, the source of funding and military support, and these fears are heightened especially after calls from the Sudanese army to arm civilians and join “popular resistance” and open the door for individuals to purchase weapons.

The stronghold of the Sudanese army in the east is the most vulnerable area to Iranian expansion, as the presence of the Bija and their support for the Islamic Movement and the army are among the most prominent factors that make Port Sudan a comfortable place and a good starting point for controlling the port. The head of the Supreme Council for the Observance of Bijas and Independent Columns, Mohamed Amin Turki, is a member of the National Congress Party and the Islamic Movement, and he is currently one of the loyalists of the Sudanese army and Lieutenant General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan.

The Bija tribes in eastern Sudan faced neglect and disregard for their legitimate demands under the rule of the deposed President Omar al-Bashir, such as economic reform and political representation in the eastern region. It has become a prominent challenge facing the transitional government after the overthrow of al-Bashir, even before the conflict between the army and the Rapid Support Forces erupted. The tribes once again emphasized their lack of effective representation in the transitional governance institutions.

Mohamed Al-Amin Turki, the head of the “Supreme Council for the Oversight of Bija Tribes and Columns,” led several tribes in eastern Sudan that reject the peace process in the Juba Agreement, which was held between the former transitional government and armed movements. Their rejection stemmed from their marginalization and the selection of parties that do not represent the region to negotiate with. These tribes threatened to establish the state of Bija in the east, with the council announcing its intention to “declare the state of Bija,” accompanied by a new timeline for a tight closure in the eastern region.

The conflict between the east and the center has escalated more than once with the closure of the Port Sudan port and the road to Khartoum. The council closed the port in September 2022 in protest against the signing of the “Framework Agreement” supported internationally between the Central Council for Freedom and Change “QC” and the military component, accusing the government of misrepresentation and neglect of their demands.

In addition to the Bija, there are several military factions affiliated with the army with an Islamic character. For example, the Rapid Support Forces, which are part of the army, consist of intelligence, shock troops, and special forces. There are active Islamic blocs in areas like Kassala State and Khartoum, where they post pictures on social media showing their presence in Omdurman and images of their operations in Shendi north of Khartoum. Several factions, such as the Sudanese Popular Resistance in the Red Sea State, participate in the political momentum that brings together military and political leaderships with the same Islamic interest. They emphasize the readiness of reserve forces and mobilizers to operate in various areas, with a focus on protecting the eastern gateway.

Whether Sudan’s situation is a repetition of scenarios that occurred in the region or a scenario different from its predecessors, it is important to know that the presence of extremist military groups in Sudan and their empowerment will not stop influencing within the borders but will be a point from which to launch what surrounds it.

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