Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan: Israel's man in Sudan

A shorter version of this piece was published by Middle East Eye here.

The Foreign Affairs Minister of the Zionist occupation state arrived in Khartoum on 2 February 2023 without much fanfare but with proud acknowledgement by the Sudanese authorities. This is Elli Cohen’s second visit to Khartoum, the first took place in January 2021 when he was serving as Israel’s Minister of Intelligence. At the time he was received by Sudan’s Minister of Defence Yasin Ibrahim. This time around his delegation included Ronen Levy, an intelligence cadre believed to be a critical behind the scenes operator of the Abraham Accords now freshly appointed director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sudan’s former Minister of Justice Nasr Al Din Abdulbari in Prime Minister Hamdok’s cabinet had signed the Abraham Accords in January 2021 with the United States Treasury Secretary as counterpart. The step was conceived as a condition for U.S. munificence in lifting Sudan’s name off its list of state-sponsors of terrorism and paving a loans-ridden route for Sudan’s reinclusion into the global financial system after decades long exclusion under former President Bashir. 

Israel’s first address however remains the country’s military ruler General Al Burhan, the officer whoreplaced former president Bashir following a palace coup in April 2019 that was the military establishment’s response to the revolutionary sequence of events that began with country wide popular demonstration in 2018/2019. Al Burhan first manifest step towards Tel Aviv was an initially unannounced meeting held in Uganda’s Entebbe with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 3 February 2020

In between Al Burhan had switched partners in another coup in October 2021 sending off the politicians of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the ad hoc alliance of anti-Bashir forces, into another cycle of opposition in favour of maintaining a coalition of armed actors intact. Al Burhan’s 2021 coup saw government in Sudan collapse into the country’s military formations. Military officers, militia leaders, security men, rebel commanders and bureaucrats of sorts shared power in an arrangement whose rules are written and rewritten in practice. 

Of special relevance is the challenging relationship between the two main armed formations in the country, the regular army under Al Burhan’s commands and the Rapid Support Forces (SAF), the private army of the once militia commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The two men Al Burhan and Dagalo are obliged to cooperate on the short term while their long term prospects are predicated on the subordination of the other.

Dagalo made himself a regional asset through his contribution to the Saudi-Emirati war campaign in Yemen. His private army is fighting rebels in the CAR on behalf of the government of president Touadéra in return for mineral rights and has recently redeployed along the Sudanese Chadian border as part of a scramble for gold in the lands between the three countries hand in glove with the Russian military firm Wagner. Dagalo publicly advocated that Sudan should move forward with a Bashir-era deal to install a Russian navy base on the Red Sea but did not have the means to see that proposal through despite his considerable influence in the western zones of Sudan and beyond. Sovereignty over the coastline remains a prerogative of the army leadership. 

Al Burhan, on the other hand is investing in the idea of upgrading the technical capabilities of the army through strengthening relations with traditional allies, primarily with the Egyptian army, the parent army as it were. The two militaries carry out regular war games, in May/June 2021 in Um Sayala northwest of Omdurman and in October 2021 and December 2022 on Egyptian training grounds. The two sides formalised their cooperation in a broad agreement signed in Khartoum on the occasion of a regular meeting of the Joint Egyptian-Sudanese Military Committee in March 2021. What the army needs are the arms to achieve critical superiority including the ability to monitor and secure the western hinterlands through airspace control, an objective that the RSF can now achieve with its light motorised units.

Sudan has been under a UN arms embargo since 2005 in relation to the war in Darfur, a barrier that Sudanese diplomats doggedly seek to revoke with the argument that the Juba Peace Agreement of October 2020 had ended the war in Darfur invalidating the rationale of the arms sanctions. Formally speaking the two main armed Darfuri armed movements once on the receiving end of the army’s gunfire are now Al Burhan’s allies in government, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) leader Jibreel Ibrahim is his Minister of Finance and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) chief Mini Minawi the governor of Darfur.

The UN in Sudan operates politically through the United Nations Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) which together with the regional organisations the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been playing the role of mediator to restore the status que ante prior to Al Burhan’s October 2021 coup. These efforts recently crystallised into a ‘framework agreement’ signed in December 2022 between the military-militia-security bloc on one side and politicians of the FFC on the other.

The outlines of the proposed settlement include a commitment by the military to hand over executive power to a government chosen by the FFC and allies and abscond to a national security council chaired by the prospective prime minister. The Council of Ministers would however have the option of resorting to the military in matters of non-military nature as need be and as determined by a future law. Reform of the military and eventual integration of the RSF into the military would be carried out by the army leadership. In a way the agreement provides the military with an alibi to interfere in civilian affairs but keeps the door shut in the opposite direction. It is the military leadership which will ultimately decide whether, when and what to change in the military-militia-security cartel.

The former rebel movements, the JEM and the SLA, proved no less adept at politicking and managed to engineer a counter bloc of forces opposed to the framework agreement. Al Burhan and his officers could manoeuvre between the two in a way that Al Burhan even mediated between the politicians outside government who signed with him the framework agreement and the politicians inside government who declined, but unsurprisingly to no avail.

The UNITAMS and the regional brokers supported by Western diplomats in Khartoum shepherded the framework deal through a series of ‘workshops’ probably with the rationale of expanding its relatively narrow support base. In response, Al Burhan’s Egyptian allies organised a round of talks for opponents of the framework agreement in Cairo after a brief visit of Egypt’s security boss Abbas Kamel to Khartoum, probably with the outlook of granting the counter bloc greater visibility and political currency. Dagalo, the deputy head of state, who appeared to take the side of the FFC politicians, had his own separate go at mediation between the two blocs, probably in an attempt to tactically derail the pro-Al Burhan Egyptian machinations, but equally failed.

In Khartoum, Abbas Kamel reportedly asked Al Burhan to find ways to address Wagner’s use of Sudan as a base for operations in neighbouring countries, an objective that sets Al Burhan and his Egyptian allies directly at odds with Dagalo and his RSF, Wagner’s collaborating force in CAR and the border zone with Chad and Sudan. Al Burhan made a sudden trip to the Chadian capital Ndjamena probably to discuss the security situation on the increasingly militarised Chad-Sudan-CAR border zone. Dagalo followed separately on his tailprobably to counteract what his boss was devising. The army chief of staff went on an inspection tour of army units of the Western command in Darfur including in eastern Darfur which borders the CAR.

Elli Cohen arrived in Khartoum at this moment, as competition between Al Burhan and his deputy Dagalo was playing out around domestic alliances and counter-alliances and a regional tug of forces on Sudan’s western borders. Ahead of Cohen’s visit, Sudan’s spy chief Ibrahim Mufaddal concluded a brief trip to Washington for an audience with the US intelligence establishment. Cohen was received by Al Burhan, the Minister of Defence Yasin Ibrahim, the Sudanese army’s chief of staff Mohamed Osman Al Hussein and the spy chief Ibrahim Mufaddal, the military and security bosses who had just promised the UNITAMS and the politicians under its wing to surrender power. Remarkably, Dagalo declared he was kept in the dark about the Israeli visitors.

The declared outcome of Cohen’s visit was a pledge by the two sides to formalise their relations through a bilateral treaty which would include military, security and economic cooperation. Once back in Tel Aviv, Cohen stated that a treaty, now finalised, would be signed sometime during the year and as soon as a ‘civilian’ government was in place. Judging by circumstances it would have to be Al Burhan’s civilian government. If the FFC politicians and possibly Dagalo could draw on the patronage of the UN diplomats and Western ambassadors in Khartoum Al Burhan in a way demonstrated that he was an asset to a formidable security regime around the Washington-Tel Aviv-Cairo axis. The only credible dissenters in Khartoum were the young women and men demonstrating on the capital’s streets against this architecture of oppression.


A joint piece with Edward Thomas published by the Rift Valley Institute here


Creative Commons Licence
This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.