As the Saudi-led coalition’s military engagement in Yemen enters year three, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States find themselves on the same side of the conflict, making for one of the more unusual military groupings in recent U.S. history.
Just over two years ago, Saudi Arabia began Operation Decisive Storm, a military intervention into Yemen’s civil war on the side of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and against the Houthi opposition, which is loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and backed by Iran. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia organized a coalition of mostly North African and Arab Gulf states to counter Houthi advances in Yemen. Within the coalition, Saudi Arabia focuses on airstrikes, while coalition members have typically provided ground troops.
Sudan, led by President Omar al-Bashir, joined the operation and began contributing troops in October 2015. That month, Sudan’s top military official stated that 6,000 troops were ready to participate in the coalition. Human rights organizations and regional analysts criticized the coalition’s inclusion of Sudan, as President Bashir remains wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide after mass atrocities were committed in Darfur. In 2004, the U.S. government characterized those atrocities as genocide, leading to U.S. and UN sanctions. Before Darfur, the US had already enacted comprehensive sanctions against Sudan in 1997 for its support of international terrorism, destabilizing regional actions, and severe human rights abuses. The US also placed Sudan on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1993.
Like Sudan, the US has also supported the Saudi-led coalition, providing intelligence and logistics and allowing Saudi Arabia to purchase weapons and military equipment knowing that these supplies would contribute to the military operation in Yemen. Initially considered an internal conflict or civil war, many analysts now depict this conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, although the internal power dynamics within Yemen reveal a more complicated situation.
Neighboring and regional states joined the Saudi-led coalition out of a sense of solidarity or for national security reasons. In contrast, the Sudanese government saw this conflict in an entirely different light: namely, a business opportunity. As recently as 2014, Sudan remained a strong ally of Iran, but, in a rapid about face, the Sudanese government pivoted away from Tehran after decades of support and moved towards Riyadh. Official reasons for this pivot varied, but typically included vague endorsements of supporting its Arab brothers or helping to restore the legitimate government in Yemen. In fact, the reason for the pivot was primarily monetary, as the Bashir regime was increasingly concerned with the country’s bleak economic performance after a succession of self-inflicted wounds. Coupled with the financial pressure of U.S. sanctions, the regime’s mismanagement of the economy created overwhelming dissatisfaction with the government and raised, if not a direct threat, at least a serious question about the regime’s longevity.
Sudan’s economic crisis began in 2011, when southern Sudan voted to secede, taking 75 percent of the country’s oil wealth with it. This loss represented more than half of government revenue and 95 percent of exports, and led to severe economic shocks. As economic conditions worsened, the regime’s mismanagement of the economy proved to be the greatest risk to its security. In September 2013, the government’s announcement to end fuel subsidies and implement austerity measures led to popular uprisings. In Khartoum and Omdurman especially, the regime responded with crushing force, leaving more than 170 people dead.
Before its pivot toward Saudi Arabia in 2015, the Sudanese government had managed to retain good relationships with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – hardly an easy task given the various ideological and political differences between these actors. Indeed, even in the Yemen conflict, Sudan initially worked with Iran to support the Houthis before reversing course and joining the Saudi-led coalition. President Bashir would have preferred to keep good relationships with Iran and the Arab Gulf states. However, Bashir’s tendency to abandon allies when politically convenient created too much distrust with Arab Gulf leaders, effectively forcing the president to stop hedging his bets and pick a side.
Although Bashir eventually did pick a side, it was not before first securing significant financial concessions both from the Saudi government and from other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. In August 2015, the Central Bank of Sudan reportedly received $1 billion from Saudi Arabia, though neither government would confirm that this payment stemmed from Sudan’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. GCC states may have already been working to dislodge Sudan’s support for Iran before the conflict in Yemen became a regional affair. In August 2014, the governor of the Central Bank of Sudan announced that Qatar provided the bank with $1.22 billion in credit, while another estimate found that between 2010 and 2014, Saudi Arabia invested $11 billion in Sudan in various projects and ventures. Sudan also benefits from remittances from the many Sudanese working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Yemen is not the first time the Bashir regime has pursued military and political objectives outside of Sudan. It is also not the first time Sudan found itself fighting on the same side of a conflict as the US. During the 2011 military intervention in Libya, Sudan contributed military and security assistance to the armed opposition fighting the Gaddafi regime. Like its foray into Libya, Sudan’s intervention in the Yemen conflict supports its regional political goals and a broader push to reestablish itself as credible state within the international community. In Libya, Sudan’s support of forces opposed to Gaddafi was a response to Libyan support for armed groups fighting the Sudanese government, most notably the Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur. It was also a response to actions taken by the Libyan government seeking to harm the recently repaired bilateral relationship between Sudan and Chad.
In the Libyan conflict, Sudan and NATO forces found themselves aligned against a common enemy, as both sought to defeat Gaddafi and prop up the National Transitional Council then administering the state. Likewise, in Yemen, the US and Sudan are again on the same side of the battle lines. Of course, their roles within the conflict and political objectives are quite different. Nonetheless, this is the second time since 2011 where the US finds itself pursuing the same military objectives with a country that remains on its State Sponsors of Terrorism List and whose sitting head of state remains wanted by the ICC.
Despite being on the same side of this conflict, the relationship between Washington and Khartoum remains uneasy. While the Obama administration implemented an easing of U.S. sanctions with a week left in office, a move decried by human rights organizations, the Trump administration has the final say as to whether the relaxed sanctions become permanent. Further complicating the issue, the Trump administration included Sudan on its two highly controversial executive orders that bar citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries. In turn, this decision seems at odds with the administration’s prioritization of counterterrorism, as the State Department praised Sudan for its cooperation on countering ISIS and other terrorist groups in September 2015.
The conflict dynamic in Yemen has also changed significantly since the Trump administration took office. Most notably, the US has ramped up airstrikes against al-Qaeda forces in Yemen, seeming content to pursue counterterrorism operations as the larger armed conflict drags on around it. In one week in March, U.S. forces carried out 40 airstrikes against suspected al-Qaeda forces in Yemen, a total higher than any year within the Obama administration. The Trump administration also granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces in Yemen an “area of active hostilities.” This declaration is significant, as it eases the rules of engagement for military leaders by shifting relevant targeting rules toward a traditional law of armed conflict analysis and away from a more stringent policy process established by the Obama administration. Among other things, this process required a “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed during a strike and that the terrorist target posed a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons (meaning that not every terrorist operative warranted a drone strike). It also attempted to assuage criticism of the legality of these strikes, which remains based on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.
How the Trump administration’s policy shift will affect the larger conflict is unclear. What is certain is that civilians—and especially children—have experienced the greatest violence and make up a disproportionately high number of casualties. The civilian death toll passed 10,000 in January, and in March, the UN concluded that 17 million people, about 60 percent of the country’s population, face severe food insecurity and require immediate humanitarian assistance. About one-fourth of the population is at risk of famine.
The most troubling aspect of the conflict is the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial campaign, which has continued to draw widespread international criticism, including allegations of war crimes. In December 2016, the Saudi government admitted to using UK-manufactured cluster munitions even though the UK is a signatory to a 2008 international treaty prohibiting the use of these weapons. The Saudi-led coalition has also used Brazilian-manufactured cluster munitions, including a February 2017 airstrike in residential areas that maimed civilians. More recently, a US-manufactured Apache helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat carrying more than 140 Somali refugees trying to escape the conflict. UNHCR reported that upwards of 42 Somali refugees died in this attack and 39 more were injured. It remains unclear who was responsible for the attack, but Saudi Arabia owns and operates Apache helicopters, although coalition forces claim that they do not operate where the attack occurred. [Editor’s note: see Ryan Goodman and Samuel Oakford’s “Did U.S. Provide Helicopter Used in Attack of Somali Refugees in Yemen?”]
This deadly helicopter attack, which is already raising questions about US responsibility, will likely intensify congressional opposition to further arming Saudi Arabia. In August 2016, a bipartisan group of 64 lawmakers wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to block a $1.15 billion arms deal with the Kingdom. The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), cited a Saudi airstrike that killed 10 children and concluded that Saudi Arabia’s deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian facilities “may amount to war crimes.” In December 2016, the Obama administration suspended the transfer of munitions to Saudi Arabia. Included within this blocked transfer were about 16,000 guided-munitions kits from Raytheon valued at $350 million. Raytheon’s chief executive lobbied hard against the decision, reaching out to the highest levels of the State Department.
The Trump administration has signaled its intent to reverse this decision and again supply Saudi Arabia with munitions. In March, the State Department approved the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, although the White House still has to sign off on the transaction. If approved, this deal would overturn the Obama administration’s decision to halt the sale. The Raytheon deal would signal that billions for U.S. defense contractors, including General Dynamics, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, will continue apace.
Now entering year three of this conflict, it is difficult to envision a decisive victory or an end to the hostilities in the near-term. Instead, a protracted conflict without either side achieving significant military gains seems much more likely.
A clear winner in the scenario is undoubtedly Sudan, and specifically President Bashir. Now in power for more than 27 years, Bashir has managed to evade his ICC arrest warrants and to secure an easing of U.S. sanctions that may very well become permanent in July. The regime has also improved relations with the United Kingdom and convinced European Union leaders of its ability to combat irregular migration and refugee flows—albeit for a cost—through the Khartoum Process, a collaborative effort between the African Union and the EU designed to address migration from the Horn of Africa. For its troubles, the Sudanese government will receive millions, even though experts conclude that this process will not address the root causes of migration and may not stem migrant and refugee flows, but actually exacerbate them.
Still, the Bashir regime knows how to spot a good deal and seize a political opportunity. The regime’s pivot to Saudi Arabia and the GCC has proven timely, and the financial rewards that it received for a relatively limited contribution of troops in the Yemen conflict has far outweighed the costs. This pivot provided the regime a sorely needed economic lifeline, while helping to repair its reputation as a responsible actor, at least regionally. Likewise, the regime’s newfound opposition to Iran could not be better timed for the Trump administration’s unflinchingly hostile view of the country.
For the people of Sudan, however, the picture is much darker. This economic lifeline reaches few, as nearly half of the population lives below the global poverty threshold. And, while these regional and international machinations have aided the regime’s reputation abroad, there is scant reason to believe that absent concerted internal and external pressure, economic conditions or basic human rights will improve in Sudan to any appreciable extent. The US is also setting a dangerous precedent through its continued support of the Saudi-led coalition. Authoritarian leaders are surely taking note that, even as civilian casualties mount and condemnation grows, the State Department has given U.S. defense contractors a greenlight to restock Saudi Arabia’s military arsenal. In addition to obvious reputational costs, this decision will only weaken U.S. national security interests by providing autocrats the tools to reinforce root causes that initially led to conflict. As weapon flows continue and grievances harden, a political solution and lasting peace will become increasingly difficult to achieve.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of the Navy, or the U.S. Naval War College.