Sudan and the Yarmouk attack: Israel’s folly, America’s brolly

By IndepthAfrica
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Nov 6th, 2012
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By Ahmed Badawi

The Yarmouk factory in Khartoum burns after an alleged attack by Israel.

Invoking the right to remain silent often speaks louder than words. That’s surely the case with the official Israeli response of “no comment” to the accusation from the Sudanese government that Israeli missiles struck the Yarmouk arms factory in Khartoum in the early hours of 24th October.

There’s virtually no doubt that Israeli forces did indeed attack the Yarmouk plant (as the Sudanese government has claimed so stridently).

First, as the BBC has noted, Israel has launched other pre-emptive strikes at Sudan over the last few years to stop claimed contraband weapons supplies to Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Second, the Israeli government would have surely by now sent out subtle hints to the Sudanese (through diplomatic back-channels) if its silence over the Yarmouk accusations just amounted to mere grandstanding to the Israeli electorate (early polls had just been called for January 2013 by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, a week or so before the strike).

It hasn’t.

Last, and most damningly, Sudan’s minister for media, Ahmed Bilal Osman, has noted that the Israeli government had already communicated its concerns to the Sudanese government about the end-usage of Yarmouk’s output, which Mr. Osman noted comprised only light and conventional weapons.

In other words, put bluntly, the Israeli government seems to have decided to take the law into own hands and bomb the Yarmouk factory, killing two people in the process.

The Israeli government clearly possessed both the motive and previous form to carry out such an egregious act on Sudanese territory. That, in turn, raises the more salient question of not whether Israel bombed the Yarmouk plant (it clearly did) but, instead, why did the Israeli government choose this moment to do so now?

Likely inputs into the Netanyahu administration’s calculus to attack Yarmouk include:

  • A desire to fire a warning shot across the bow of the Sudan’s ruling National Congress ahead of its hosting of an international conference for Islamist movements, which started on 4th November;
  • An attempt from the Netanyahu’s administration to be seen by the Israeli electorate as acting tough and not caving into perceived terrorists in the run-up to, and notwithstanding a newly-minted, though politically-unpalatable,  ceasefire truce with Hamas;

and, lastly, perhaps most importantly:

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (correct) gamble that the US presidential elections would completely neuter Washington’s public opprobrium, mealy-mouthed at the best of time when Israel is concerned, to the attack.

Not unexpectedly, Khartoum has growled loudly and menacingly at its Israeli counterpart’s latest violation of its territorial integrity. The speaker of the Sudanese parliament has stated that “Israel has declared war on Sudan”, and Minister Osman has warned that the Sudanese government reserves the right to respond to Israel at the appropriate time and place. It has also stated that it plans “decisive action” against “Israeli interests”, too.

Ominous sounding stuff from Khartoum.

But wise heads will prevail amongst the Sudanese authorities. They know only too well that entering into an asymmetrical war with Israel would hardly be in their best interests – or those of a very war-weary Sudanese population.

Indeed, those in the international community who have routinely criticised previous internal actions of the Sudanese leadership or chuckled at sections of the Sudanese public reaction to a certain teddy-bear, should now consider taking the opportunity to praise both the Sudanese government and people public for their laudably constrained reaction to Israel’s fourth violent pre-emptive violation of Sudan’s territorial integrity in just three years.

Am I alone in wondering whether any other government or population in this part of the world (or indeed anywhere else for that matter) would have stayed so calm and measured in the face of such an aggressive act?

As it stands, Khartoum is even sleepier than usual: streets populated sparsely, many shops still closed, and most of Khartoum’s residents remaining ensconced with their relatives in the rural provinces, following the recent Eid Al Adha festivities.

Nor have there been angry sermons in Khartoum’s mosques baying for retribution against Israeli interests.

Instead of readying itself for war with Israel, the Sudanese government – as in the previous assaults on Sudanese – has chosen the mature and responsible route to address the Yarmouk events: usage of political and diplomatic channels of protest. Sudan’s Ambassador to the UN, Dafalla Osman, swiftly lodged his government’s accusation against Israel at UN Security Council headquarters in New York as a prelude to filing an official complaint there.

The United States and its other Western allies in the Council’s ‘P-5’ are, however, certain to use their influence to quash Sudan’s grievance, so allowing Israel to evade censure by the UN. The United States and other friends of Israel would, instead, be better advised to pressure the Netanyahu administration into going public and showcasing its evidence to the world, Colin Powell-style, that underpin its claims about Yarmouk – and if not publicly, then through a closed-door briefing at the UN. The Sudanese government, in contrast, has no need to prove to the world that its hands are clean – innocent ‘til proven guilty, remember, not the other way round.

Israeli government, instead, continues to drip-feed and bandy about false allegations through the international media, claiming the Sudanese government funnels weapons to Hamas or Hezbollah on behalf of Iran.

Making the Israeli government go public with its evidence about Yarmouk matters and makes sense for two key reasons.

First, Israel would have everything to win and nothing to lose. Parading the evidence to the world would, at the very least, lend a veneer of international legitimacy to the action of the Netanyahu administration to strike Yarmouk.

Second, and linked to the above: Israeli intelligence is not sacrosanct as many seem to believe.

Just the mere say so of the Israeli government – implicit or otherwise – cannot be enough to confer guilt about the end-use of Yarmouk’s output. Remember Iraqi WMD claims anybody?

Not only did the presidency of George W Bush believe that Saddam Hussein had WMD and had hidden them; the much-vaunted ‘Israeli intelligence’ backed that up as well.

Sure, the Sudanese government may not be the most popular kid in the playground. But that shouldn’t matter a jot.

It’s still patently wrong for P-5 Security Council members, not least those who stress strong universal adherence to the international norms of behaviour, to simply shrug their shoulders and stay silent about Israel’s strikes on Yarmouk, convinced that it just doesn’t matter because it’s only Sudan.

Even if the Israeli government had 100 percent conviction that weapons from Yarmouk had been doing Iran’s bidding and supplying weapons to Hamas, well-developed back-channels exist at the UN to lodge and verify those claims and, in turn, for Israel to seek internationally-legitimised retribution for the proven offender (whether in the form of sanctions or other punitive measures).

Nobody anywhere should be happy when one country alone sees it fit to act unilaterally and regularly outside the international system with impunity, and take the role of judge, jury, and executioner.

There’s a term for that: the law of the jungle.

It’s the very antithesis of what the UN stands for and chips away steadily at its international legitimacy.

It’s the height of irony that the Sudanese government’s usage of the Security Council to protest the attack on the Yarmouk factory not only points the way forward for the Israeli government, but is likely to encounter, at best, barely disguised ambivalence from the United States, Great Britain, and France within the P-5.

Ultimately, a large part of responsibility for the Israeli government attack on the Yarmouk military complex rests, indirectly, with the US government. The United States has kept Sudan on its State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) list, renewed as recently 2nd November even while it has continued to officially laud the Sudanese government for its “solid” counterterrorism relationship, and for providing “actionable intelligence” to US citizens and interests in the region, and most recently, in July 2012, noting that the Sudanese government remained “a cooperative counterterrorism partner”.

Such contradictory and schizophrenic official statements from Washington create the ‘smog’ or permissive political environment that, de facto, gives the Israeli government license to strike Sudan at will, using the fig-leaf of snuffing out state-supporting terrorism concerns.

The US administration should move decisively to end this costly reputational slur on Sudan, and return the SST list to what it had been intended for: a risk management tool designed to keep the United States and its citizens safe from real threats to its national security and interests.

Indeed, tellingly, none of the US official assessments of Sudan give any support to Israeli claims that the Sudanese government has been supporting Hamas or Hezbollah militarily. Nor are any such claims in the renewal of Sudan’s SST designation a few days ago (which was highly likely dictated by the constraints of the US elections).

Yes, some weapons smuggling – along with other contraband – has occurred from the Sudanese-side of the joint border with Egypt. No question. But be clear: that doesn’t in and of itself make the Sudanese government complicit.

Borders are always hard to keep free from contraband – let alone those as long and remote as Sudan’s border with Egypt – even for a country with large financial and military resources. Just look at Israel’s own inability to inoculate its own comparatively small borders fully from weapons smuggling.

Ahmed Badawi has written and advised extensively on country and reputational risk on Sudan at The Economist Intelligence Unit, Dun & Bradstreet, Fitchratings, Kroll, and WeberShandwick GJW, Public Affairs. Currently, he provides strategic counsel to the Government of Sudan and is Managing Director of The Sudan Centre for Strategic Communications (SCSC), based in Khartoum.

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