Special operations advisers from Sudan – previously Iran’s key ally on the Red Sea – have been deployed in support of a Saudi-backed militia offensive launched over the weekend in Yemen to seize control of Aden’s airport, according to analysts focused on the Middle East.
Africa’s role in the Saudi-led coalition was further boosted this week by Senegal’s decision to dispatch 2,100 troops to provide security to Islam’s holiest shrines in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, freeing the Saudi National Guard to support Saudi forces positioned on the border with Yemen.
The apparent deployment of Sudanese advisers to Aden lends irony to the Saudi campaign in Yemen, which is designed to blunt the advance of Iran-backed Houthi rebels and also is backed by the United States, which has provided intelligence and midair refueling for the coalition’s aircraft. Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir, is wanted by the International Court of Justice on charges of war crimes and genocide committed by Sudanese forces in the country’s rebellious western Darfur region, and Sudan is one of the countries on the U.S. list of state supporters of terrorism.
Until last year, Bashir had allowed Iran to supply weapons to its Houthi rebel allies in Yemen through facilities in Sudan. But Bashir ordered those operations shut down in September for allegedly propagating Shiite Islam in predominantly Sunni Muslim Sudan. The order came shortly after Saudi Arabia promised to invest heavily in Sudan’s agricultural sector.
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Bashir then shocked Iran in March by joining the Saudi-led military coalition opposing the Houthi rebels. Some analysts have suggested the decision was driven by up to $4 billion in donations to the Sudanese central bank by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, but Sudan and Saudi Arabia have denied that any such payments were made.
Sudan’s initial contribution of three aging Russian warplanes to the Saudi-led coalition’s fleet of advanced Western aircraft was considered largely symbolic. But the arrival in Aden of Sudanese special operators Sunday appears to have been a major blow to Iranian supply of the Houthis, the analysts said.
“It’s a bold move that exposes myriad networks,” said Theodore Karasik, a Saudi-focused geo-strategic analyst based in the United Arab Emirates.
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, an independent research center in Washington, said the dispatch of foreign troops to advise anti-Houthi fighters in Yemen was “essential.”
“Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners could not accomplish what they needed with air and naval power alone,” he said. “Ultimately, boots on the ground were going to be required to take and hold territory from the Houthis or others.”
The Sudanese advisers are part of a Saudi-led team of 40 to 50 special operators that have led units of Yemen’s Southern Popular Resistance pro-government militia to establish a beachhead at the airport since Sunday for the arrival of more teams from Saudi Arabia, Krasik said. Some of the troops were trained in tactics in Saudi Arabia and include former military officers from the former South Yemen who served in Persian Gulf Arab security forces after South and North Yemen merged in 1990.
“The plan seems to be to set up a hub for more special forces to move into Aden, to arm tribes to fight the Houthis and repel them from the south,” Karasik said. “It’s the beginning of what the Saudi-led alliance sees as mop-up operations. The real key is to what degree urban combat may keep combatants bogged down.”
The spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al Asseri, has declined to comment on the reported deployment of special operations forces in Aden, reiterating only that the coalition reserved the right to conduct ground operations in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia had hoped that Pakistan, with one of the largest militaries in the Muslim world, would take over security duties in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but Pakistan’s Parliament voted unanimously not to participate in the Yemen campaign.
That role will now fall to the 2,100 Senegalese troops, the western African nation’s foreign minister said Monday.
Major logistics facilities in Yemen have been frequent targets for the Saudi-led coalition, which has deployed naval ships to blockade Aden’s port and bombed the runway of the airport last week at Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to prevent the landing of an Iranian cargo plane said by Tehran to be carrying humanitarian aid.
An Aden-bound convoy of Iranian ships turned away last month after being shadowed by U.S. Navy vessels, including an aircraft carrier.