Syrian rebels have received Chinese-made anti-aircraft missile launchers from Sudan, a country that has been under international arms embargoes and maintains close ties with a stalwart backer of the Syrian government, Iran.
Western officials and Syrian rebels say Sudan’s government sold Sudanese – and Chinese-made arms to Qatar, which arranged delivery through Turkey to the rebels.
The shipments included anti-aircraft missiles and newly manufactured small-arms cartridges, which were seen on the battlefield in Syria – all of which have helped the rebels combat the Syrian government forces.
Emerging evidence that Sudan has fed the secretive arms pipeline to rebels adds to a growing body of knowledge about where the opposition to president Bashar al-Assad is getting its military equipment, often paid for by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or other sympathetic donors.
They have helped sustain the opposition against government forces emboldened by aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Sudan’s involvement adds yet another complication to a civil war that has long defied a diplomatic resolution. The battle has evolved into a proxy fight for regional influence between global powers, regional players and religious sects. In Sudan’s case, it has a connection with the majority Sunni rebels, and a potentially lucrative financial stake in prosecuting the war.
But Sudan’s decision to provide arms to the rebels – bucking its own international supporters and helping to cement its reputation for fuelling conflict – reflects a politically risky balancing act. Sudan maintains close economic and diplomatic ties to Iran and China.
Sudanese officials this week denied helping arm either side in the Syrian war. “Sudan has not sent weapons to Syria,” said Imad Sid Ahmad, the press secretary for president Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
However, Sudan has a history of providing weapons to armed groups while denying its hand in such transfers. Its arms or ammunition have turned up in South Sudan, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Chad, Kenya, Guinea, Mali and Uganda, said Jonah Leff, a Sudan analyst for the Small Arms Survey, a research project.
It has provided weapons to Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army; rebels in Libya; and the janjaweed, the pro-government militias that are accused of a campaign of atrocities in Darfur.
“Sudan has positioned itself to be a major global arms supplier whose wares have reached several conflict zones, including the Syrian rebels,” said a US official who is familiar with the shipments to Turkey.
Western analysts and officials said Sudan’s clandestine participation in arming rebels in Syria suggests inherent tensions in Bashir’s foreign policy, which broadly supports Sunni Islamist movements while maintaining a valued relationship with the Shia theocracy in Iran.
“Qatar has been paying a pretty penny for weapons, with few questions asked,” said a US official. “Once word gets out that other countries have opened their depots and have been well paid, that can be an incentive.”
Analysts suspect Sudan has sold several other classes of weapons to the rebels, including Chinese-made sniper rifles and anti-tank missiles, all of which have made debuts in the war this year but whose immediate sources have been uncertain.
The shipments have been delivered by Ukrainian-flagged aircraft. Air traffic control data shows that at least three Ukrainian companies flew military-style cargo planes this year from Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to a military and civilian airfield in western Turkey.
The Sudanese spokesman, suggested that if Sudan’s weapons were seen with Syria’s rebels, perhaps they were provided by Libya, after Sudan equipped rebels fighting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
However, that would not explain the Sudanese-made 7.62mm ammunition documented this year in rebel possession near the Syrian city of Idlib.
The ammunition was made in Sudan in 2012 – after the war in Libya had ended.