If, as the Sudanese claim, the four desert-camouflaged fighter planes that swooped down on a military factory near Khartoum early Wednesday took off from Israel, then the ruin they left in their wake was a message not just to the country’s genocidal leader Omar al-Bashir but also to Gaza’s terror groups, to Iran and to the West.
The mission might also have been ordered to remove a large stockpile of weapons slated for Gaza or Sinai; as a warm-up drill for Iran; and as a preemptive strike, albeit risky, that preserves the fragile peace with Egypt, which Iran has every interest in destroying.
So many potential aims. Such rumbling silence from Jerusalem.
Let’s start with the West. Surely several officers in the Pentagon and elsewhere noted that the distance between Jerusalem and Khartoum is identical to the distance between the Israeli capital and Qom. Over recent months, there has been ample talk of Israel’s ostensible inability to strike deep within Iran. Much of that talk admittedly revolved around the potency of an Israeli attack and its capacity to inflict damage on Iran’s nuclear plants, but an apparent ability to evade or cripple enemy radar for a distance of some 1,700 kilometers would doubtless now be duly noted.
For Tehran, the strike might have sharpened the message that so long as part of the nuclear program remains above ground, it is vulnerable to attack. Perhaps Iran’s air defenses are better than Sudan’s — or Syria’s, for that matter. And surely a strike against Iran would be far more complex. But Iran might now be wondering afresh whether its radar will detect enemy planes cutting through its air space.
The attack would also seem to underline that the Iran-Sudan-Gaza link, channeling an increased flow of arms, will not thrive undisturbed. “Sudan is the pivot on which Iran’s Africa relations turns,” said Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. From there, he noted, Tehran long worked to undermine Hosni Mubarak’s hold on power in Egypt, and from there Iran has been sending arms shipments to Gaza.
President al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague on three counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, has longstanding ties with an impressive array of terror organizations – both Sunni and Shiite. From 1991-1995 he hosted Osama bin Laden in Sudan, and his ally, Hassan al-Turabi, the head of the National Islamic Front in Sudan, organized joint training camps for Hezbollah, the PLO and al-Qaeda operatives among others, according to the 9-11 Commission report.
Critically for Israel, and despite al-Bashir’s Sunni beliefs, those partnerships include links to Iran. “The ties between Tehran and Khartoum were significantly tightened ever since al-Bashir came to power in 1989,” said Karmon. Much as it did for al-Qaeda during the nineties, he added, Khartoum has allowed Iran to build several “very large bases.”
At one point, many shipments of those made-in-Sudan arms went to Hamas. It was in this context that many viewed the 2010 assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the chief of Iranian weapons procurement for Hamas, and the air strikes against weapons convoys and arms dealers in Sudan that began in 2009.
Today, Karmon said, Hamas is out of the loop. Ever since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hamas leadership’s decision to leave Damascus, Hamas, unlike the Salafist groups that will cooperate with any element fighting the West, has taken sides with the Sunni mainstream — which is to say it is locked into a struggle for regional supremacy with Iran and Shiite Islam. “The visit of the Emir of Qatar is the final proof that Hamas has moved to the Sunni side,” Karmon said of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s visit to Gaza on Tuesday.
Iran, on the other hand, still maintains “a distinct interest” in pitting Israel against Egypt. For this reason it continues to supply Islamic Jihad and the Salafist groups in Gaza and Sinai with weapons — hoping to draw Israel into a battle with Egypt, which would weaken both Israel and the Sunni camp in the Middle East.
Israel, finally, has several possible reasons to strike Khartoum. One, there may have been a large stockpile of weapons that Israel wanted to remove from the market. Two, hitting a major arms factory and not just a convoy, as in the past, “sends a signal to the Iranians” that their installations are vulnerable, Karmon said. And lastly, he speculated, “it could be a sort of live fire drill” in preparation for Iran.
Israeli officials, for their part, were keeping mum on Thursday. Cheerfully so.