A weapons bonanza is fuelling tensions between the two Sudans
13 July 2012
Moscow has finally bowed to international pressure and agreed to stop shipping weapons to a conflict zone. In early July Russia announced a moratorium on arms supplies to its biggest arms customer in the Middle East – namely Syria.
Crucially, Russia said it would not negotiate any further deals and has suspended a contract for 36 jet trainers. This will be a blow to President Assad's beleaguered regime, but the fact that the Russians are about to put a naval flotilla of a dozen ships into the Syrian port of Tartus makes it hard to accept Moscow's sincerity.
Nonetheless, in light of Syria being likely to follow Libya and Iraq in becoming a lost market to the Russian arms industry, Moscow has prudently been hedging its bets elsewhere.
Who needs guns, and lots of them, in a hurry? Why South Sudan of course! Moscow has good relations with the Sudanese government in Khartoum to the north, but China has always been Sudan's primary weapons supplier.
While the international community has been fretting over Russian weapons shipments to troubled Syria, Moscow and its competitors have been quietly cultivating clients in a new burgeoning conflict zone – the border between North and South Sudan.
While South Sudan has every right to establish proper armed forces based on the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the last thing the region needs is an influx of heavy weaponry. Both Sudans are now dangerous patchwork quilts of competing state and non-state groups, all of whom have a thirst for weapons.
Since South Sudan's move to independence from the North last summer, antagonism between the two has reached boiling point. Proxy wars are being waged on both sides of the border. Into these simmering tensions have been pouring arms from China, Iran, Russia and Ukraine. Earlier this year major new weapon systems including tanks and helicopters were observed in the Southern Sudanese capital of Juba.
Traditionally Moscow has supported Khartoum but is showing a change in policy by courting Juba. Russia deliveries to the North include armoured personnel carriers, attack and transport helicopters and transport aircraft; most notably, Khartoum took receipt of about 10 Mi-24 helicopter gunships last year as part of a deal for a total of 30.
In recent years Belarus has got in on the action providing Khartoum with ground attack aircraft.
At beginning of this year Juba took receipt of 10 Mi-17 helicopters supplied by Russia's Kazan helicopter company. This may herald a new burgeoning trade relationship.
Ukraine has reportdely been South Sudan's primary weapons supplier since 2005. At the end of last year Juba took delivery of the final batch of 33 T-72 tanks via Ukraine. These had originally been hijacked by Somali pirates four years earlier.
Ukraine has also provided the SPLA with anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers, assault rifles and ammunition. Similarly large quantities of Chinese ammunition has reached the SPLA
According to covert and overt sources, Chinese arms exports are opaque at the best of times even as they pay lip service to the UN Conventional Arms register. China, though, has a long history of exporting weapons to Africa and Sudan in particular. It has always had an eye on the region's oil and is happy to sell weapons to those with petroleum dollars.
Since South Sudan achieved independence tension has been steadily mounting with its northern neighbour. To make matters worse, both sides have taken to arming proxy guerrilla and militia forces - sowing the seed for a series of brutal civil wars.
There can be no hiding the fact that both Khartoum and Juba are looking to destabilise each other by supporting local allies, and someone has been arming the guerrilla armies hostile to the government in Juba.
The South Sudan Liberation Movement, for example, allegedly received surface-to-air missiles at the end of last year from an undisclosed country. The SSLM has also received Iranian manufactured rocket-propelled grenades which are believed to have come via Khartoum.
One year on, the chances of a much-needed peace dividend with the creation of South Sudan seems to have been tragically stillborn.