When Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir landed in Syria on Sunday – the first visit by an Arab League leader to the country since the start of its civil war – it was from a Russian plane that he disembarked.
This detail raised questions over Moscow’s role in brokering the visit, one that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said will serve as a “strong push” towards restoring bilateral ties.
Russia, a vital ally of the Syrian government, extended its diplomatic influence in recent months to secure support for Mr Assad’s continued control over Syria from rivals who once sought his removal, including western governments and Arab League states.
Although Sudan never publicly supported attempts to overthrow Mr Assad, its backing of an Arab League decision to impose sanctions on Damascus and terminate its membership in 2011 strained once-close relations.
“[Mr] Bashir's visit to Syria has all the markings of [Mr] Putin and a few others. The idea is to bring Syria back into the international community and the first step is bringing the Arabs together,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at the Gulf State Analytics think tank. “Russia wants political processes to move quicker in the new year, especially with its Arab partners.”
Moscow has not publicly acknowledged any involvement in Sunday’s meeting but the Russian Foreign Ministry said it hoped it would contribute to reinstating Syria’s membership of the Arab League.
However, the visit comes against the backdrop of strengthening economic ties between Moscow and cash-strapped Khartoum. It also follows an inter-ministerial trade meeting in Moscow last week, in which the two countries pledged to bolster economic relations.
Sudani Net, a pro-government media outlet on Monday, claimed that Russia deposited $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in Sudan's central bank in an attempt to stabilise the country's currency, which plummeted by 85 per cent against the dollar this year.
The National could not independently verify the report.
Russia is one of Sudan’s principal backers at the UN Security Council and it has opposed initiatives to send peacekeeping missions to Darfur, where the government is accused of human rights abuses.
In 2017, Mr Putin moved to enhance ties with Sudan as part of a wider bid to shore-up Russian influence in Africa, where he is pursuing commercial and security ties with the continent as a whole.
Mr Putin sent a plane to transport Mr Bashir from Khartoum to Russia in 2017 for the Sudanese president’s first official trip to the country since coming to power in 1989. During the meeting, Mr Bashir embraced Russia’s position and its efforts to "defend Sudan" at the UN Security Council, and asked Russia for “protection from the aggressive acts of the United States”.
In a meeting that took place in July this year, Mr Putin praised the development in relations between the two countries and said that Russia looked forward to enhancing the partnership.
Russian firms are already capitalising on the warming ties. Moscow has signed mineral deals in Sudan, and Russia’s secretive Wagner Group – which is responsible for sending thousands of Russian mercenaries to Syria – has reportedly won gold and diamond concessions.
Last week, the Russian-Sudanese Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation met in Moscow, where delegates discussed potential investments.
Sudan proposed settling debts owed to Russia by providing benefits to Russian companies, including gas and oil businesses operating in Sudan, according to Russian state-run news agency Sputnik. That same day, Russian Environment Minister Dmitry Kobylkin said that Russia's Gazprombank was considering investment in the construction of an oil refinery in Sudan.
Moscow this week also said it was ready to assist in building a cross-continental railway which will connect East and West Africa. The Trans-African railway from Dakar to Port Sudan and Cape Town is expected to boost trade for Sudan.
Sudan's economy has been hit hard since it lost three quarters of its oil wealth in 2011, following the secession of South Sudan.
Economic hardship worsened this year when the Sudanese pound plummeted and inflation reached nearly 70 per cent in September — one of the highest levels in the world.
Earlier this year, Sudan began a series of economic reforms, including austerity measures, in line with IMF recommendations to try to bolster the economy.
Mr Bashir’s visit on Sunday is the first since he last went to the Syrian capital in 2008 for the Arab League summit which was held there that year.
Although ties with Syria have since soured, Sudan never severed trade or diplomatic links with Damascus, even after most Arab states cut relations.
Throughout the conflict, Khartoum also vocally opposed any form of foreign military intervention in Syria and said only a political solution could end the war.
Mr Assad and other Syrian officials accused Sudan of turning its back on Damascus despite support it had lent to Mr Bashir’s government in the past.
The Syrian president was among Arab leaders who, during an Arab League meeting in 2009, protected the Sudanese leader from charges of orchestrating the rape, killing and widespread pillaging in Darfur.
The Syrian president described the charges by the International Criminal Court against Mr Bashir as a “disrespect” of Sudan’s sovereignty, and said they were a “pretext” and a “fabrication”.
Sudan's deadly conflict in Darfur broke out in 2003 when ethnic minority groups took up arms against Mr Bashir's Arab-dominated government, which launched a brutal counter-insurgency.
The UN says at least 300,000 people were killed and more than 2.5 million displaced.
Top Sudanese officials, including Mr Bashir, now claim that the conflict has ended, but the region continues to see regular fighting between numerous ethnic and tribal groups.