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Iranian Drone Presence in Sudan Civil War Signals Larger African Strategy

HomeWARIranian Drone Presence in Sudan Civil War Signals Larger African Strategy

KHARTOUM, Sudan — In the grinding civil war that has engulfed Sudan for nearly a year, the tide has begun to turn in favor of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Advanced Iranian-made drones, supplied in recent months, have given the army a decisive new edge against their rival, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

The impact has been dramatic. After months of stalemate with the R.S.F. fighters stubbornly embedded in densely populated neighborhoods of the capital, the Sudanese military has regained significant territory, according to multiple sources cited by Reuters. The drones, deployed for surveillance and precise strikes, have enabled a string of territorial gains — the most decisive since the conflict erupted in April 2023.

The situation in Sudan is just one example of a broader trend sweeping across the African continent. From the deserts of the Sahara to the lush interior, the skies are increasingly patrolled by fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — combat drones arming previously impoverished nations with fearsome and affordable airpower.

“For many African countries, drones offer a way to rapidly build significant airpower without the massive costs of traditional aircraft,” said Zainab Noor, an analyst at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. “They can surveil and strike targets with precision few could have imagined just a decade ago.”

Iran is far from the sole supplier fueling this drone proliferation. Powers like China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and even the United States have been rushing drones to various African governments and rebel groups. Their motivations range from cultivating alliances to countering rivals’ influences. But the results have been transformative on a continent long beset by insurgencies and conflict.

In Ethiopia’s civil war in 2021, a fleet of Turkish, Iranian and Emirati drones helped turn the tide, pummeling Tigrayan rebel forces and enabling the military to regain a stranglehold. In Nigeria, the government has used Chinese Wing Loong II strike drones against Boko Haram militants in the northeast.

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“Drones have become a must-have item for many African militaries and their access is fueling a re-escalation of numerous conflicts,” said Noor. “No longer is airpower the exclusive domain of major powers willing to spend billions on fighter jets and bombers.”

Yet as sophisticated drone technology proliferates across the continent, concerns mount over the human cost and lack of accountability.

“We’re seeing a disturbing pattern of drones causing civilian casualties and striking hospitals and ambulances, but little to no responsibility taken,” said Lana Masri, an investigator at Pax, a Dutch peace NGO that tracks arms proliferation. “Armed drones bring devastation but without clear avenues to justice for victims.”

In Libya’s civil war, Masri’s group documented over 1,000 drone strikes in major cities in 2021 alone, many by uncrewed Turkish systems supplied to the internationally recognized government. Hospitals and refugee camps were hit repeatedly, with little effort by any side to investigate, tally deaths or provide redress to civilians, the report found.

“Lack of transparency surrounds who is carrying out these strikes and under what laws of armed conflict,” said Masri. “Without safeguards, armed drones sitrengredimensiondf conflicts while devastating lives.”

Sudanese citizens in Khartoum know the terror of living under drone bombardment all too well. In Omdurman, one of the capital’s three municipalities, residents describe watching the buzzing Iranian drones methodically track rebel fighters’ positions before unleashing salvos of artillery.

“We hear the drones and then comes the bombardment — it’s a nightmare,” said Dawoud Abasi, an Omdurman resident reached by phone. “The drones make it impossible to know if you’re truly safe anywhere. Nowhere is spared.”

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While enabling the army’s gains, the drone attacks have compounded the suffering of civilians already reeling from cutoffs of food, water and electricity across Khartoum. Lack of a political resolution or outside mediation perpetuates the crisis.

“Both sides have turned our neighborhoods into battlefields,” said Abasi. “When will the world intervene to stop our torment?”

Such anguished cries resound across the drone-struck conflicts of the continent. Yet there’s little prospect of the drone proliferation abating soon, analysts say, not with the eagerness of both external powers and African governments to wield this low-cost, high-impact military technology.

For nations like Iran, Turkey and China, drone diplomacy has emerged as an avenue to expand influence and secure new strategic partnerships, especially during an era of geopolitical churn.

“By spreading its drones across Africa, Iran for instance is making a full-court press to cultivate new allies and open a new frontier in its regional struggle against rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia,” said Noor. “Every drone deal is a foothold in Africa’s future alignments.”

For African governments confronting insurgencies and internal unrest, armed drones have morphed into an almost irresistible silver bullet — one with few constraints from sources of supply or international oversight.

Western concerns over misuse or civilian casualties hold decreasing sway in an era when rogue actors like Russia’s Wagner mercenary group can peddle drones and military support across the continent in exchange for mining concessions. Human rights take a back seat to regime preservation and resource extraction.

“What we’re witnessing is a very 21st century remilitarization of Africa by new and old powers enabling each other’s military adventurism,” said Patience Mavhunga, a Zimbabwean political scientist who studies armed drone proliferation.

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“No strong norms or coherent strategies exist to restrict the spread of drones and govern their use in counterinsurgency campaigns or civil wars. Preaching human rights provides little deterrence when drone technology is a fast-track to hard power.”

As the skies buzz with increasing drone activity, some analysts envision scenarios spinning out of control, of African nations’ militaries following a slippery slope to deploying “swarming” drone attacks — unleashing coordinated fleets of explosive-laden suicide drones against cities or infrastructure.

Proliferation of drones without strong regulations, they warn, risks accelerating conflicts and exacting horrific humanitarian tolls. Yet regulating their diffusion has proven enormously difficult with a patchwork of arms export restrictions and few binding multilateral agreements in place.

“International laws and accountability mechanisms governing drones and autonomous weapons rapidly fall behind the pace of technological proliferation,” said Rachel Stohl, an expert on drone governance at the Stimson Center in Washington. “When even major powers can’t agree on robust regulations, leaving governments unconstrained is a recipe for escalating violence and blowback. We’re walking into an uncertain future in Africa and beyond.”

For now, the canvas of rapidly evolving drone warfare continues spreading across the African continent’s many theaters of conflict — in Sudan, Libya, Ethiopia and beyond. Hovering over battlefields from the air, drones represent the latest frontier for powers jostling to exert influence.

Yet few dispute the heavy human costs for civilians trapped in dronelands — the terrifying buzz of unseen death circling overhead, bringing unleashing destruction but little accountability.

“We’re forgotten people subject to remote killings without having committed any crime,” said Ibrahim Hassan, a civilian evacuee from the embattled Sudanese region of Darfur. “We’re losing everything to this new way of waging wars.”

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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