22 May, 2023
By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow
On 15 April, media around the world began to report of fighting taking place in Sudan’s capital Khartoum between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In the days following, several hundred people would be killed and tens of thousands would have fled in a struggle for power between two individuals: Army chief General Abdel al-Burhan, and commander of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti. Fighting has since spread to states across the country and so far, cease-fire attempts have failed to last despite mediation offers from neighbors and international actors. Meanwhile, Foreign countries have made efforts to evacuate their nationals and so far there appears to be no immediate hopes of a peaceful resolution to this conflict.
While the confrontation between the SAF and RSF can be understood as an existential fight over Sudan’s leadership, several regional powers have their own interests in the strategically significant and agriculturally rich country, and in the conflict resulting in the victory of one of the two factions. Seven countries border Sudan, five of which have witnessed political turmoil or civil conflicts in recent years, and all of whom are hosting refugees as a result of this latest internal conflict in the region.
A Tale of Two Generals
The connections both General al-Burhan and General Dagalo have with neighboring countries and regional powers trace their roots back to the last decade before both joined forces to oust then President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, who had come to power in his own coup in 1989. This occurred as large-scale protests demanded an end to al-Bashir’s rule and called on the military to remove him. After the coup, protests continued demanding the introduction of democracy. Ironically, it was President al-Bashir who in 2013 transformed the predecessor organization of the RSF, the infamous Janjaweed, a group which became associated with atrocities in the Darfur region following a rebellion, into a paramilitary force with military ranks led by Dagalo.
After al-Bashir’s outing, a ‘council of generals’ began to rule, with General al-Burhan as the de-facto President and Hemedti as his deputy. However, this government was only to act as transitionary until the implementation of a civilian government with international support. A ‘Framework Agreement’ in December 2022 was to lay the course for this. Not only was its implementation a condition for the release of frozen international funds from the World Bank and financial powers such as the USA and the UAE, but it would also have meant the integration of the RSF into the regular armed forces, which would have been placed under civilian oversight. This means both Generals would have lost power, something clearly neither of them appears intent on. Since then, there have been indications of a breakdown to this transition, and the fighting began after the deadline to implement the framework was not met.
While each of Sudan’s neighbors has an interest in the stability of the country, it can be argued that Egypt has some of the strongest incentives to maintain order. Historically the two countries have been connected by politics, trade, culture, and the significance of the Nile River, and Sudanese make up the largest group of expats in Egypt, with the likelihood of an increasing number of refugees as the conflict progresses. Egypt sees in Sudan an ally against Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which both countries fear will affect the water supply and agricultural production of the Nile, and as a result has close ties with the Sudanese Military with whom it has held combined military exercises in the past. Rumors of Egypt having provided the SAF with fighter jets are also indicative of Egypt’s desire for a quick end to the conflict by breaking the balance of power in Sudan and giving the SAF the military advantage it needs for a rapid military solution. Consequently, offers to mediate are likely heavily linked to the desire for Sudan to remain stable or risk efforts to secure a deal with Ethiopia, to Ethiopia’s advantage. Should the conflict persist however, Egypt’s water and also food security, already exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, would be thrown into uncertainty.
Although Egypt is undoubtedly the regional political, economic, and military powerhouse, Ethiopia too has heavy influence and has offered to mediate, calling for a peaceful resolution. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Sudan in January to discuss both the GERD and the contested al-Fashaga agricultural area along their shared border. Al-Fashaga is particularly sensitive, as the SAF attacked this area after the war in Tigray erupted in November 2020, forcing out Ethiopian farmers. There is therefore the omnipresent chance that Ethiopia may re-take this area while the SAF find itself occupied with the RSF, forcing the SAF to respond to this intrusion against Sudan’s territorial integrity, to the benefit of the RSF. What may seem like an ‘easy’ win for Ethiopia, however, is complicated when Eritrea’s interests are taken into account. To date, it seems both of Sudan’s eastern neighbors have taken a neutral position as it remains unclear who in the conflict is likely to win at this stage.
While General al-Burhan was warming up to Prime Minister Abiy, Hemedti was getting comfortable with Eritrea’s Leader, Isais Afwerki, whom he met two months after the al-Burhan-Abiy meeting, and who called for an internal solution with assistance from the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Notable are the longstanding relationships Eritrea maintains with several powerful tribes in eastern Sudan which the country backed during a rebellion in 2000 against President al-Bashir. These friendly measures are in contrast to the Ethiopian-Eritrean relationship, which took a downward slope after Abiy ended the war in Tigray. Although the two countries fought the Tigrayan rebels together, Eritrea continues to see the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front as an existential threat. The fear now is should the Sudan conflict spill into the eastern part of the country, that Eritrea would feel obliged to intervene. This may prompt an offensive from the TPLF, which accuses Eritrea of having committed war crimes against Tigrayans during the civil war with the Ethiopian government. Coincidentally, several hundred Tigrayans are also believed to live in eastern Sudan and could theoretically be mobilized by Sudan to defend against Eritrean involvement. While it’s unclear how Ethiopia would involve itself in such a case, if at all, as a Tigrayan-Eritrean conflict could arguably come at a benefit for Ethiopia, what is clear is that an expansion of the Sudan conflict eastwards would likely have repercussions in Eritrea and Ethiopia as it would in the north in Egypt.
South Sudan, which until 2011 was part of Sudan, is also feeling the impact of the conflict over its northern border. 170,000 barrels of oil flow every day via pipelines from South Sudan through Sudan, an economic link neither faction in the conflict has an interest in stopping. However, the South Sudanese government has indicated that the fighting has hindered the logistics and transport links between its oil fields and the oil’s destination at Port Sudan. Additionally, some 800,000 South Sudanese refugees, having fled civil conflict, currently reside in Sudan, which would place a large strain on aid-efforts should they be forced to return. In the case of South Sudan, a return to stability is thus crucial regardless of how the conflict ends.
Similar to South Sudan, Chad’s interests are most likely in a quick resolution of the conflict with less consideration to how it ends. Some 400,000 Sudanese reside in Chad from previous conflicts, and over 20,000 have crossed over as a result of this conflict. Fear of cross-border conflict stems from when the Janjaweed launched raids into Chad from Darfur, seizing livestock and killing villagers and refugees who resisted. The government in Ndjamena also fears Russia’s Private Military Contractor, the Wagner Group, which is alleged to be active in another of Chad’s neighbors, the Central African Republic, and which is believed to have close ties with the RSF; There are concerns instability may bring Wagner to support Chadian rebels threatening the government.
Finally, similarities have been drawn to the situation in Libya, with comparisons that unless averted, Sudan may face a similar decade-long civil war without end in sight. The longer the conflict drags on, the higher the likelihood of foreign involvement, as is the case with the Wagner Group, which in Libya has been supporting General Khalifa Haftar. General Haftar is also believed to have strong ties with Hemedti, who also allegedly was involved in Libya’s conflict and financed by the UAE, leading to rumors of Wagner and more broad Russian support of the RSF. Since the fighting began, reports have emerged of increased activity in Libyan Wagner bases, with allegations of fuel and missile supplies being sent to Sudan to support the RSF.
Sudan’s mineral wealth has courted the interests of regional actors. The United Arab Emirates’ military support to the RSF can be explained by a desire for a quick military victory to ensure stability for the sake of economic development. Companies from the UAE and Saudi Arabia have invested in a range of companies in Sudan, from agriculture to a domestic airline and a port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. The UAE has also imported $1.77 billion worth of gold in 2020 with allegations of up to 90% of Sudan’s gold being smuggled out through the UAE. The UAE’s alleged military support to the RSF also gives credibility to reports that the RSF controls a majority of gold mines in Sudan, further linking Hemedti to the Emirates. The plot thickens with the common understanding that Wagner operates gold mining firms in Sudan accused of smuggling. Consequently, the SAF has been assessed to be targeting gold mines and smuggling routes in an effort to cut off the RSF’s funding, while the RSF aims to capture more gold mines. To link Hemedti back with Libyan General Haftar and the UAE, it is reasonable to ascertain that the RSF is paying for incoming missile and fuel supplies in gold, making the war profitable for the Libyan General and the UAE. Finally, Emirati and Saudi support can also be linked to a desire to roll-back Islamist influence in the region and strengthen stability, a key motivator behind support of the transition to civilian rule now thrown into question. The UAE has both clear interests in a quick end to the war but also in Hemedti retaining power, while the Saudi’s have worked to mediate between both parties in finding a diplomatic solution to end the fighting.
Russia, and by proxy the Wagner Group, has interests of its own in Sudan. Most crucially, while the Wagner Group is known to be expanding in Africa, Russia has looked to establish a naval base on the Sudanese coast on the Red Sea, a significant trade route for energy to Europe. Naturally, the West fears such Russian expansion in the region, despite progress with the Sudanese government in establishing such a facility able to host up to 300 troops and four ships. This prospect achieved progress as Moscow has allegedly secured a deal for the construction of a port during the rule of President al-Bashir which was “under review” by the military after the latest coup. Ensuring progress in this project was likely a key motivation behind Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Sudan in February. While geopolitical interests are clear, a 2022 media investigation revealed that the military junta had granted Russia access to gold mines in exchange for political and military support, explaining how Wagner came to operate such facilities. Opposing Russia is naturally The United States, representing the collective ‘West’ in this case. Russia’s rivals were happy to have seen President al-Bashir deposed, as he had been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court over occurrences in the Darfur conflict. And with the prospect of an increased Russian presence in Sudan, spurred by instability rather than democratic transition, the USA is unlikely to idly sit by and may compete for influence in the region.
The streets of Khartoum remain a battlefield. While the SAF is believed to be three times as large as the RSF and possess some airpower, the RSF is entrenched in the city and its members are better equipped and trained. Talks between the two factions continue in the Saudi city of Jeddah, though both have said they would only discuss a humanitarian truce and not a cessation of hostilities. As long as both sides are at a stalemate this is logical; both believe they can gain the upper hand militarily to then either win the conflict or have a better hand at the table once the time for sincere negotiations arrives. Unfortunately, neither side has shown indications of backing down and neither has been able to break the stalemate, leading to more fighting and increasing the risk of international involvement and regional spill-overs. There exists the risk of this internal conflict becoming regional and then international, drawing in more actors with the chance of Sudan going the path of Libya.
Both General al-Burhan and General Dagalo are clearly unwilling to hand over any power along with the wealth and influence that comes with their current positions. General al-Burhan has declared the conflict a rebellion against a state and said Hemedti would be tried in court if captured, while Hemedti has vowed to capture or kill General al-Burhan. The victor may very well become Sudan’s next President with the loser facing exile or death. And during the entirety of this “senseless conflict”, as labelled by former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, it is the Sudanese people who have no prospect of winning. The longer fighting drags on, the higher the risk of an expanded civil war, and the more likely foreign actors will get involved.