Guns at the ready: Sudanese soldiers from the Rapid Support Forces, one of the rival factions fighting for power. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
Fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and its paramilitary counterpart, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is the logical outcome of a voracious kleptocracy starting to implode. But the violence is assuming an uncontrollable momentum of its own, creating exponential difficulties for belligerents and peacemakers alike.
Over 100 days in, Sudan’s conflict shows no signs of abating. Across the capital, clashes remain concentrated around Omdurman and Bahri, Khartoum’s sister cities, with a single airstrike killing at least 37 people and Grad rockets saturating residential neighbourhoods. Despite dwarfing Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemmeti’ Dagalo’s RSF, SAF is on the back foot after failing to relieve the disparate garrisons making up its frontline. Dismissed by many as a ‘vanity project’, a passable imitation of a working military, the army displays little of the capacity or doctrine necessary to sustain a counterinsurgency, having outsourced such functions to the very group it is now fighting. The top brass appears divided over operational planning, and morale among poorly paid ground-troops is often shaky. Perhaps as a consequence, heavily armed convoys from Hattab Camp were decimated along Al Ingaz Street, a major north-south artery, while trying to reach SAF’s beleaguered Signal Corps – the latest in a series of costly setbacks that have left much of the military’s senior leadership, including Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seemingly cut off in the nearby General Command complex. With the defenders reportedly short on fuel, ‘even some army backers suggest the RSF [could be] on the cusp of a decisive victory’.
But this is not a foregone conclusion. Hemmeti’s supply lines are stretched, and SAF is still entrenched across Khartoum’s outskirts, with ready access to the Sudanese coastline and support infrastructure further north. Additionally, al-Burhan is only the face of a polycentric ‘khakistocracy’, a metropolitan syndicate of Islamist elites, corporate cronies and riverain officers – the so-called ‘community of the state’ – desperate to preserve their privilege and social standing from rural revolutionaries. Should the compound fall, it is therefore entirely plausible that the conflict will grind on, bringing with it serious problems for both parties.
Although possibly benefiting from a war of attrition in material terms, the military is experiencing existential pressures that will only worsen over time. Primarily drawn from Awlad Al-Bahr (Ja’aliyyin, Shaigiyya and Danagla) ethnic networks clustered along the Nile, SAF’s generals cast themselves as national custodians, an indispensable arm of the Sudanese state ‘mid-wifing’ modernity, social consciousness and manifest destiny. But battlefield blunders and mounting casualties are taking a toll on their narrative. Having already urged retired soldiers to re-enlist, al-Burhan delivered another televised address in late June demanding a general mobilisation. Despite some evidence of refitted or newly deployed units, manpower shortages persist across the capital, leaving the army reliant on a variety of quasi and unofficial forces – former intelligence operatives, paramilitary groups like the Central Reserve Police, armed Islamists, and rumoured ‘Shadow Brigades’ – to offset its losses. This dependency is not only damaging to SAF’s cohesion but anathema to its internal logic, accelerating the ‘fragmentation of sovereignty’ Sudanese officers have long feared. By trying to reimpose some (imagined) monopoly over the use of violence, the army’s survival could paradoxically now be tied to a steady process of ‘militiafication’, leaving it one (depleted) security outfit among many.
In contrast, the RSF – a rudimental patchwork of militiamen – have carved out a comparatively strong position in recent months, drawing on fleets of ‘technicals’ and a well-catered stockpile of weapons and munition – mortars, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank missiles and drones – to consolidate control over most of central Khartoum. Supplemented by armoured vehicles from captured military bases, they can also deploy Man-Portable Air Defence Systems or ‘man-pads’, presenting a marked risk to civil and military aviation. Furthermore, Hemmeti enjoys strategic depth across South, West and Central Darfur, enabling his forces to conceivably hold out for years. But a protracted conflict raises other difficulties. Much of the RSF is incentivised by ‘money and clan solidarity [rather] than ideology’, and amid the polyglot membership produced by wartime recruitment, social revolution may not necessarily be bound up under the Dagalo brand alone. With SAF freezing the group’s bank accounts and constraining its cashflow, significant portions of this ‘force for hire’ could become unmanageable, breaking off in pursuit of more lucrative opportunities. Signs may already be discernible as strains on RSF logistics exacerbate pillage and marauding, weakening Hemmeti’s half-baked populist appeal and driving the creation of several field courts to prosecute his own men.
Sudan’s upheaval should not be considered a binary contest between SAF and the RSF so much as a ‘welter of complex struggle’, integrating a raft of conflicts from the regional to the hyperlocal
At the same time, drawn-out hostilities in Sudan’s long-congested political marketplace are likely to accentuate a litany of smaller, localised disputes. Across ‘resource-rich, drought-prone’ Darfur, fighting is assuming an ethnic flavour as Mahamid and Rizeigat gunmen – many affiliated with the RSF – attempt to capture land and water sources. Fur and Masalit civilians have been systematically targeted, with mass killings recycling the same ‘tactics, techniques and procedures’ of the early 2000s. Reports describe not only the deliberate destruction of ‘homes, schools and hospitals [and] water, electricity and communications infrastructure’, but the torching of local markets and the palace of the Masalit Sultanate. Such is the scale of devastation that Khamis Abakar, Wali of West Darfur, was himself assassinated hours after condemning the attacks as a ‘genocide’. Police – often ‘outmanned and ill equipped’ non-Arabs – have called on ‘their communities to arm and defend themselves’ in turn, with some appealing to the army for support. Within months, cities like Al-Geneina hosted a medley of rival factions: former insurgents and signatories of the Juba Peace Agreement patrolled the eastern districts; much of the suburbs were ringed by Janjaweed; paramilitaries controlled the governor’s house; and SAF occupied the airport. This decentralisation of violence not only breeds a new crop of spoilers but generates its own momentum, further splintering Sudanese authority into ‘thousands of fragments and micro-powers of local character’. Porous boundaries; weak institutions; and shared kinship, patronage and political networks also mesh Saharan borderlands together, with Hemmeti’s Rizeigat tribe spanning western Sudan and Chad, and its wider fraternity – the Baggara confederation – stretching to Niger. As a result, conflict is readily exportable, raising the possibility of a regional conflagration that is exponentially harder to regulate or resolve.
Foreign meddling is already evident from reports of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar – a beneficiary of RSF support during his assault on Tripoli in 2019 – supplying Hemmeti with hardware, medicine and fuel. The US likewise accused the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company, of exporting surface-to-air missiles from the Central African Republic. Even those nominally pushing for peace have picked sides, with Cairo remaining a staunch supporter of al-Burhan, partly due to close structural linkages with the Sudanese army and a pressing need for allies in negotiations over Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam. Certain analysts are even going as far as to suggest that Egyptian fighter jets have directly participated in SAF’s bombing campaign. Similar – if more covert – dynamics are playing out in the Gulf. In theory, Saudi Arabia and the UAE share little interest in a prolonged conflict after years of tying over the Sudanese state – and coterminous systems of graft and patronage – with loans, rents and aid. In November 2022, Riyadh’s Public Investment Fund pledged $3 billion to improve economic infrastructure across Khartoum, while months earlier, the Emiratis stumped up $6 billion in construction projects, agriculture and deposits for the Central Bank. Consequently, both – as members of the Quad (alongside the US and UK) and the Arab League – have pushed for a ceasefire and immediate humanitarian access. But many dismiss the UAE’s credibility as a ‘neutral arbiter’, given Dubai’s regular consumption of Sudanese gold and ongoing ties to RSF companies and media outlets. In April, for instance, footage surfaced of the group using thermobaric shells that reportedly trace back to UAE stockpiles, leading some to speculate that the ‘Abu Dhabi Express’ – a complex web of commercial proxies and illicit arms flows – could in reality extend across Darfur.
Under such conditions, Sudan’s upheaval should not be considered a binary contest between SAF and the RSF – entities that are themselves volatile composites of different actors and interests – so much as a ‘welter of complex struggle’, integrating a raft of conflicts from the regional to the hyperlocal, which proliferate far beyond the immediate control of either al-Burhan or Hemmeti. This is not to deny agency or culpability for war crimes and well-documented atrocities, but reflects the increasing difficulty of delivering solutions that can sufficiently address the centrifugal propensities of long-running violence.
Immediate Priorities and Cautionary Tales
A credible ceasefire is, of course, paramount. Over a third of Sudan’s population was aid-dependent before the fighting, and an additional 3.3 million are now displaced. Internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants – many of them itinerant farm-hands – face not only insecurity but diminishing labour demand and little in the way of reliable transit, cutting off incomes as market prices ‘sky-rocket’. The World Food Programme anticipates around 2.5 million more people will experience ‘acute hunger’ in the coming months, pushing the country to a ‘record high’. Crucially, Susanne Jaspars and Lutz Oette also describe a shift in the ‘nature and scale’ of the crisis, increasing deprivation across urban communities and leaving the conventional modalities for emergency relief obsolete or insufficient. Additionally, international supplies are largely confined to Port Sudan, awaiting clearance from the notoriously apathetic Humanitarian Aid Commission, a regulatory body allegedly associated with Sudanese Military Intelligence. With civil service salaries unpaid and local law and order collapsing, there is not enough capacity or infrastructure to offset these blockages. Where alternatives have been found, either via resistance committees or improvised administrative solutions, they continue to be waylaid or completely derailed by violence.
The focus on high-level brokerage neglects the breadth, complexity and dynamism of grievances only loosely affiliated with the war’s ‘master-cleavage’
As a result, external negotiations have understandably focused on suspending hostilities, delivering aid and demilitarising ‘hospitals and essential public facilities’, albeit to little avail. Among these pressing needs, however, it is vital that mediators avoid their past follies when engaging the ‘men with guns’. A demoralising track record of foreign peace-making in Sudan not only features the Framework Agreement but stretches back to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and various initiatives in the 1990s, which saw elite-centric bargains repeatedly ‘displac[ing] civil politics and rais[ing] the […] currency of violence’. In the process, these ‘make-do outcomes’ tended to side-line or quash the very civic activism necessary for helping peace stick, reproducing (and entrenching) the same structures of violence that precipitated conflict in the first place.
Broadly speaking, there seem to be encouraging lessons already being learned. The imposition of US sanctions on Al-Junaid, Tradive General Trading LLC, and parastatals like Defence Industry Systems and Sudan Master Technology conforms with recommendations made by NGOs and advocacy groups, as does the appointment of a dedicated Special Envoy from Washington. High-level diplomats routinely emphasise the importance of ‘civilian leadership’, and there is belated interest in supporting resistance committees. But platitudes and standalone policies do not translate into a ‘practical plan’ for resolving the conflict. Though the UK and EU are launching similar financial measures, it is doubtful that they will find traction without buy-in from the UAE, or be able to stem ‘localised outbreaks of fighting and Arab mobilisation’ across Darfur. At the same time, UK and Emirati officials resented being initially left out of US-Saudi negotiations, undermining the Quad’s collective relevance, and there remains little convergence between the ‘military-focused’ Jeddah talks and parallel diplomatic tracks fronted by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the AU, Egypt and Chad. Without harmonisation, or at least efforts to shore up better coherence, international engagement could very quickly become ‘quixotic’, if not completely redundant.
The focus on high-level brokerage also neglects the breadth, complexity and dynamism of grievances only loosely affiliated with the war’s ‘master-cleavage’. As SAF and the RSF increasingly resemble fragile coalitions, dealings between Hemmeti and al-Burhan may have no real bearing on the myriad of private conflicts now shaping Sudanese violence. As a result, conflict resolution is unlikely to work if involving the generals alone and could undermine much-needed atrocity prevention if ‘massacres and war crimes…[are] ignored under the exigencies of peacemaking’.
Although a renewed appetite for dialogue is emerging, Sudan’s so-called strongmen are caught in a self-destructive strategy, undermining their own authority as they try to build leverage for a carousel of negotiations. In the process, fighting is becoming ever more diffused, distorted and unstable. While a ceasefire is therefore imperative, it is not enough: mediators need a plan for what comes next.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Terrorism and Conflict