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On April 15, 2023, fighting erupted in the Sudanese Capital of Khartoum after the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) launched an attack on numerous Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) bases across Sudan. So far, more than 500 people have been killed and over 100,000 have fled Sudan to neighboring countries such as South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, and Ethiopia amidst fears of greater instability.
The UN reported over 334,000 displaced people within Sudan since the outbreak of the conflict. Electricity, food, water and medicine are in short supply, as shipping and distributing aid supplies in the affected regions has become increasingly difficult. Numerous health facilities in Khartoum have been attacked, and many of them are being used as military bases by the warring sides. Despite a series of ceasefire agreements, they appear temporary and have failed to last as airstrikes continue in Khartoum. So what exactly led to the eruption of fights on April 15?
The Rise and Fall of Omar Al-Bashir
Sudan has had a history of conflict and war, including two civil wars since its independence in 1956. In 1989, during the second Sudanese civil war, Omar Al-Bashir became the president by leading a coup that overthrew elected prime minister Sadiq-Al-Mahdi. Bashir wanted to rule Sudan without any external civil government, completely overhauling the governing structure by abolishing the position of the prime minister, dissolving the parliament, and banning political parties that were later restored.
Bashir faced a lot of opposition due to the country’s deteriorating economy and poor living conditions for the Sudanese people. This opposition soon turned to large-scale anti-government demonstrations that called for Bashir to step down. Amidst these protests in 2019, Bashir appointed Abdel Fattah al-Burhan as the inspector general of the Sudanese army. Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — popularly known as Hemedti, who was the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — led a coup that overthrew Bashir. Burhan then became president of Sudan and appointed Hemedti as his Vice President.
The Janjaweed militia, known for fighting rebel groups on behalf of the Sudanese government during the 2003 war in Darfur, was rebranded as the RSF and formally organized by Bashir. Hemedti became its head after its formulation in 2013. Since its inception, several organizations have accused the RSF of committing numerous atrocities and human rights violations. Human Rights Watch was one of them, calling out the paramilitary force for committing war crimes such as looting, killing and raping of civilians during the 2014 and 2015 wars in Darfur.
Hemedti played a major role in shaping the RSF, and the paramilitary force has intervened in several conflicts, such as in Libya and Yemen. Bashir’s initial goal while organizing the RSF was to establish a security force well-equipped enough to address any threats to his regime. However, RSF’s history as the Janjaweed militia, and its illegal structure and operations, gave them much more power. Having such a strong and large force independent of the Sudanese army ultimately proved to harm the peace and stability of the country.
The Transitional Sovereignty Council
After Burhan’s rise to the presidency, it was crucial to gain international support due to the undemocratic nature of his ascension to power. In August 2019, tasked with transitioning Sudan into a democracy, The Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC) was set up as a “power-sharing” mechanism between the military junta — a group of military leaders — and civilians, such as civil political groups who no longer wanted Bashir as their president. The TSC served as the country’s collective head of state and was to last only for 39 months. The military junta would hold power for the first 21 months, while the civil political groups would hold power for the last 18 months.
In October 2021, when it became time to transfer power to the civilian government, Burhan and Hemedti — along with the RSF — hijacked the government and orchestrated a coup against the civilian political groups, thereby dissolving the TSC. This military takeover further worsened tensions in the country and completely derailed Sudan’s path toward a democratic civilian government. To this day, Burhan and Hemedti have continued to rule Sudan, which begs the question of how the current conflict can trace back to the 2021 coup d’etat.
Burhan vs Hemedti (The SAF vs the RSF)
Initial tensions between Burhan and Hemedti can partly be attributed to Burhan’s fear of the RSF’s rise in power. The paramilitary force has been reported to have over 100,000 fighters with high-tech military weapons and was able to control Sudan’s northern and western borders, profiting from the smuggling of materials and people.
To check the influence of Hemedti and the RSF, Burhan began to reinstate politicians who were deeply associated with Bashir’s regime, including Islamists. This then increased tensions and caused Hemedti to doubt his relationship with Burhan. Hemedti had been trying to position himself as a political national figure, calling himself a representative of the marginalized as Burhan’s government was full of “radical Islamists,” in an attempt to rebrand the image of the RSF.
In December 2022, there was another attempt by Sudan’s military junta, the RSF, and civilian leaders to sign a temporary deal that would restore the transition to a civilian government within two years. However, efforts did not amount to much. Despite claiming otherwise, it became clear that Burhan and Hemedti were not ready to consolidate power and allow a civilian government. Likewise, Burhan began discussing the integration of the feared RSF into the SAF, causing tensions to rise even further as Hemedti was opposed completely. Ultimately, a fight for supremacy is what broke the camel’s back.
On April 15, 2023, fighting erupted in the capital city of Khartoum between the RSF and SAF. Since then, conflict in Sudan has only intensified, with numerous civilian casualties. The RSF moved their bases to very densely populated areas, causing the airstrikes launched by the SAF to target civilians in urban areas.
Which Other Parties Are Involved?
Although there are numerous international parties with political and economic interests in Sudan, the conflict that has erupted in the country cannot be oversimplified as just a proxy war. However, it is important to note the different roles outside nations have and continue to play. Numerous parties, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, have called for a ceasefire in Sudan. Yet, they do not hold much leverage as Sudan has mostly isolated itself from them since the 2021 coup. In addition to calling for a ceasefire, placing sanctions on the RSF and SAF appears to be the main response from the U.S. However, many officials worry that this action was taken too late and should have done it right after the 2021 coup.
There have also been reports of the involvement of Russia’s mercenary Wagner group in Sudan. According to a CNN exclusive, the group has been supplying the RSF with missiles, and they have previously been involved in the training of Sudanese soldiers and the crackdown on protesters. They have also gained access to Sudan’s gold riches, most of which Hemedti and the RSF control. The group has, however, denied any involvement despite evidence pointing otherwise.
What remains certain is Russia’s interest in establishing a naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, which would also give the Russian Navy a very crucial presence in the Indian Ocean. Hemedti personally traveled to Russia to negotiate a deal where Sudan would receive military weapons and equipment in exchange. However, this deal is on hold because there is no legislative body established that can ratify it. Given this circumstance, it is clear that continuous conflict in Sudan is not in Russia’s best interest, despite their supposed backing of Hemedti.
Egypt is also another actor that is closely involved in Sudan. Unlike Russia, which appears to be on the side of the RSF, the country has made it abundantly clear that they are backing Gen Burhan and the SAF. Burhan and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi have had a strategic political relationship over the past few years. Burhan’s rule as a military leader, resonates with Egypt’s similar military hierarchy. For Egypt, it is crucial for them to support the army and not any non-state actor, as this can inspire a similar upheaval in the country.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have varying interests in Sudan. Both countries seem to have close ties with Hemedti due to the RSF’s support in fighting their rivals in Yemen. They both not only have financial interests but support Hemedti’s efforts to hinder the spread of Islamism in Sudan. Financial flows from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Sudan have been crucial in letting the generals resist the demand for civilian rule and consolidating their power. Despite Saudi Arabia competing for Hemedti’s efforts, they have taken more of a neutral role in the conflict, and Burhan and Hemedti’s look to the country for external legitimacy and support.
What is Next in Store for Sudan?
As the conflict is ongoing, there is still uncertainty about the outcome and the likelihood of a short-term mediation. Currently, there are talks with representatives from the RSF and SAF in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with the hopes of reaching a permanent ceasefire. Saudi Arabia plays a significant diplomatic role as it appears to be the only neutral party both forces trust. Their involvement in de-escalating the conflict also serves to solidify its diplomatic role in the Arab world. Ultimately, prolonged conflict in Sudan is not in their best interest, as it also has the potential to create new armed groups to emerge.
Sudan has a very important geographic location, as it sits along the Red Sea and allows easy access to trade routes and supply chains. Many Gulf Arab countries have interests in the country that are not only related to investments but also to food supply and trade. Sudan’s proximity to seven other countries also makes the potential for a spill-over in conflict very high, which could further destabilize the Gulf and Egypt. This potential makes the support for political stability in the country by international parties crucial. A best-case scenario for Sudan would ultimately be a return to civilian rule. However, as it stands, the possibility of such happening any time soon is very slim. Different international actors supporting opposing sides can only intensify and prolong the conflict.
Edited by Chelsea Bean