Saturday, October 28, 2023

Stopping Sudan’s Fighting: Can the Global Community Help?


The conflict in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) has continued for a fifth day, despite calls from international stakeholders to end the violence and engage in dialogue. The two forces initially agreed to a day-long armistice, but it quickly broke down. A United Nations-brokered ceasefire was also broken. The fighting has spread to residential areas in Khartoum and elsewhere, resulting in at least 270 deaths. Observers are concerned about the possible ramifications of the conflict dragging on, including the risk of all-out civil war and associated problems such as refugees, as well as the potential for great-power politics to become involved due to the dependence of the Sudan Army and the RSF on foreign powers for finance and weapons.

The United States has been coordinating with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Sudan, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for restraint in conversations with both Hemedti and al-Burhan. Regional and international actors are all trying to stop the fighting, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have grown close to Hemedti recently as he sent his soldiers to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. However, they are likely to pursue a neutral role, at least for now. The two Arab countries will continue to work with the US and the United Kingdom through the so-called Quad, made up of all four countries, as other regional and international actors work through the larger Friends of Sudan, which includes regional and Western countries.

Egypt, which is trying to protect its interests in a dispute over a major dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, has deep ties with Sudan’s military. The two armies regularly conduct war games, including this month when they held joint naval exercises at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have significant influence with Sudan’s various military and paramilitary groups and can use this influence to push for de-escalation and to stop the fighting.

Leaders of several African nations have said they plan on visiting Sudan, but it remains unclear whether or when that will be possible as fighting continues and the airport remains a focus for the warring parties. African Union (AU) mediation would be best in this situation, especially as it would avoid any perception of bias on the part of individual mediators. The RSF is unlikely to accept an Egyptian mediation. Al-Burhan has said the current situation is not suitable for the arrival of the presidents from the eight-country African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Russia and China have joined calls for restraint and putting an end to the fighting. Russia had increasingly strengthened its foothold in Sudan during the decades-long rule of al-Bashir and at one point had even reached an initial agreement to build a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. The US and European powers had competed with Russia for influence in Sudan following al-Bashir’s removal, as Moscow tried to use Sudan as its gateway to Africa while also reaping economic benefits. The Wagner Group, the powerful Russian mercenary organisation which has gained increasing visibility after fighting in the war in Ukraine, has been active in Sudan for years. It is unclear whether its soldiers are currently fighting in Sudan, but the group has developed close ties with the RSF over the years, particularly over mining and shipping gold – a resource Sudan has in abundance.

The warring generals do not appear interested in mediation or a lasting ceasefire at the moment. The local dynamics that are the main drivers of the conflict would complicate the situation. International and regional actors can push for de-escalation and a halt to fighting, but it’s unclear if and when this pressure will lead to positive results. The US is also concerned about regional countries’ different interests and how they could impact the situation. There is a real risk that neighbouring states could get involved to help ensure an outcome that suits their interests.

Regardless of how successful current efforts prove to be, some in Sudan have criticised the impact of mediation efforts so far and how a repeated emphasis by international stakeholders on a swift move towards civilian-led rule – but in a process overseen by military actors – has led the country to its current position.

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