Sudan, in the midst of this war between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, faces a number of potential paths, and as US-led peace efforts falter, experts warn that this African country may descend into a state of chaos like its closest neighbours. The fighting that broke out in the Sudanese capital a month ago surprised few, and marks the culmination of rising tensions between rival military leaders. What shocked many, however, was the scale and ferocity of the war that engulfed Africa’s third-largest country, a conflict that has killed nearly 1,000 people and driven a million more to flee their homes.
Things are getting worse
Sudanese experts, former government officials, and Western diplomats predict that the course of the conflict is beginning to take a complex direction, and believe that the immediate prospects are bleak. “We have reviewed several scenarios, none of which lead to a way out,” says a senior European diplomat.
The immediate challenge that imposes itself is that the two conflicting sides – the Sudanese army, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Hamidti – still believe that a military victory is possible, regardless of the cost.
The United Nations, which has launched an appeal for $3 billion in emergency aid, says 25 million Sudanese, more than half the population, need help. But the greater danger, many warn, is that the conflict in Sudan could degenerate into an all-out civil war, not only tearing the country to pieces but also drawing in foreign powers looking to support the victor. The bleaker outlook points to dismal precedents in the region — catastrophic state collapse similar to Somalia in the 1990s, or outside-driven chaos like Libya since 2011.
Sudan is a giant, weak country located in the heart of a turbulent region. It has nearly 4,200 miles of land borders with seven other African countries, most of which are already struggling with conflict or drought. Although Sudan is poor by international standards, it possesses large reserves of gold, water and oil, and overlooks the Red Sea, one of the busiest commodity corridors in the world, which makes it a high-value geopolitical point.
Return to authoritarian rule
So far, the two warring sides appear to be on par in military terms. However, the Sudanese army may have twice the number of the Rapid Support Forces, and it also has combat aircraft, helicopter gunships, and tanks. The Rapid Support Forces are considered the most intelligent party on the battlefield, they have gained experience in the battles they have fought before and they can move quickly, using small pickups equipped with heavy cannons.
In order to defeat the RSF, the army must intensify its air strikes, which have already destroyed much of the RSF in central Khartoum. To win a convincing victory, the army must kill or capture the elusive Hemedti and his powerful brother Abdel Rahim Dagalo. Otherwise, the RSF could retreat under heavy army fire to its stronghold in the western region of Darfur and prepare for a new round to launch from there.
Both sides claim to want a democratic future for Sudan. But in fact, the army may transform the country after its victory into a totalitarian rule similar to that of isolated President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades and was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2019. The military victory may also facilitate the return of Islamists – loyal to the Bashir era and religious conservatives who were looking to return to Authority.
Although the RSF may conceive victory as a necessary political revolution, it will strive to win widespread support from segments of the Sudanese people. The RSF has been known for its repugnant violations of the rights of the population during the civil war in Darfur, which has caused many to harbor hostility towards it. Analysts say the remaining military units, unwilling to accept Hemedti’s command, will likely continue to fight. The victory of the Rapid Support Forces over the army may also lead to panic in neighboring countries that do not trust this armed force, and they may enter the battlefield against it.
Egypt has made little secret of its disdain for the RSF, which it considers unacceptable elements in Sudan’s political future. While Chad adopted a more neutral general position. But Chad’s leaders also don’t trust General Hemedti and have privately signaled their willingness to intervene on the side of the Sudanese army if necessary, according to a US official familiar with Chad’s position who spoke anonymously. The Egyptian intervention in Sudan may further complicate matters, as this step may lure its regional rival, Ethiopia, into the arena of conflict. Both countries have been locked in a dispute for years over the Renaissance Dam, a giant hydroelectric edifice that Ethiopia is building on the Nile River near its border with Sudan.
The international party that might intervene is Russia, which has approached Hemeti, hoping to obtain a naval base for its warships in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The RSF victory may also be good news for Wagner, the Kremlin-backed private military company that is mining gold in Sudan and using Sudanese territory to cross into the Central African Republic, where it is fighting alongside government forces.
The neighbors are getting ready
Several experts believe that the bleakest scenario is a divided country, in which the two sides control different regions, and neither can achieve a complete victory. State institutions will collapse, and foreign powers may prefer to support the victor. Some have already tried. American officials say Wagner offered surface-to-air missiles to General Hemedti in the early days of the fighting. African neighbors may also have to enter into conflict to defend their interests. Decades of civil strife in the country helped arms flow into the hands of groups
Several in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Although they have remained out of the war so far, they can easily enter the conflict to settle scores or protect their interests.
An elusive peace
Peace efforts led by US and Saudi mediators in the Saudi port city of Jeddah have not yet resulted in a full ceasefire. But there is hope that these talks will pave the way for the rapid deployment of peacekeepers to Sudan, most likely from the African Union, which in turn will facilitate negotiations at the highest level for a permanent settlement. At the moment, this is a remote possibility.
Any real peace will likely need to engage pro-democracy groups in Sudan, which have so far been excluded from the talks in Jeddah. Critics say this is an ominous sign, indicating that the major powers could strike a deal in the name of peace that further solidifies the position of the two warring generals.
Another potential way to stop the fighting involves coordinated pressure from the two rival generals’ foreign backers. But these proponents have conflicting goals for Sudan: While African and Western countries want democracy, other powers and Russia prefer a looser autocratic system of government, analysts say.
Whatever the fate of Sudan, experts say, the country stands at a major crossroads, perhaps the most painful moment since the country’s independence in 1956 – Sudan has suffered several rebellions, coups, waves of violence and killings. “You can’t rule anything out, and that’s why everyone needs to come together to stop the fighting,” Norway’s ambassador to Sudan, Andre Stiansen, said in an interview.
The darker scenario is a divided country in which the two sides control different regions, and neither can achieve a complete victory.
Sudan is a giant, weak country located in the heart of a turbulent region. It has nearly 4,200 miles of land borders with seven other African countries, most of which are already struggling with conflict or drought.