April 21, 2023

IntelBrief: Sudan Conflict Quickly Ensnares Regional Powers Risking Spillover Violence

AP Photo/Marwan Ali

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The rapidly deteriorating conflict in Sudan features not only domestic in-fighting among political players but also meddling from external states, warlords, armed militias, and a range of other violent non-state actors.
  • The conflict has now spread to the western region of Darfur, where, if the fighting continues to escalate, it could easily spill over into Chad.
  • More than 300 people have reportedly been killed and over 3,000 wounded since Saturday, and the numbers are expected to rise as the situation continues to deteriorate.
  • A humanitarian crisis could soon overwhelm Sudan, where civilians in Khartoum, which has not previously seen such violence, are trapped inside their homes, many lacking access to supplies of water, food, electricity, and medicine.

If, as the saying goes, all politics is local, then the modern corollary to that maxim is that in the 21st century, all conflict is global. Just one week into the fighting in Sudan, the situation has deteriorated rapidly, and the description is already applicable. In an era of great power competition, civil wars and insurgencies assume regional and international dimensions and implications. Sudan’s current conflict features meddling from external states, warlords, armed militias, and a range of other violent non-state actors. Sudanese army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has received backing from Egypt, with Cairo reportedly sending warplanes and pilots to reinforce the Sudanese air force. Egypt supports al-Burhan in part due to his stance opposing Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River. Al-Burhan’s forces are laying siege to Khartoum, launching airstrikes at Rapid Support Forces (RSF) positions throughout the capital, including at the airport. The RSF is commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti”), who just reportedly received ammunition from Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, and has previously been associated with the brutal violence in the Darfur region. In the past, the RSF has sent troops to support Haftar in Libya, and both Haftar and Dagalo have received training from the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC). In addition to Libya, the RSF has sent troops to fight alongside the Saudi-Emirati coalition in Yemen and may seek to recruit rebel groups in Chad to assist with the current conflict in Sudan.

Sudan is the third largest country in Africa, borders seven countries in a geopolitically important region, and is home to over 45 million people. It also boasts vast natural resources, including gold, access to the Nile River, and an attractive coastline on the Red Sea, long prized by Russia for access to Port Sudan, which would provide Moscow with important maritime access. The fighting has now spread to the western region of Darfur, a region already reeling from violence over the past two decades, where shops have been burned to the ground and where three UN World Food Programme (WFP) aid workers were reportedly killed. Skirmishes erupted in El Fasher and Nyala, where civilians were killed, and warehouses full of medical supplies were ransacked, according to the NGO Médecins Sans Frontière. If the fighting in Darfur continues to escalate, it could easily spill over into Chad. The more external actors that get involved in the violence, both directly and indirectly, the greater the chances of protracted conflict. The spillover could have devastating humanitarian consequences, as thousands have crossed the Sudan-Chad border fleeing the conflict. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, between 10,000 and 20,000 refugees have crossed the border into Chad, most of whom are women and children and are sheltering out in the open.

So far, attempts by the United States and the United Nations to negotiate a permanent cease-fire have failed. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed and more than 3,000 wounded since Saturday, according to estimates by the UN’s World Health Organization. The numbers are expected to rise as the situation deteriorates. External mediation attempted to head off the confrontation between the two generals, with efforts by the United States, Norway, and the United Kingdom unable to convince both sides to move forward with a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Sudan. Following the October 2021 coup, al-Burhan and Dagalo maintained an uneasy truce; however, the relationship between the two generals began to unravel over disagreements related to the RSF’s integration into the Sudanese armed forces, and the transition slated to begin on April 11. There were also concerns from longstanding Bashir loyalists in the military that a move to a civilian government risked lucrative revenue streams they control and are reluctant to relinquish. The military has long been a dominant player in Sudan’s kleptocratic economy.

A humanitarian crisis could soon overwhelm Sudan. Dead bodies litter the streets of Khartoum, and civilians are still trapped inside their homes, many lacking supplies of water, food, electricity, and medicine. According to the WFP, approximately one-third of Sudan’s population, an estimated 15.8 million people, are characterized as “acutely food insecure.” Hospitals are shuttered, and airstrikes have damaged and destroyed already limited infrastructure. RSF fighters have commandeered civilian homes and turned them into military fortifications, firing anti-aircraft weaponry at Sudanese fighter jets attacking from above. There have also been reports of armed gunmen breaking into homes to rape, pillage, and plunder. Aid workers and diplomats have been robbed, assaulted, and killed. Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs confirmed reports of “attacks and sexual violence” targeting aid workers.  A U.S. diplomatic convoy was fired upon, according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. These attacks highlight questions about the strategic objectives of targeting international partners, and about the command and control of the warring sides. A failure by commanders to rein in their fighters could further prolong violence and jeopardize prospects for stability even if Burhan and Hemedti could come to an agreement.

Countries including Japan, Germany, and others are attempting to plan evacuations of their citizens. Yet, evacuations of foreign nationals have proven elusive thus far. The U.S. Department of State is looking to impose sanctions on the leaders involved in the fighting on both sides. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on Thursday for a three-day ceasefire to commemorate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr and allow civilians to escape and seek medical treatment; however, ceasefires have not yet held, including one declared on Wednesday, and prospects for a timely resolution look dim as the violence rages unabated.