One Year On: The Calamities of the Sudan Conflict

Thirteen months have passed since the eruption of the military dispute between Sudan’s powerful generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. Aside from several changes in positions on the ground—some more serious than others—the conflict has so far been a stalemate: neither strongman has been able to decisively assert his control over the country. From the looks of it, this confrontation between two equally powerful and vested military autocrats—who, ironically, helped depose former dictator Omar al-Bashir—is likely to continue to bleed Sudan, stymie its desperately needed development, and forestall any chance for the democratic transition sought by the popular movement of 2019.

The conflict seems to be intractable, encompassing a catastrophic humanitarian situation affecting nearly all of Sudan’s almost 50 million people to an uncertain political outcome that could engulf the country and the surrounding region in decades of instability. In addition to the ambitions of Burhan and Dagalo to control one of Africa’s most endowed geographies, the conflict feeds on intervention by neighboring, regional, and international actors. If unaddressed by Arab and international mediation and reconciliation efforts, this intractability and unfettered external interference are likely to produce yet another festering wound that, with time, may lead to the dismemberment of unified Sudan.

A Dire Humanitarian Situation

Sudan’s humanitarian situation calls for immediate regional and international action at least partly modeled around the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”). Long gone are the days when the international community should expect the combatants themselves to respect international law governing war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, or to reign in their troops’ violations of civilians’ human rights, dignity, or property. Even as the world rightly focuses on the horrific Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, Sudan requires determined efforts by the international community to ameliorate its humanitarian situation and to secure at least a modicum of peace and stability.

Sudan requires determined efforts by the international community to ameliorate its humanitarian situation.

A snapshot of conditions today suffices to call attention to the dire humanitarian situation. Some 15,000 people have been killed and more than 30,000 have been injured. There are 8.6 million displaced Sudanese, 6.6 million of whom are internally displaced while almost 2 million have fled to Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, and other countries. About half the population, 25 million (14 million of whom are children), require humanitarian assistance. More than a third of the population faces hunger due to fighting in Sudan’s agricultural regions, and an estimated 3.5 million children will suffer acute malnutrition this year. About two-thirds of the population lack access to health care, with 70 to 80 percent of hospitals in conflict zones “no longer functional,” according to the United Nations. Schools are “shuttered or struggling to re-open,” leaving some 19 million children without access to formal education.

Commenting last month on the situation in Sudan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres accused the warring factions of committing “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Volker Turk, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that both sides have committed crimes including sexual and other violence, and not only against women and girls. The Darfur region is once again a theater of war between the indigenous population and the RSF—the heir to the infamous Janjaweed militias responsible for war crimes there in the early 2000s—that threatens wider ethnic cleansing. Armed factions in the region have decided to join the SAF in fighting the RSF, which since the beginning of the conflict in April 2023 has controlled most of the urban areas and committed crimes against residents. The RSF is currently laying siege to El Fasher, the last major urban center in the wider Darfur region where hundreds of thousands of refugees have taken shelter. An RSF entrance into the city and clashes with the army units there will cause unknown numbers of casualties and further destruction and displacement.

Mediation Efforts Fruitless Thus Far

Thus far, regional and international efforts to rescue the overwhelming majority of Sudanese from their own “generals-made” conflict have been insufficient or failed totally. The protagonists held a series of meetings in Bahrain—with the participation of Saudi Arabia, the United States, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—to no avail. Rounds of talks in Jeddah since September 2023 arranged by Saudi Arabia and the United States have also failed to secure a workable compromise between the warring factions. Promises of resumption of the Jeddah talks have not materialized yet, and nothing on the ground in Sudan is forcing either side to offer necessary concessions. Furthermore, the addition of Egypt and the UAE as attendees in Bahrain and Jeddah may have increased complications because the former supports Burhan’s SAF and the latter aids Dagalo’s RSF.

International efforts to rescue the Sudanese from their own “generals-made” conflict have been insufficient.

Nor have efforts by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a northeast African regional organization composed of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda, borne much fruit. In January, Sudan—represented by Burhan’s government—suspended its membership in IGAD because it invited Dagalo to a summit as if he were a head of state. The African Union also seems to have been sidelined by the United States and Saudi Arabia since the conflict began. As for the League of Arab States, it remains beholden to intra-Arab politics and division and is effectively limited to issuing boilerplate declarations and platitudes about the need for peace and reconciliation in Sudan.

For its part, the United Nations convened an international conference in Paris on April 15 where pledges of $2.1 billion for humanitarian assistance in Sudan were made. Neither the SAF nor the RSF participated, but Sudanese civilian actors did. The UN had hoped for total pledges of $4.1 billion ($2.7 billion for inside the country and $1.4 billion to support refugees in neighboring countries). The European Union pledged €350 million for UN operations in Sudan, while France and Germany, the co-sponsors of the meeting, committed €110 million and €244 million, respectively. The United States contributed $147 million, and the United Kingdom pledged $110 million. Needless to say, while pledges of humanitarian assistance are welcome, they will not make much difference to the conflict absent local and regional cooperation in finding a peaceful settlement.

Regional Interference

Sustaining the Sudanese conflict between the two protagonists for over a year could not have been accomplished without support from outside actors with interests in Sudan. The SAF and the RSF controlled the levers of the Sudanese state before the start of hostilities, and obviously were well armed against each other. But continuing what at various times since April 2023 have been major military operations requires a steady stream of weapons and personnel, with crucial logistics bases, transportation facilities, and organization. Egypt, Russia, and the UAE are the main suppliers of the two warring factions.

While Egypt has long supported Burhan, and supplied the Sudanese Army with Turkish-made drones after he requested assistance to beat back RSF advances in Khartoum and elsewhere, it is the UAE that has been the major player in arms supplies to Sudan, specifically to the RSF. Dagalo has financial ties to the UAE and Russia, largely because of his ability to control gold production in Sudan. Reports indicate that the UAE has supplied Russian-made weapons to the RSF, using Chadian, Ugandan, Libyan, and Central African Republican assets and locations to deliver the cargo. Russia’s Wagner group has been pivotal in the supply operations because of its relations with renegade General Khalifa Haftar in Libya and its help in his 2019-2020 attempt to seize the capital Tripoli.

Dagalo has financial ties to the UAE and Russia, largely because of his ability to control gold production in Sudan.

Burhan and his government have decried the UAE’s supplying of weapons to the RSF. Last December, Sudan’s foreign ministry declared some 15 members of the UAE diplomatic mission in Khartoum personae non gratae and ordered them to depart within 48 hours. In March, Sudan’s United Nations representative asked the Security Council to condemn the UAE for supporting the RSF. In April, Sudanese authorities suspended the operations of the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya and al-Hadath television channels as well as of UAE-owned Sky News Arabia, purportedly because of their coverage of the war. What is interesting, and strange, is that while Egypt and the UAE profess to be strategically close, with Abu Dhabi providing essential financial help to Cairo, they support diametrically opposed contenders for power in Sudan—to the detriment of the country’s peace and long-term stability.

Finally, Washington’s commitment to peace, stability, and democracy in Sudan is so far absent or ineffective. The recent appointment of Tom Perriello as US Special Envoy for Sudan was intended to signal a focus on the country and on the US role in ending the conflict. The American approach seems to emphasize a comprehensive drive for reconciliation involving domestic and international actors. As part of the US strategy, the US Agency for International Development is involved in trying to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis, last month announcing it would spend another $100 million on Sudan, bringing total American assistance to $1 billion since the start of the crisis. But external interference and the Biden administration’s preoccupation with the Ukraine and Gaza wars so far have prevented the United States from changing the situation in Sudan as well as from trusting stakeholders—such as the UAE—to do so.

The Moribund Democratic Moment

In addition to the conflict’s calamitous human and national cost to Sudan, the war has blocked the democratic transition that so many Sudanese hoped would follow the Omar al-Bashir dictatorship. The fighting generals are far from worrying about how they recommit themselves—if they ever truly did—to the constitutional document of August 2019, according to which the military brass and the civilian Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition would share power in a 39-month transitional period. Around the time the military was to hand power to the civilians, in October 2021, said generals staged a coup and commenced to govern the country, with Burhan heading a newly formed Sovereignty Council and Dagalo serving as his deputy. But it was difficult to imagine two equally ambitious military officers not competing for sole power, especially because they represent two tranches of elites with domestic interests and regional connections.

By that time, Burhan had effectively reestablished the army’s relationship and forged common cause with the Islamists who were the backbone of Bashir’s dictatorship. They had used his regime to occupy the state and its institutions and were not expected to share power. The FFC was in disarray as the coup leaders set out to assert their authority over the country, arrested the transitional prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and repressed anti-coup demonstrations. For his part, Dagalo had cemented a firm financial and security relationship with Russia and the UAE while affirming his anti-Islamist credentials, a stance especially welcome to the latter.

Neither Burhan’s or Dagalo’s promises of a return to the democratic process are credible, or even useful, after the conflict ends, if ever. In September 2023, a few months into his struggle against the RSF, Burhan promised that the SAF “aims for achieving democracy, holding elections, and not remaining in power.” Needless to say, such an assurance by a coup leader fighting an equally autocratic rival cannot be trusted. Dagalo, too, was effusive in his commitment to the democratic process when he declared on a January visit to Uganda that “Sudan must swiftly transition towards a democratic future, with genuine and fair elections.” Both men’s stated commitment to democratic governance at the height of their struggle for power cannot be seen but as a disingenuous attempt to burnish their domestic and international credentials.

Ending the conflict in Sudan between two military elites unconcerned about the future of the country must be the order of the day. The halted Jeddah process sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United States should be put back on track. It remains the only path to a compromise that starts with a declared national ceasefire and the launch of a genuine transition to democracy via civilian forces committed to nationwide dialogue and reconciliation. Civil society activists and other forces of change who braved the streets of Khartoum and other cities in 2018-2019 should once again take the helm of this transition, with the international community—represented by the United Nations—acting as supporter and funder. Sudan’s military has proven untrustworthy in shepherding the democratic process for which millions of Sudanese are clamoring and that is the only way to prevent economic collapse and Sudan’s ethnic and geographic disintegration.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.