What next for Sudan as ceasefire attempt fails?

Escalating conflict is a ‘deadly setback’ for a nation at the crossroads of the Arab world and Africa

Illustration of Sudan’s warring generals
Calls for a ceasefire between Sudan’s warring generals have gone largely unheeded
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Fierce fighting between the Sudanese army and a rival militia has killed at least 300 people, including three UN workers, and raised fears that the country is on the brink of a civil war that could unsettle the entire region.

Most of the fighting took place in the capital Khartoum, trapping its residents inside homes, schools and mosques. Sudan’s de facto leader, army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, came under attack in his own palace; tanks were reportedly deployed on the streets; and video footage showed aircraft ablaze at the city’s international airport. Violence was also reported elsewhere in the country, including in Port Sudan, the country’s principal port on the Red Sea, and in the western province of Darfur. The conflict pits members of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) loyal to al-Burhan against the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Force (RSF), led by the former warlord Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.

Together, the two generals helped to overthrow the country’s long-standing dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, following months of pro-democracy protests. Two years later, they staged their own coup to depose a transitional civilian government; Dagalo served as al-Burhan’s deputy on the new ruling council. But subsequently a bitter power struggle developed over control of Africa’s third-largest country, its rich supply of mineral resources and the large share of the economy that is run by the military.

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Earlier this month, the two men quarrelled about plans to integrate the RSF into the national army, which would have robbed Dagalo of his power base. The RSF is rooted in the Janjaweed militia, which became infamous for its role in orchestrating the genocide in Darfur in the 2000s, as it sought to quell a separatist revolt. As clashes continued this week, concerns mounted for the five million civilians in Khartoum. Aid agencies say they are unable to reach some areas, and energy supplies have been cut off. The UN’s World Food Programme temporarily suspended its operations in Sudan, owing to fears for the safety of its staff.

What did the papers say?

The escalating conflict in Sudan is a “deadly setback for a country at the crossroads of the Arab world and Africa”, said Samy Magdy in The Washington Post. Sudan has seen plenty of coups – the military has been in charge for most of the 67 years since it achieved independence – but recently, its 46 million people had been enjoying a period of optimism.

Under international pressure, the armed forces and the RSF had negotiated a rough framework with pro-democracy groups to return the country to civilian control. But now, with the country’s two most powerful men at each other’s throats, that’s out of the question. Instead, the country faces a very serious risk of “protracted conflict” between two evenly matched sides, said Willow Berridge on Middle East Eye. The army has more men (an estimated 200,000 to the RSF’s 70,000), but the paramilitaries are well financed and more experienced: Dagalo has sent many of his troops to fight as mercenaries with the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt “have long meddled in Sudanese politics”, said Tom Collins in The Times. And this conflict may be decided by who can secure the most backing from Riyadh and Cairo: Egypt has close ties with the SAF, and some of its troops were captured by RSF forces when they seized an airbase in the north of Sudan this week.

“Russian troublemakers are not far from the action” either, said Richard Kemp in The Daily Telegraph. If the RSF paramilitaries are well funded, it is thanks in part to Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, which is reportedly involved in smuggling “vast quantities” of Sudanese gold out of the country. This conflict has the potential to create great chaos in a volatile region. Neighbours such as South Sudan and Chad could face a deluge of refugees. Regional powers like Egypt and Ethiopia may feel that they have to intervene. If Sudan implodes, the chaos “will not be easily contained”.

What next?

Calls for a ceasefire from the US, the EU and the UN, as well as from regional leaders, have gone largely unheeded and the prospects for peace talks look slim.

Dagalo has described al-Burhan as a “criminal” who should be brought to justice or “die like a dog”. A long civil war would further undermine the economy of one of the world’s poorest countries. Sudan has been hit hard by the loss of the oil-rich south, which became an independent nation in 2011. Around 80% of Sudan’s population now lives by subsistence farming.

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