Sudan’s Calamitous Civil War: A Chance to Draw Back from the Abyss
Sudan’s Calamitous Civil War: A Chance to Draw Back from the Abyss
Sudan’s Calamitous Civil War: A Chance to Draw Back from the Abyss
A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment, during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan, May 1, 2023. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Statement / Africa 20 minutes

Sudan’s Calamitous Civil War: A Chance to Draw Back from the Abyss

Sudan’s war is entering an even more dangerous phase as fighting spreads to the heavily contested east, spelling more atrocities and mass displacement. Diplomats should seize a new opportunity to halt the spiral into state failure and stimulate direct talks between the belligerents.

Sudan’s brutal civil war is set to take an uglier turn still. After almost nine months of fighting, the war is expanding east, threatening to engulf the country and push it farther down the path of long-term state failure. Already, the country is divided roughly in two: the army holds sway in much of the east, but the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) controls much of the west and most of the capital Khartoum. It is now overrunning army bases to the east. Sudan’s future, and much else, is at stake. East African nations led by Kenya and Djibouti are pushing for direct talks between the main belligerents, but a meeting scheduled for 28 December 2023 was postponed. This latest diplomatic effort represents a chance, albeit a fading one, to arrest spiralling conflict in this state of 45 million seated at a geostrategic crossroads. One way or another, the states with the most influence over the parties – ie, the enablers who are arming them and the African and global powers with the greatest heft in the region – need to come together in a coordinated push to keep Sudan from further collapse and ease the suffering of its people.

A Country Divided

Civil war broke out in Sudan in April 2023 and has spread to widening swathes of the country. Relations between Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s army chief and de facto head of state, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who heads the RSF paramilitaries, had been testy ever since the pair seized power amid the popular uprising against Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Hemedti’s RSF arose out of the dirty war in Darfur twenty years ago, when Bashir’s government armed Arab militias in the region to fight non-Arab groups. The atrocities committed by those infamous militias, known as the Janjaweed, later led the International Criminal Court to charge Bashir with multiple crimes, including genocide. The RSF, which developed from the remnants of the Janjaweed, grew over time into a key component of the country’s security apparatus, one that rivalled the army. A 2017 law recognised the paramilitary force as an independent unit acting directly under Bashir. Its size ballooned following his fall, by some estimates to as many as 100,000 personnel. The RSF is also a commercial behemoth with diverse holdings.

While the two wings of Sudan’s security apparatus worked together to oust Bashir in 2019, the comity did not last. Tensions escalated after Burhan and Hemedti dissolved the country’s civilian government in 2021. As pressure mounted for them to restore civilian rule in early 2023, their relations worsened, chiefly over the question of how Hemedti would integrate his forces into the military chain of command. Hemedti, who had become increasingly aligned with leading civilian opposition politicians, supported a U.S.- and Saudi-brokered draft agreement that would have given the RSF ten years in which to dissolve and join the army. But high-ranking military officers strongly opposed the deal. Both Burhan and Hemedti positioned their forces in a show of strength. 

Fighting erupted in Khartoum and Meroe in the north on 15 April and then spread. Combat in Khartoum’s densely populated streets imposed a terrible toll on Sudanese stunned by the sudden descent into open fighting. The city of perhaps eight million had long been a sanctuary for civilians fleeing the many wars that have wracked the country’s so-called peripheries since independence in 1956.

Up to 12,000 Sudanese have been killed ... eight million are displaced, and nineteen million children are out of school. Widespread hunger looms.

Now, almost nine months of pitched hostilities have left the country’s economic and political centre an unrecognisable shell. Infrastructure is extensively damaged, schools and health care facilities are shuttered, and banks are closed. The toll on civilians has been enormous. Without a central state authority to impose order, the country is sliding into new rounds of violence, often along ethnic lines. The RSF’s unruly troops and other opportunists sack cities and villages, committing rampant abuses, depopulating neighbourhoods and driving Sudan’s elite and middle classes to flee, many with little or nothing to return home to. Rights groups documented the killing of hundreds of non-Arab civilians in West Darfur after the RSF took control of the area in early November. The army, meanwhile, bombs indiscriminately. A brutal 29 December air raid in a densely populated area of Nyala, South Darfur left dozens dead. Communal tensions are flaring, risking wider mayhem. The UN estimates that up to 12,000 Sudanese have been killed in the fighting, while eight million are displaced, and nineteen million children are out of school. Widespread hunger looms. 

Backed by outside supporters – with the United Arab Emirates reportedly arming the RSF and Egypt (and, many diplomats suspect, Iran and others) providing materiel to the army – both parties appear to have the wherewithal to fight on, although the RSF has the military upper hand. The paramilitaries have essentially won the first phase of the war, routing the army in most of the west and Khartoum, and in effect dividing the country into two zones of control dotted with pockets held by other armed groups. The question is whether phase two – already under way – can be stopped before Sudan suffers an epochal failure, reminiscent of Somalia’s three decades ago, that shakes its vicinity for years to come.

Wrong Direction

Unfortunately, things seem headed in the wrong direction. Absent a course correction, the conflict will continue to expand. The RSF’s first major offensive east faced little resistance from the army, which quickly retreated, shocking Sudanese who expected that despite its poor performance to the west, it would fare better in protecting its historical riverine backyard. Many wonder if the army, which has yet to win a major battle in the war, is nearing collapse, though it is not a foregone conclusion. Leading Islamist figures from Bashir’s regime are staging a comeback, mobilising troops and militias to fight within and alongside the army and retightening their grip on what is left of the army-held state bureaucracy. Other groups throughout the country are in an arms race, positioning for a long war.

What comes next is uncertain. The RSF appears poised to press its campaign. In private, RSF officials signal confidence that they can achieve military victory throughout Sudan. Whether they are right or wrong, further eastward movement by the RSF will come at a terrible price. In much of the east and north, community leaders are openly assembling tens of thousands of youth to defend their home areas from the RSF. There is no telling precisely what might emerge from such an expansion of the civil war, but battles in these areas could cost many lives, lead to further mass displacement, and plunge Sudan into even greater chaos.

An RSF advance ... could prompt nearby countries to establish buffer zones by arming proxy militias or even deploying across the border.

Red Sea states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea are unlikely to embrace the RSF’s effort to expand toward Port Sudan, the maritime entry point to the country, nor to states such as Kassala (bordering Eritrea) and River Nile (just south of Egypt), which they may see as running the risk of destabilising their own countries. Should the RSF move into these precincts, tensions will surely rise, not least because Sudan’s littoral neighbours view the paramilitaries as proxies for the UAE, which has long sought to establish its own foothold on the Red Sea. An RSF advance, especially should the Sudanese army appear in a state of disarray, could prompt nearby countries to establish buffer zones by arming proxy militias or even deploying across the border, as happened in Somalia. If even one neighbour moves in this direction, a cascade of others could follow, seeking to secure their interests. 

Nor could a scenario in which the RSF entirely routs the army, quelling the factional rivalry by force, be relied on to bring stability to Sudan. The RSF is militarily dominant but, to many Sudanese, politically toxic. It has a narrow social base and is mostly regarded with revulsion outside the Sahelian Arab communities from which it draws most of its core recruits. The RSF is trying hard to broaden its appeal, including by playing upon the shared grievance felt by many from the so-called peripheries toward the dominant centre. But that effort is undermined by its atrocities past and present against many of those same groups; even if it made headway, it would almost surely harden resistance from the country’s riverine core. True, as it expands east, the RSF is gaining support from various local warlords, army mutineers and their followers. But its new recruits look motivated by loot, pay or local ambitions. They are unlikely to form a cohesive political coalition. 

Moreover, as what is left of the Sudanese state dissolves under RSF advances, it is unclear what will replace it. The RSF has tried to convince local authorities and police to return to work in areas under its control, with mixed success. The RSF, itself composed of rivalrous sub-ethnic groups with competing interests, may struggle to stay together once its military momentum stalls or the war ends, even if the paramilitaries are essentially victorious. Without a political settlement, Sudan risks plunging into a free-for-all with rival militias proliferating and only the thinnest veneer of governance. 

Diplomatic Doldrums

The situation clearly requires something that, as Crisis Group previously observed, has been all too lacking: a major, coordinated, high-level diplomatic effort involving the outside powers that wield the greatest influence in the region. Sudan has traditionally commanded considerable attention from diplomats and for good reason: the stakes if Sudan descends into long-term state failure are immense. An ungoverned Sudan would open the door for warlords and militias of various stripes, possibly including jihadists, to fill the vacuum. Instability could then radiate into the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, North Africa and the Red Sea basin, while pushing yet more migrants into already overtaxed neighbouring states or on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean, into the Gulf and Levant, or even farther afield to the U.S. Disintegration of the country’s security forces could also let more guns spill into a region already awash in them. Yet despite these enormous risks, diplomacy has been lacklustre at best since the war’s onset. 

The only formal talks between the warring parties, held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, have been low-level, sporadic, and technical, focused on humanitarian matters and so-called confidence-building measures. They also became hobbled by disagreements between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, with the Saudis rejecting a belated U.S. push to include Egypt and the UAE (likely due to deteriorated Saudi-Emirati relations) and the U.S. refusing to countenance “political” discussions (because of its stance that only Sudan’s civilians can chart the country’s future). In private, both Saudi and U.S. officials have complained to others about the working relationship.

Disagreements, along with wavering focus from Riyadh and Washington, were largely to blame for the talks staying suspended from June until late October.

Those disagreements, along with wavering focus from Riyadh and Washington, were largely to blame for the talks staying suspended from June until late October. They then resumed briefly, with the U.S. joining for ten days in late October and early November, and the Saudis keeping the dialogue going after the U.S. left at the end of the allotted time. Those talks fell apart in early December, although they did lead to negotiations over a draft cessation of hostilities agreement and direct communication between the deputy leaders from the main belligerent parties, according to Sudanese and other officials.

Other initiatives led by regional actors have struggled, too. Most found it difficult to appeal to both warring parties; they were hampered as well by the sheer number of would-be mediators, many of which have competing interests. But many in the region also expressed extreme frustration that the stuttering U.S.-Saudi process in Jeddah – with its powerful conveners – in effect made it impossible for any other effort to gather steam. 

In recent weeks, the pace of diplomacy has finally picked up. As Washington has soured on the Jeddah process, Kenya and Djibouti have led efforts by leaders from the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Horn of Africa regional bloc. Over the course of December, this track gained new momentum. A 9 December IGAD summit in Djibouti was attended by Burhan and joined by U.S., UAE, UN and African Union envoys. Hemedti did not appear in person but spoke to participants by telephone. IGAD said Burhan and Hemedti separately agreed to “an unconditional ceasefire, resolution of the conflict through political dialogue and the holding of a one-to-one meeting … with the facilitation of IGAD”. The point of the face-to-face meeting would be to get the parties to make good on at least an immediate cessation of hostilities. 

This effort to steer the two belligerents to direct talks has encountered major obstacles, however, and some fear it is already running aground. Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs, staffed at senior levels by ex-Bashir officials, denounced the summit conclusions and rejected calls for direct talks. It is unclear if their position was coordinated with Burhan, but there are other signs that the army may distance itself from the IGAD track as well. The army’s most influential foreign friends – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have yet to embrace IGAD’s efforts. Wrangling within IGAD also remains a substantial challenge, with Kenyan President William Ruto and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed both claiming leadership of efforts to achieve a cessation of hostilities – a rivalry that African and Western diplomats and other officials worry could impede the initiative if it is not reined in. 

New Offensive and New Diplomacy

A week after the 9 December IGAD summit, battlefield events accelerated rapidly. With the front having been static for weeks, the RSF staged a surprise offensive toward Wad Medani, capital of the breadbasket Gezira state, routing the army after brief skirmishes and taking Sudan’s second biggest city. Its capture of a major population centre to which about half a million Sudanese had fled, mainly from Khartoum, dealt a major psychological blow to the army and its supporters. Observers feared that the RSF would quickly advance deeper east or south, but its troops have instead largely stopped in Gezira, attempting to solidify their control.

Diplomatic efforts by Kenya’s President Ruto and Djibouti’s President Omar Guelleh have quietly continued. On 16 December, Guelleh wrote to both Burhan and Hemedti, inviting them to direct talks. Sudan’s former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok likewise sent letters to the belligerents calling for urgent engagement to avoid an even more precipitous descent into state failure. Both sides signalled willingness to talk, although Burhan has outlined preconditions involving an RSF retreat from some of its positions. Hemedti, too, publicly accepted the invitation to engage but, diplomats told Crisis Group, also privately issued demands, chiefly that Burhan attend talks not as head of state but as army leader. A summit was scheduled for 28 December but, hours before it went ahead, Guelleh issued a communiqué saying talks had been postponed for “technical reasons” — indicating that work remains to be done to bridge the gulf between the parties and align the positions of IGAD member states.

Mediators still hope to bring the two together for a cessation of hostilities, even as the head-spinning pace of developments complicates diplomacy.

Mediators still hope to bring the two together for a cessation of hostilities, even as the head-spinning pace of developments complicates diplomacy. Hemedti emerged from the battlefield in late December (in advance of the attempted 28 December meeting) and embarked on a tour of various African capitals, meeting several heads of state, much as Burhan had done after his own exit from the front months earlier. Hemedti also quickly signed a deal with civilian politicians led by Hamdok, with civilian sources saying the RSF readily agreed to their demands with little negotiation, including promising civilian democratic rule, justice for war crimes and a single unified army. These moves are seen by many as a public relations coup for the much-loathed Hemedti, and will likely deepen opposition in Burhan’s camp to the IGAD peace initiative, with the army chief denouncing Hemedti’s warm reception abroad and his deal with Hamdok. Meanwhile, Burhan’s foreign ministry continued to pour cold water on the idea of an in-person meeting by labelling the RSF a terrorist and criminal organisation.

There are other challenges as well. Many doubt the RSF’s appetite for serious negotiations given its military momentum. The army, too, might hope that it can somehow improve its position before it freezes battle lines. A decision to strike a bargain would seemingly require Burhan to turn on his allies among the Bashir-era Islamists, and Islamist factions inside or outside the army could well fight on regardless of a formal ceasefire he agrees to. Many army generals belong themselves to the Bashir-era Islamist networks, which the ex-strongman promoted during his long reign, even further complicating matters for Burhan. IGAD’s internal dynamics could also grow more complicated, undermining its effectiveness as a mediation platform, given that Ethiopia both enjoys prominence in the bloc and has a deteriorating relationship with many of its neighbours. It now finds itself at loggerheads with Somalia, having raised hackles in Mogadishu by making a deal for a seaport with Somaliland (which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but remains unrecognised) that Somaliland claims would include formal recognition from Ethiopia, a potential regional bombshell.

Yet there remains a clear logic for both sides in Sudan’s conflict to explore a deal. RSF’s deep unpopularity, particularly in areas historically dominated by Sudan’s political, cultural and business elite, as well as its horrible image abroad, should give it an incentive to end the war through an agreement rather than trying to gobble up more territory that it will struggle to administer. The group is already straining to hold areas such as Gezira, with its overwhelmingly hostile population, and is likely to face a sustained insurgency, as well as even greater international opprobrium, if it attempts to impose its writ on most of Sudan by force of arms alone. Further, as discussed, such a move risks triggering military intervention from outside states, potentially preventing the RSF from gaining full control of the country, sea access or the diplomatic recognition it craves. 

On the army’s side of the ledger, the challenges are self-evident. Its failures, most recently its retreat from Wad Medani, have exposed a corrupt and politicised institution that for years outsourced the job of fighting to paramilitaries such as the RSF and seems incapable of mounting a counteroffensive. With the brass flailing, the army has grown ever more reliant on militias, most prominently those made up of resurgent Islamists associated with the former regime. Following the fall of Wad Medani, Bashir’s former foreign minister and a current leader of the Sudanese Islamic Movement, Ali Karti, publicly urged the army to expedite the arming and training of recruits mobilised by Bashir-era figures. Burhan recently promised to arm civilians willing to fight. Such widespread armed mobilisation both by community leaders and elements of the former Bashir regime could weaken the army further, as the new militias do not fall under its structures.

The first step toward [reaching a deal] would be for regional powers to ... persuade Burhan and Hemedti to fulfil their commitment ... to engage in direct talks.

Against this backdrop, the hope is that both sides will have just enough reason to reach for an initial deal if outside actors who have the parties’ ear make a coordinated effort to push them in that direction. The first step toward that end would be for regional powers to intensify efforts to persuade Burhan and Hemedti to fulfil their commitment at the 9 December IGAD summit to engage in direct talks. IGAD heads of state should put aside their differences so they can push in unison for the meeting. The U.S., EU and others with influence should throw their weight and energy behind these efforts, both urging IGAD states to unify behind the initiative and nudging the two sides (repeatedly if necessary) to meet without preconditions, since otherwise a meeting may never take place. 

The next step would be to make the most of any meeting. Diplomats will need to press the parties to make good on their pledge to conclude an unconditional cessation of hostilities. Under this scenario, the RSF would essentially halt its advances while the army would stop its aerial bombardment, giving space for more talks. Such a meeting will have achieved its purpose if it can bring about such an untidy ceasefire that halts major fighting, stops the RSF’s offensives and sets the stage for mediation aimed at forging a political settlement. 

Key to this effort’s success will be bringing the parties’ outside backers on board. Both belligerents are more reliant than ever on their enablers in Cairo (in the army’s case) and Abu Dhabi (in the RSF’s) for materiel – and for political support, too. Given the opposition in his own camp to serious negotiations, it is difficult to imagine Burhan signing a deal without an endorsement from Egypt. Likewise, the UAE will likely be central to any effort to get Hemedti to opt for peace. The Saudis (who, like the Emiratis, employed RSF mercenaries in the Yemen conflict) have influence with both parties and could either facilitate or impede IGAD-led talks. Thus far, these three countries are not on the same page. While the UAE has been supportive of IGAD’s efforts, having been excluded from the Jeddah track, Egypt and Saudi Arabia seem less so. Neither is likely to fully embrace the IGAD initiative – in Egypt’s case, because of its historical enmity with Ethiopia, a major IGAD power, and in Saudi Arabia’s, due to its preference for the Jeddah track. But diplomacy could seek ways to bring them on side as part of a push for peace.

Finally, flexibility will be required. If the IGAD track falters and it is expedient to revive the Jeddah talks, or merge the two, then the key actors should be open to that. If no formal track shows promise, then shoe-leather diplomacy will be needed to elicit from Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo a consensus vision of how to bring the fighting to a close rather than allow Sudan to keep unravelling to the detriment of all. No matter what, such shuttle diplomacy looks key to marshalling a more unified effort to move any peace process forward, given that even any future deal to freeze the conflict would only be the start of a tortuous path. Realistically, a durable ceasefire looks unlikely soon, but these efforts to halt the war are still Sudan’s best chance and deserve support.

Will Washington Step Up?

The open question is which outside actor will corral the major regional players so that they are all pushing the belligerents toward a cessation of hostilities, whether through talks or (failing that) a more ad hoc arrangement. Given its relationships with the major actors and its historical role in the region’s affairs, the U.S. appears the obvious fit. Thus far, however, its diplomacy around the Sudan crisis has failed to meet the moment. 

High-profile U.S. diplomatic initiatives tend to be closely associated with very senior officials. But such engagement has been conspicuously lacking on the Sudan file, which sits at present in the State Department’s African affairs bureau. Despite committed efforts by the bureau’s leadership, this arrangement creates structural challenges that impede U.S. effectiveness. For example, the Africa bureau wields little influence with three key players in the crisis – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – that fall within the purview of the Department’s Near Eastern affairs bureau. Nor is any of the three ambassador-level officials charged with day-to-day management of the file mandated to spearhead the high-level shuttle diplomacy that would ideally be occurring, especially in the Arab world, a gap that U.S. officials readily acknowledge.

The White House ... has at times seemed [to have] a dispiritingly hands-off approach to the crisis.

This problem could be fixed through appointment of a senior envoy who reports to the president or secretary of state – one with sufficient stature to rise above the Washington turf battles and marshal more unified efforts around the Gulf and on the African continent to halt the war. But the State Department opposes such an appointment, and the White House refuses to force the issue, consistent with what has at times seemed a dispiritingly hands-off approach to the crisis. 

It will likely fall to the State Department’s seventh-floor leadership, and possibly Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself, to seize the reins, if anyone is to do so. The secretary’s personal attendance at any first meeting between Burhan and Hemedti would send a welcome signal. Further, to enable shuttle diplomacy if no new envoy is forthcoming, the secretary should task a senior diplomat already engaged on the Sudan file to perform that role with key Arab capitals.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that the U.S. may be too distracted or squeamish to deal with the messy endgame in Sudan, especially since many in Washington (as in Sudan) consider the RSF beyond the pale and are leery about brokering a deal that could be seen as legitimating its leaders. In this case, the onus will be on regional heads of state to coordinate directly with one another, a big job given the number of states involved. Under the circumstances, it will be especially important for the UN’s new envoy, Ramtane Lamamra, a respected former foreign minister of Algeria and senior African Union official, to help corral actors into a more coherent effort, and for European officials who have good channels to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo to do the same. Continental actors will also have to find better ways to work together. Kenya and Ethiopia in particular, historical allies now vying for leadership of the IGAD mediation track, will need to tamp down their competition, lest it get in the way of a deal to end hostilities that would serve the interests of both.

From Precipice to Peace 

Sudan sits at the edge of a precipice, with the RSF consolidating control in the west and Khartoum and now pushing into the east. Still, with the army on the back foot, and the RSF both struggling to consolidate control of its conquests and risking greater international censure should it keep advancing, both sides have reason to halt the fighting. If their key backers were to push them, urged on by regional powers and the U.S., steps to at least halt Sudan’s nightmarish downward spiral may be in reach. Several pieces would need to fall into place, however, ideally including Washington communicating to its partners in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo that peacemaking in Sudan has risen up its list of priorities. Should a combination of State Department dissension and White House hesitancy keep the U.S. from playing this role, however, other actors will need to fill in for it. 

Of course, a cessation of hostilities not only looks unlikely soon but also would just be the beginning of the long difficult project of putting Sudan back together again, but that hardly makes it any less essential. A broader peace process and political negotiations incorporating more Sudanese actors, including Sudan’s broad tent of civilian actors and other armed groups, can gain traction only after fighting halts. Even then, huge challenges lie ahead, including reunifying the country under a single government and creating conditions that allow displaced Sudanese to return to their homes. The sooner that work begins, the better. The longer the war drags on, the more difficult recovery will be and the greater the regional reverberations. 

The stakes could hardly be higher. Regional leaders, Washington and other partners need to meet the moment, before Sudan passes the point of no return, leaving a failed state that could take decades to repair.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.