Time to Try Again to End Sudan’s War
Time to Try Again to End Sudan’s War
Sudanese Army soldiers walk near armoured vehicles stationed on a street in southern Khartoum, on May 6, 2023, amid ongoing fighting against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. AFP
Statement / Africa 1 minute

Time to Try Again to End Sudan’s War

Amid shifting military dynamics, a narrow window for dialogue about stopping the fighting in Sudan may have opened. But diplomacy is in disarray. Outside actors should urgently coordinate efforts to steer the belligerents toward a negotiated end to hostilities. 

 

Sudan’s calamitous three-month war may be entering a critical new phase. In recent weeks, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has further entrenched its superior position in the capital, Khartoum, and intensified a siege of the headquarters where top generals in the Sudanese army, its enemy in the conflict, have been holed up since the war began. Army leaders have shown a new willingness to entertain peace talks, while the paramilitary claims victory is nigh. What comes next is uncertain, but the conflict has already pushed Sudan to the brink of ruin as more of the country outside the capital descends into violence. Given all the dangers that loom – from state collapse to spiralling atrocities to spillover into adjacent countries – it is imperative that outside actors seize every opportunity to bring the parties back to dialogue before the moment is lost.

Whether the two sides can find middle ground is an open question, but there is reason enough to test the proposition. The army’s battlefield losses and besieged headquarters give it strong motivations to come the table; likewise, the RSF’s narrow base of support, abysmal standing at home and abroad, and the steep odds of taking all of Sudan by force have long meant that, even if it comes out on top militarily, it needs a negotiated settlement. Outside actors should work in concert to impress this logic upon the parties. Diplomacy thus far has been messy: the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others will need to pool their efforts in a more coordinated fashion, and with a greater sense of urgency, than they have mustered to date. Even if they do, success is far from guaranteed, especially if the RSF wants to keep pressing its momentum in Khartoum before coming to terms. The army and its aligned militias, meanwhile, could easily splinter. But the stakes are too high not to make a concerted new push to halt the conflict at this pivotal moment in Sudan’s war-torn history.

The RSF has held the upper hand in Khartoum since the early days of the war.

A Fateful Moment

The RSF has held the upper hand in Khartoum since the early days of the war, but that advantage is only growing more apparent. Even some army backers suggest the RSF is on the cusp of decisive military victory in the capital, especially if it can soon overrun the compound where army leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and some of his key lieutenants are sheltering. The RSF has besieged the headquarters almost since the conflict began; it has now tightened its grip. On 15 July, the army launched a major offensive to try breaking the siege from Bahri, to the compound’s north, but it failed spectacularly, with most of the attacking soldiers quickly killed or captured in ambushes long before they neared the grounds. The RSF circulated video footage showing what had befallen its foes. The swift demise of such a long-planned operation appears to have dashed hopes that the army can find a way to resupply or reinforce the headquarters, where some reports suggest the situation could be growing desperate. 

To be sure, momentum could shift again. It is unclear how long the forces around Burhan can hang on without fresh supplies, but they have beaten back numerous RSF attempts to capture the headquarters to date. Even if the army compound does fall and Burhan is killed or apprehended, as dramatic as that would be, the war may not end, since the army still controls significant territory on Khartoum’s outskirts, including much of the sister city of Omdurman, as well as in the rest of the country, particularly in the east and north. The RSF has vulnerabilities of its own, including its winding supply lines from Darfur in the west, its lack of airpower, the deep hostility it now arouses in many Sudanese, including most Khartoum residents, and the fact that most nearby powers would like the army to prevail. Still, the army’s declining military fortunes are an open secret. Even if the army and its allied militias can fight on in other parts of greater Khartoum and the country, the leadership’s predicament could compel the army to finally explore options for a settlement, if not sue for peace.

Recent developments suggest key elements in the army leadership are realising that the military option is failing. The army has sent negotiators back to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where RSF representatives remained after a previous round adjourned, while top generals are conveying public and private messages hinting that they are open to talks. The army’s most prominent external ally, Egypt, has embarked on efforts to end the war. But getting a deal would require threading a needle, since it is far from clear that RSF leader General Mohamed “Hemedti" Hamdan Dagalo is interested in negotiating a settlement on terms acceptable to army hardliners – especially now that the RSF thinks it may soon win on the battlefield. On 17 July, Hemedti released a statement declaring that “victory is within reach” and vowed to eradicate militias tied to the old regime of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s ousted dictator, which have mobilised on the army’s side. The army’s infantry otherwise looks unable to hold its own in battle, partly because few of its soldiers hail from the riverine centre, the bastion of army support. 

The imperative of ending this ugly war does not obscure the fact that any ceasefire and deal between these two deeply discredited belligerents would be unpalatable to many Sudanese – and could be difficult to enforce on the ground. The two sides, especially the RSF, have committed horrendous atrocities. The army has repeatedly bombed crowded Khartoum neighbourhoods. The RSF and its allies, meanwhile, have engaged in wanton pillage and, residents say, sexual violence against women and girls as well as other grave abuses in Khartoum and elsewhere. In Darfur, whence many of the paramilitary forces come, the RSF and affiliated militias stand credibly accused of killing thousands of civilians and uprooting tens of thousands more from their homes (after fighting broke out between RSF- and army-aligned communities), in brutality reminiscent of previous atrocities in the stricken western region. Yet the alternative to a negotiated end to fighting is more war, and more suffering, for Sudanese and a wider state collapse that could engulf the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. 

The Cost of More War 

Sudan’s war was decades in the making. In its post-colonial history, the country has veered from military dictatorship to democracy and back again, in a cycle replete with hope-filled popular uprisings and coups. Meanwhile, far from the riverine centre, war has wracked much of the country’s periphery almost continuously. In the most recent episode, Sudanese peacefully took to streets throughout the country in late 2018 and 2019 to oust Bashir, who had grabbed power in a 1989 coup. Sudan’s generals stepped in to seize control. The result was an awkward power-sharing arrangement, with Burhan as chair of a transitional government and Hemedti as his deputy. Both promised to hand over the reins to civilians but in practice worked to consolidate their own hold, including through an October 2021 coup that derailed the transition, to the enormous frustration of both Sudanese and sympathisers abroad. 

Yet the marriage of convenience began to fray. Hemedti and his paramilitary force, which grew out of the Arab-identifying militias Bashir armed to fight his dirty wars in the western hinterlands, became ever more ascendant. Eventually, the relationship reached a breaking point as Hemedti threw in his lot with a group of civilians after a December 2022 deal to restore civilian rule. As a dispute escalated over when and under which leadership structure Hemedti would integrate his irregulars into the army chain of command, both leaders made a show of force, flooding Khartoum with fighters. The shooting started on 15 April.

Khartoum is destroyed, and most Sudanese with the means to flee have done so. Many have nothing to come home to.

The consequences will likely reverberate for decades. Khartoum is destroyed, and most Sudanese with the means to flee have done so. Many have nothing to come home to, with the RSF in particular looting residential neighbourhoods and occupying homes, seizing what they consider the booty of war. The power vacuum at the country’s centre is felt elsewhere – most sharply in Darfur, where both the RSF and the army have mobilised tribal militias, exacerbating longstanding conflict between Arab- and non-Arab-identifying communities. Attacks by the RSF and associated militias have led to the death and displacement of thousands of civilians, mostly from the Masalit community, many of whom have fled across the border into Chad, leaving West Darfur under RSF control. South Sudan-aligned rebels in the south of the country are again on the march. Many suspect it is only a matter of time before trouble also appears in eastern parts of the country. 

Unless there is a deal to reconsolidate state power, these conflicts will likely continue to spiral. If the Sudanese army is defeated or disintegrates, the country will be without a national army (dubious as the present force’s claim to that title may be) and in the full control of an unprofessional, violent paramilitary force with a pronounced ethnic cast. Moreover, the army may break apart, with sections of it fighting on. It is unclear in what form the Sudanese state (long controlled by the riverine centre) would survive in such circumstances. Meanwhile, the longer the war drags on, the deeper other parts of Sudan will sink into local strife, heightening the possibility of intervention by outside powers and further destabilising Sudan’s neighbourhood.

Time for a Coordinated Push

In order for peace talks to succeed, both parties will have to see an upside to reaching a deal, and outside actors will need to provide a coherent, well-supported negotiating track. Right now, it is unclear what the former might entail or even whether anything can compel the army and RSF to negotiate rather than fight. The latter has yet to come together.

The biggest question is what deal, if any, Hemedti might be willing to strike, given the RSF’s military momentum. But though the paramilitary has gained the upper hand on the main battlefield, he might have both military and political reasons to explore a settlement. Militarily, failing to strike a deal means the RSF would face the task of conquering the rest of Sudan, with all the risks that entails. The political reasons may loom even larger, relating to the extreme narrowness of Hemedti’s support base in Sudan and beyond due to RSF troops’ horrific behaviour since the conflict started and the force’s ethnic militia character. Even if he consolidates military control of Khartoum and much of Darfur, he will face a huge challenge in governing central, northern and eastern parts of Sudan, many of which are held by the army or army-aligned communities. Refusing to negotiate would almost guarantee that conflict would continue in pockets of resistance to RSF rule. It would also cement Hemedti’s dreadful reputation abroad and risk returning Sudan to the pariah status of Bashir’s time. 

On the army side, although some leaders have begun signalling openness to talks, dynamics are difficult to parse. A major question is whether army negotiators will sue for peace to save Burhan and other colleagues at Khartoum headquarters or risk their eventual capture or killing at the RSF’s hands so as to continue the military struggle. Given internal fissures and the deep hostility toward the RSF, any settlement raises the risk of a split in the army, including the possibility that hardliners team up with Bashir-era Islamists to fight on. An RSF victory would likely leave no place for those Islamists, who might then face a difficult choice among negotiating surrender terms, battling on in a losing cause or seeking safe passage to a third country. But any political solution would need to include moderate Islamists, at least those not associated with the Bashir regime, given the risk of alienating such a large constituency and creating conditions for militancy to ferment. 

Mediation efforts are in disarray, posing the risk that opportunities will slip away unexplored.

Against this backdrop, if outside actors were mounting an effective diplomatic push, they would already be coordinating to probe both sides as to whether they can see enough benefit in a deal to forge a compromise. They would also be working urgently to bring the warring parties back to the table. Neither appears to be happening in a systematic way. Instead, mediation efforts are in disarray, posing the risk that opportunities will slip away unexplored. 

Competing initiatives are undermining diplomacy even as Sudan collapses. So far, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are the only actors to bring the belligerents together for formal talks, but they suspended discussions weeks ago after the parties repeatedly violated ceasefire agreements. Other diplomatic efforts have struggled, failing to offer a clear way forward. On 10 July, the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Horn of Africa regional bloc, held a summit in which it called for an end to the war. On 13 July, Egypt hosted the heads of state of neighbouring countries, announcing its own initiative with the same goal. Combined, the two ventures brought together eight regional heads of state, but not the warring parties themselves. Meanwhile, Chad (reportedly in coordination with the United Arab Emirates) convened talks between Hemedti’s influential brother Abdulrahim Hamdan Dagalo, who is also deputy RSF commander, and non-Arab Darfuri armed groups that are mostly seen as aligned with the army. Those discussions reportedly focused on Darfur. It is not clear that concrete progress has emerged from any of these efforts. 

While the disarray is due in large part to the sheer number of outside actors involved, other errors have compounded the problem. Many diplomats accuse the U.S. and Saudi Arabia of spawning the proliferation of negotiating tracks by failing to coordinate with other important players, including the African Union (AU), Egypt and the UAE. U.S. officials admit that they could do better and say they will work more closely with partners besides Riyadh in any future talks. Adding to the confused picture, the AU, which at first seemed well positioned to lead political negotiations, has failed to regularly gather the Core Group of African, Arab and Western countries, which formed to coordinate efforts, or to appoint a senior envoy to head up its initiative. Instead, IGAD has claimed that it (not the AU) has the leading role in mediating a ceasefire and convening civilians for a political process. 

While the road ahead is murky, the next step is clear: concerted high-level efforts to urge key leaders on both sides to end the war through talks.

While the road ahead is murky, the next step is clear: concerted high-level efforts to urge key leaders on both sides to end the war through talks. These efforts will have a better chance of success if they are coordinated rather than competing. The most obvious path forward, especially given the urgency of the moment, is for Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to reconvene direct talks in Jeddah, where both sides already have negotiating teams standing by. The mediators should first explore any opening there might be for a wider settlement between the parties. If the Jeddah talks do resume, as seems imminent, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. should agree with the AU and IGAD on how to give these two parties a permanent seat at the table, while also closely engaging Egypt, as a key army backer, and the UAE, with its close ties to the RSF, on how to support the mediation efforts, including potential roles in Jeddah for them as well. Mediators fear creating a clunky, inefficient set-up, which is an understandable concern. But the present state of affairs – in which diplomatic overtures are at odds with one another – appears far more impractical. 

A more united African front is also key. A single initiative from all the influential African actors, such as one led by Kenya and supported by the chairperson of the AU Commission and all neighbouring states, would ensure more effective follow-through with any ceasefire deal that comes out of Jeddah. IGAD and the AU could also combine efforts through a joint envoy or panel of envoys. The AU, meanwhile, needs to convene its Core Group on a regular basis, as it is crucial that all outside actors stay on the same page. Given the jumble, all involved should stay flexible and pragmatic, willing to combine efforts behind the negotiating track with the best hope of ending the war, including any new one that might gain traction with the warring parties, be it in Addis Ababa, N’djamena, Nairobi or elsewhere. Any jockeying among tracks must end as soon as a clear leader emerges. 

The army’s losses and the RSF’s need for a negotiated deal mean mediators should move with all haste to determine whether they can find enough common ground to make progress on ending Sudan’s war. Despite the dire situation, now is not the time for fatalism or fatigue. Any window for peace must be seized, since numerous battlefield dynamics – including total conquest of Khartoum by the RSF, capture of the army leadership, a power struggle within the army or a major external intervention – could pose fresh challenges. Further, the longer the war lasts, the greater the challenge of tamping down the violence elsewhere, including in Darfur, which will require its own peace efforts that will struggle until a broader deal is reached. All should push for a negotiated end to the war – and a political process, no matter how fraught, to determine what comes next for Sudan.

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