How The War In Sudan Could Go Regional

The all-out war for control of Sudan runs the risk of pulling other states in, turning it into a regional conflict. As always, civilians are the ones most affected by the war. Over 2,000 deaths have been reported thus far, and the U.N.H.C.R. reports that more than 1 million are internally displaced, with the destruction of major public infrastructure leaving many of those left without running water, electricity, or supplies. A further 800,000 have been forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

Although several attempts at a ceasefire between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (S.A.F.) and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti) of the paramilitary unit known as the Rapid Support Forces (R.S.F.) have failed, temporary cessations in the fighting have allowed humanitarian aid to be administered in the country. Nonetheless, the involvement of foreign interests in Sudan is adding powder kegs to the war. Both Sudan’s neighbours and more distant states are already picking sides and supplying them with weapons to protect their own national objectives. These are the first signs of a protracted war.

Neighbouring states

For example, Egypt. Since the war broke out on April 15th, Egypt has taken a cautious stance by working to mediate a permanent ceasefire. If the war on its southern border continues, Egypt is facing an influx of Sudanese refugees, arms smuggling, and illegal trade. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have a preferred side in the conflict, however. Most importantly, Egypt fears losing its ally in Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (G.E.R.D.) dispute – al-Burhan, who reportedly received warplanes and pilots from Cairo to bolster his army, opposes the G.E.R.D., while Hemedti favours Ethiopia. Egypt’s support of al-Burhan may incite Ethiopia to secure an ally in Sudan by indirectly supporting Hemedti.

On the other hand, Hemedti himself has close ties with Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. Both have received training from the Russia-based Wagner mercenary group, and R.S.F. has sent troops to support Haftar in Libya in the past. In this current conflict, Haftar appears to be returning that loyalty by reportedly supplying R.S.F. with ammunition.

Furthermore, Hemedti is a tribal leader from the Mahariya clan of Darfur’s Rizeigat tribe, which stretches from southeastern Sudan to Chad and is divided between those loyal to Hemedti and those loyal to his tribal rival, Musa Hilal. If Hemedti seeks re-inforcement from the tribe as the war continues, he could set off an intra-tribal conflict. Hilal, who Hemedti and his men were tasked to arrest in 2017 for his rebellion against former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir but who was pardoned in 2021, is reportedly on good terms with the military army. The S.A.F. has denied accusations of recruiting men loyal to Musa Hilal, but the tribal rivalry could be to al-Burhan’s advantage if he makes Hilal an ally against Hemedti. This, too, could result in intra-tribal conflict spreading into Chad.

South Sudan, too, could find itself drawn in. The nation’s economy is largely based on oil exports, and thanks to al-Burhan’s control of the revenue from pipeline transit fees, analysts believe that the oil infrastructure linking South Sudan to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, will be one of the R.S.F.’s targets in the event of a protracted war. The risk of disruptions to South Sudan’s oil output could potentially compel President Salva Kiir to ally South Sudan with al-Burhan.

Other states

More distant states, like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., also have interests in this war. Moscow, for example, is on the verge of finalizing an agreement that would allow Russia to establish a naval base in strategic Port Sudan, only waiting for a civilian government and legislative body to ratify the deal. Along with permission to send about 300 Russian soldiers and naval ships to the Red Sea and access to trading routes to Europe, the nation has also won concessions on gold mining for a Russian company which the U.S. alleges to be the Wagner Group in exchange for providing Sudan with weapons and military equipment. Reports are suggesting that a strong relationship between Hemedti and Wagner in the Sudan’s gold sector has resulted in arms provisions.

However, Russia believes that al-Burhan is more able to push the port deal through. “Hemedti does not have the necessary power resources to take power in the country,” Kirill Semenov, a non-resident expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, explains to Al-Monitor. “At best, he can only participate in the division of it, and this will not bring Moscow any closer to solving the problem of establishing a naval facility there.” If the Wagner Group gets any more involved, there is a risk of its arms provisions turning Sudan into a tug-of-war.

Like Russia, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are also interested in Sudan’s ports. The latter, backing Hemedti, has already signed a preliminary agreement with Sudan to build and operate the Abu Amama port and economic zone on the Red Sea with a $6 billion investment. The project is to be built around 200km north of Port Sudan and would include an economic zone, an airport, and an agricultural zone. In return, Sudan keeps the right to develop, manage, and operate the port and economic zone assets in its borders and 35% of the net profits from the venture. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is keen to avert Iran’s presence in Sudan by heavily investing in the Sudanese military, which is to say al-Burhan.

With so many different states arming each warring party, it will be difficult to appease all interests and create a satisfactory peace deal.

So what needs to be done?

First, the threat of a regional war must be eliminated, potentially through a diplomatic coalition where the international community reaches an agreement to refrain from supporting either general. If accompanied by an arms embargo to restrict both generals’ access to weapons and ammunition, this would cut foreign support from both generals and limit their access to weapons and re-inforcements. Borders between Sudan and its neighbours should also be controlled to restrict the inflow of weapons into Sudan. Lack of international support and limited access to weapons will limit their fighting capacity and eventually de-escalate the war. These measures will force both generals to the negotiating table, reducing the risk of the war spreading and opening opportunities for a permanent peace deal.


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