Deconstructing the Sudan conflict - Hindustan Times
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Deconstructing the Sudan conflict

ByHindustan Times
May 11, 2023 10:39 AM IST

Authored by Samir Bhattacharya, senior research associate, Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Sudan is bleeding. Hundreds of people have been killed, according to the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO). The fighting started on April 13 when Rapid Support Force (RSF) forces invaded Merowe town, located 210 kilometres north of the capital, and tried to capture the airport. In the early hours of April 15, the Sudanese people woke up to a violent fight in Khartoum and other parts of the country, and so far, there is little sign of de-escalation.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke is seen rising from buildings during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan. (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Smoke is seen rising from buildings during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan. (REUTERS)

Currently, each side is blaming the other for starting the war. The national army claimed that Hemedti's soldiers had started a rebellion against the government, resulting in this violence. The RSF stated that it retaliated in response to a military attack at one of its bases in South Khartoum. On April 17, The Sudanese foreign ministry declared the RSF a rebel entity and ordered its dissolution. And the agreement between civilians, the military, and paramilitaries intended to reinitiate the democratic transition in Sudan appears to be frozen once more.

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What makes this conflict in Sudan so intractable? This conflict needs to be considered in terms of three overlapping layers: Local, regional and global. These three layers, which feed through and affect one another, represent various stages of conflict escalation, engagement, and potential resolution. And this conflict in Sudan is a prime example of a local conflict that is becoming increasingly intertwined with regional and international power dynamics, making it impossible to find a standalone solution.

If the Sudanese problem can be divided into three layers, the local level corresponds to the conflict's primary driver. In essence, this layer is concerned with the issue of who will control Sudan and under what type of political structure. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese National Army, also known as the SAF (Sudanese Armed Force), and General Muhammad Hamdan' Hemedti, Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary group RSF are allegedly involved in a power struggle that is at the heart of this conflict.

Around 2003, to combat non-Arab individuals who started rising against his rule, then president Omar-al Bashir enlisted the Janjaweed, a collection of Arab tribal militias primarily drawn from tribes that traded camels. In 2013, Bashir elevated this tribal militia group parallel to the national army as a semi-organised paramilitary structure under Hemedti's leadership. He even established a separate command structure and funds for RSF.

The primary purpose of Bashir behind forming this powerful paramilitary group RSF was to balance the national army, prevent military coups, and put down counterinsurgencies across the nation. But in 2019, the SAF and RSF joined to overthrow Bashir. After Bashir was overthrown, the armed forces and citizens came to an agreement to establish a transitional government. But Burhan's armed forces overthrew that transitional government in October 2021. A new sovereign council was established after a few months of power struggles between various players and massive pro-democracy demonstrations running concurrently. Since then, Burhan has been the head of the council, and Hemedti is the deputy head, with Burhan as de facto president.

But, a political framework agreement reached on December 5, 2022, caused their ties to deteriorate. The leaders constantly disputed the agreement's parameters, which were initially intended to be settled by April 1, 2023, to have a new civilian government in place by April 11, 2023. One key component of the agreement was the merger between the national army and RSF. General Burhan scheduled this restructuring to take place within two years to neutralise his rival and preserve the dominance of the Sudanese army. However, Hemedti preferred it to take place over ten years, demanding several internal reforms within the army.

Both the SAF and the RSF have extensive patronage and ethnic networks in Sudan. The Islamists surrounding General Burhan are particularly well entrenched in the Sudanese administration and business. Most likely, al-Burhan was under pressure to bring down Hemedti from the top military officers in the army, who were either Islamists or Bashir supporters or both. This Islamist fraction of the army will not accept any outcome other than the complete demobilisation of the RSF and Hemedti's exile from Sudan. And they might launch a coup against Burhan itself if necessary.

Hemedti is also vulnerable from within his own ranks and tribe. The top RSF brass comprises senior officers from the Arab Rizeigat tribe, which hails from Darfur. However, many local leaders in the tribe are suspected to be more loyal to Musa Hilal, a local sheikh and former Janjaweed leader. In 2017, the RSF, under Hemedti, arrested him and took control of his gold mine in Darfur. Hilal got eventually released from prison thanks to a pardon by the civilian-military transitional government in March 2021.

Although Hilal's current whereabouts are unclear, the Rizeigat is home to a sizable militia. He may also have followers in the RSF. Therefore, it is possible the disintegration of RSF from within, under the control of two distinct power blocs comprised of Musa Hilal and Hemedti supporters. A civil war along ethnic lines with further disintegration of the RSF would be more dangerous than the current scenario of two equally powerful blocks pitted against each other.

The second layer at the regional level is about who can have the most significant influence in Sudan and the larger Red Sea region. As Sudan is situated where the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and the Red Sea converge, it is considered valuable by many countries. The strategic location and agricultural resources of Sudan have attracted regional power struggles. Sudan shares its border with seven countries: Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Egypt. As all these countries have their own vested interests, the conflict risks getting more interwoven with regional rivalries and power struggles.

There is a Burhan and a Hemedti supporter in practically every surrounding nation. Therefore, if the disagreement persists, regional friends of both leaders might step forward to support their ally. Burhan underwent multiple joint military exercises and received his training at an Egyptian military academy. He has the solid backing of the Egyptian army. Meanwhile, Khalifa Haftar, the commander of eastern Libya, is reportedly close to Hemedti and has delivered at least three planes with military supplies.

The third layer involves the international power rivalry playing out in the Sudanese crisis. In this layer, Sudan serves as a microcosm for a struggle for regional and international power. Energy-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have long sought to influence Sudan's politics. Both have made significant investments in sectors including agriculture, where Sudan has tremendous potential, aviation, and ports near the Red Sea coast. Initially, both the Saudis and the UAE have seen Sudan's transition from al-Bashir's rule as an opportunity to push back against Islamist influence in the region. However, the interest of both countries diverged, with Saudi Arabia prioritising its national interest vis-a-vis Saudi Vision 2030 over its alliance with the UAE.

Egypt's primary concern in Sudan is the safety of its water resources since the Nile runs through Sudan. Egypt is attempting to sway Sudan in order to assert its geopolitical supremacy and settle the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute with Ethiopia. Turkey's interests in Sudan and the broader Red Sea region hinge on trade and security. Turkey is keen to rebuild the Suakin Island facility in Sudan to reduce its dependency on Egypt. Suakin is a historically Ottoman Red Sea port used for commercial and naval purposes.

Russia has a significant presence in Sudan owing to Wagner, a private military company. The main objective of the Wagner Group is to transport gold to Russia via the UAE while protecting mineral resources, particularly those used for gold mining. Russia also seeks to build a naval station in Port Sudan under a 25-year leasing arrangement, which would house about 300 Russian troops. Russia's proposal for a port in Sudan has received public support from military leaders in Sudan, particularly Hemedti.

China is concerned about its accessibility to the Red Sea trade route and the over 1,000 Chinese nationals who live in Sudan. China has not taken any side so far, calling for restraint and de-escalation. However, if the conflict escalates further and Chinese interests in Sudan are threatened, there may be a more active role, primarily through its special envoy for the Horn of Africa. For the European Union, stability in Sudan is essential to control migration. Last but not least, the ongoing conflict in Sudan brings to light the United States (US) waning influence in the region. The US is trying to pressure Sudan's warring factions to accept a ceasefire in exchange for some financial incentives for development and debt relief, in vain.

The fact that the three layers are inextricably interwoven presents a challenge for the international community. The two competing factions are engaged in a personal power battle on a personal level as they contend for control of Sudan and its rich resources. There would be just one leader when the two forces were to combine, and at the moment, that commander is General Burhan. Burhan and Hemedti have realised that the leadership competition has transformed into a zero-sum game, and, therefore, they continue to fight each other in this war to the death.

However, things could become more complicated if more players become involved in this war. The international community must re-evaluate and substantially change its strategy for mediating Sudanese peace. Coordinated steps must be made so that neighbouring and regional states maintain neutrality. Instead, regional forces must participate in the negotiation process, as was the case with the African Union's negotiation of the peace accord in Ethiopia.

Authored by Samir Bhattacharya, senior research associate, Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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