Political Reports

The Cost of More Sudan’s War

Alan Boswell – Project Director, Horn of Africa

Summarized by Sumaya Sayed

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 chairman 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.
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 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 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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 coordinating 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.
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 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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