The War the World Forgot (2-2)

By Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed

The peacekeepers’ absence was keenly felt when a power struggle between the R.S.F.’s General Hamdan and the Sudan Armed Forces’ Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan erupted into all-out war on April 15.

Within days, violence exploded in Darfur too, with the R.S.F. and other associated Arab militias going after the same civilian groups they victimized last time around.
The R.S.F. attacks army units, but it is also committing crimes that may amount to genocide along the way — targeting specific ethnic groups with killing, displacement and starvation. General Hamdan and his senior commanders are careful in their public utterances to avoid anything that smacks of genocidal intent, but R.S.F. fighters are widely reported as using dehumanizing language typical of perpetrators of genocide. The R.S.F.’s killings and forced displacement campaign certainly fits within the international understanding of ethnic cleansing. A looming fight to the death in El Fasher has all the warning lights for genocide flashing red.
For months, the former Darfuri rebels stayed out of the fight, despite violent attacks on their own communities. Only in mid-November, as the R.S.F. closed in on El Fasher and the people sheltering there, did the former rebels declare they would fight the paramilitary group. The former rebels are often better armed and more determined than the hapless regular army, but a battle involving all of these forces threatens a new blood bath of civilians.
All the while, six months of on-and-off talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, convened by the United States and the Saudis, have achieved little. General al-Burhan’s army has stuck to an absurdly maximalist position, demanding that the R.S.F. withdraw to its bases and disarm. General Hamdan’s R.S.F., winning on the ground on every front, sees no reason to back down. Every promise to pause hostilities, protect civilians or allow in humanitarian aid has been abrogated, without consequence.
Such is the R.S.F.’s evident contempt for the mediators that it launched its devastating Darfur offensive in October, apparently confident that it would earn at worst a mild rebuke. For the paramilitaries, a plea by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in early November not to attack the citizens sheltering in El Fasher was empty words.
So far, the Biden administration’s response to the spiraling crisis has been deeply insufficient. Though the administration has helped to convene the Jeddah cease-fire talks, and Mr. Blinken has issued his plea for restraint, neither appears to have made a discernible impact.
But Mr. Biden can take action that would help stop the slaughter. One is to call the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. In an effort to become kingmaker in the region, the United Arab Emirates has been covertly shipping arms to the R.S.F., as documented by The New York Times. Those weapons, which may include the drones the R.S.F. has used to devastating effect alongside its converted pickup trucks and S.U.V.s and Russian-supplied antiaircraft missiles, appear to have swung the tide of the battle, allowing the paramilitaries to concentrate their firepower and overwhelm the army.
Up to now, confident that the Biden administration has many other priorities in the Middle East, Sheikh Mohammed has had a free hand to intervene on the other shore of the Red Sea, even if that means supporting a violent militia. It’s unlikely that trying to stop the R.S.F.’s gold trade to Dubai would work. But, as he hosts the COP28 climate talks this month, Sheikh Mohammed surely cares about his reputation and could take a call from Mr. Biden advising him that it’s unwise to be branded as a facilitator of a potential genocide.
Another key American ally, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, should also be on Mr. Biden’s call list. Despite its misgivings over General al-Burhan’s links to Islamists, Cairo backs the Sudan Armed Forces and may step up its involvement if it believes there is a chance the R.S.F. is about to take over Sudan, Egypt’s southern neighbor. Mr. Biden should also appoint a presidential special envoy for Sudan, which Middle Eastern leaders with leverage are more likely to respond to than the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, which they see as too junior.
Mr. Biden must also support Kenya. President William Ruto is eager to play a constructive role in stopping this crisis. Back in June, he led a quartet of East African states in proposing a comprehensive approach to peace. Mr. Ruto condemned both Sudanese generals as “illegitimate,” warned that there were “already signs of genocide” in Darfur, and suggested that African peacekeepers might be needed.
When African states propose a formula for addressing an African crisis, world powers often put aside their differences and back it. By contrast, any U.S. proposal to dispatch blue helmets is sure to invite a veto from China or Russia at the U.N. Security Council. And if Washington focuses only on the cease-fire talks in Jeddah, that will almost certainly be a dead end. Working together with Egypt and the newly appointed U.N. special envoy for Sudan, Mr. Ruto can propose actions that America cannot. He is pushing for an emergency summit of East African leaders next week, where he will have the chance to submit bold proposals.
Without action at the highest level, America risks becoming a near-silent witness to another genocide. Mr. Biden can change that. But he has only a few days left to make the call.

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