Now, Washington has a chance to save Sudan


By Alex de Waal

The diplomatic needle has moved on Sudan at last. There’s an opening to halt the carnage, end the famine, and save the state from collapse. An intricate diplomatic dance is underway involving African and Arab leaders as well as the United States.
Almost eight months after fighting erupted in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, followed by mass atrocities in that city and in the western region of Darfur, a serious peace initiative was finally set in motion this past weekend. A summit meeting of African leaders, held in Djibouti at the initiative of Kenyan President William Ruto, agreed on an overall formula for a cease-fire and political talks.
The two rival generals—Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemeti,” commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—both agreed. The United States and Saudi Arabia, which had suspended their long-running, unproductive talks with the warring parties a week earlier, attended the summit and backed its outcome.
The Djibouti summit comes on the heels of upgraded political attention to Sudan in Washington. On Dec. 4, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on two members of the former regime of Omar al-Bashir for their role in facilitating external support for the SAF and its Islamist backers, along with a third who is doing the same for the RSF. On Dec. 6, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued an atrocity determination—formally finding that the RSF is responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. He spoke of “haunting echoes of the genocide that began almost 20 years ago in Darfur.” Blinken also said that the SAF is committing war crimes.
Anyone who doubts the genocidal implications of the RSF’s military conquests need only watch the militia’s own videos of its atrocities against civilians in western Darfur. A handful have been broadcast by CNN’s Nima Elbagir and her team. Others that could never be broadcast show slaughter in graphic detail. No less horrifying than the acts themselves are insults hurled by the killers and rapists—typically “slave” or “dog”—and the whoops of celebration by onlookers. The RSF is the true heir to the notorious Darfurian Arab militia known as the janjaweed that perpetrated a genocide in that region two decades ago.
If the RSF continues its advances—and it has been fighting where it likes and usually winning in recent months—there is no doubt that mass slaughter and enslavement will follow. Ethnic cleansing may not be the RSF leaders’ main agenda—they’re after power and money above all—but they’re indelibly colored by a toxic Arab supremacist ideology.
To understand the RSF, it’s necessary to go further back than the janjaweed militias that terrorized the non-Arab communities of Darfur two decades ago. Most of those militiamen were Arabic-speaking nomads whose ancestors migrated to Darfur 300 years or so ago. Before European colonization, they were the lords of the desert, rich from trade and camel herding, regarding the darker-skinned farming peoples of the savannahs as their social inferiors, even their slaves.
New colonial boundaries and the railroad destroyed their lucrative trans-Saharan caravans. In modern times, they were among Sudan’s most deprived communities, with little education and few chances to improve their lot. Over the decades, desert-edge camel nomadism declined, as pastures dried out and migration routes to the wetter savannahs were blocked by farmers. Other janjaweed hailed from neighboring Chad and some even farther afield. Some among them nurtured dreams of turning fertile lands, such as Darfur, into their own domains.
A group known as the Arab Gathering, which met in the desert camps of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya in the 1980s, issued a manifesto called Quraysh charting how they would do just that. When the Darfur war erupted in 2003, they allied with Bashir to turn their Arab supremacist agenda into reality.

For the desert peoples, the RSF is an employment bureau, a protection racket, and a commercial conglomerate. It draws recruits from as far away as Niger and pays them handsomely to fight in Sudan, Libya, or Yemen. There’s money to be made protecting gold mines in Darfur and oil fields in Libya, trafficking migrants to the Mediterranean, plundering the Central African Republic in partnership with the Wagner Group, and reselling household goods and cars stolen from Khartoum to buyers in West Africa—the entrepôts are known as Dagalo markets.
The RSF’s partnership with the Wagner Group dates back to the last days of the Bashir regime, when Hemedti had just taken over Sudan’s biggest gold mines, including Jebel Amer in Darfur. Russia was interested in gold and in working alongside RSF fighters as a force multiplier. The late Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, likely recognized Hemedti as a kindred spirit—a political entrepreneur who had demonstrated the efficacy of transnational mafia-style politics in Africa. Hemedti was in Moscow to discuss signing agreements (details not made public) the day that Russia invaded Ukraine.
How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War
Until this week, Hemedti, and his brother, Abdelrahim, had led the RSF to the brink of controlling the region of Darfur and most of next-door Kordufan—with arms supplied by Russia and the United Arab Emirates. They occupy most of Khartoum. Diplomats speak of a “Libya scenario” in which Sudan is divided with the RSF controlling the capital and the regions west of the Nile, while the east falls under the SAF and the Islamists. This would be calamitous—but there’s no reason to think that the ambitions of the Dagalo brothers will stop there.
Cash is no less important than weaponry in the RSF’s progress. The Dagalo family business, al-Junaid, has a steady stream of cash from gold and other endeavors. Though the military-commercial complex around the SAF and its Islamist backers is bigger, the RSF and al-Junaid have more cash on hand.
The RSF is a transnational mercenary business; its paramilitaries are a looting machine. Every city it has overrun—El Genaina, Zalingei, Nyala—follows a similar pattern. RSF fighters and auxiliary militiamen go on the rampage, killing hundreds of people, raping women, and burning and pillaging houses. They ransack shops and businesses, vandalize and loot hospitals and schools. Residents who can escape as refugees do so; others are forced to become sex slaves or slave laborers.
For a time, former Darfur rebels who joined the government in 2020 remained neutral in the conflict, despite RSF atrocities against their non-Arab communities. Non-involvement became more difficult as the RSF closed on al-Fashir, the one remaining Darfuri city it has not yet overrun, and prominent former rebels declared against the RSF. A battle for al-Fashir would likely become a bloodbath for civilians.
Notwithstanding the reassuring messages put out by the RSF’s public relations consultants and boilerplate appeals for calm, Hemedti’s commanders run a pillage state. Paramilitary colonels double up as administrators, skilled only in running protection rackets. Sudanese call it the Republic of Kadamol, referring to the desert nomads’ trademark wraparound headscarf.
Washington worries that if the RSF prevails, Russia’s Wagner Group will be in five countries stretching from Burkina Faso and Mali in West Africa to the Red Sea, and from Libya’s Mediterranean shores to the Congo basin.
NINETEEN YEARS AGO, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the janjaweed were responsible for genocide, the U.S. government could set the international agenda for Sudan. That’s no longer the case. While the George W. Bush administration could successfully push for U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur, any similar proposal would face a near-certain veto by China and Russia at the U.N. Security Council.
Last month, Burhan—who still represents Sudan at the U.N.—ordered the closure of the U.N. Integrated Transitional Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), and the Security Council duly complied. No less importantly, Middle Eastern nations—including several of America’s key allies in the region—today pursue their own interests, sometimes in contradiction to U.S. policies.
Most influential is the United Arab Emirates, which has become the most active external player in the Horn of Africa over the last five years. Although Abu Dhabi denies it, evidence points to the UAE arming the RSF using a base in Chad that masquerades as a hospital for local people.
Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Déby, the last remaining Western ally in the region, is in grave danger. He has leaned toward Hemedti, reflecting the power of money—including a $1.5 billion loan from the UAE—and the allegiances of one part of his family. But Déby is a member of the Zaghawa ethnic group, whose leaders in Darfur are opposed to the RSF. The Chadian army is dominated by Zaghawas. Déby has neither good options nor a record of navigating such choppy waters.
UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, known as MBZ, has used cash and arms supplies to win over Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as well as Déby. This patronage neutralizes the African Union, whose oft-stated and increasingly rarely enforced principles include promoting democracy and preventing atrocities. The chairperson of the AU Commission is former Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki, who is back on good terms with Déby after a fallout last year and will do nothing that might upset his host country, Ethiopia. MBZ is positioning himself as the kingmaker across a wide swath of Africa.
As a key U.S. ally, the Emirati leader enjoys a lot of freedom of action in his own neighborhood, including the Horn of Africa. The UAE, Russia, and Sudan are all entangled in the gold business. The RSF began dealing with the Wagner Group in the last days of the Bashir regime, after Hemedti seized control of Sudan’s biggest gold mines, which are located at Jebel Amer in Darfur. Russia arms the RSF through bases in the Central African Republic.
Criticisms of the UAE have long been muted in Washington, but this is changing. At congressional hearings last week on the Sahel and Sudan, U.S. Reps. John James and Sara Jacobs both raised concerns over the UAE. James asked, “Is UAE friend or foe in ending this conflict diplomatically?” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee responded, “I think the publicity of this hearing and your statement and request to the UAE to consider the detrimental impact of their support to the RSF would be very helpful.” She also said that the Emirati role in Sudan had been raised by Vice President Kamala Harris on her visit to COP28.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi backs Burhan but is worried by the SAF’s military failings and the resurgence of Sudan’s Islamists as the powerbrokers behind it, as well as the SAF’s attempts to get weapons from Iran. Egypt’s reliance on Emirati financial bailouts also constrains Sisi’s options.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a rapport with Burhan, who brought Sudan into the Abraham Accords but the Israeli leader shares the same worry about Iran. Sudan’s Red Sea coast looks more strategically important than ever as Yemen’s Houthis threaten any ships deemed to be interacting with Israel in the narrow waterway.
Saudi Arabia could, in theory, be the moderating influence. It shows signs of alarm over Emirati policies but hasn’t yet reined in its assertive neighbor. The Saudis also look kindly on the RSF, having employed its mercenaries to fight in Yemen.
IT’S CLEAR THAT THERE CAN’T BE PEACE IN SUDAN without the consent of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo, and for that reason the U.S. needs a special envoy with enough stature to sway the leaders of those states. Responding to Republican demands on a special envoy in last week’s congressional hearing, Phee said that this was “under active and serious consideration.”
The big question is whether any of this will be sufficient to sway the Sudanese parties. Up until now, Hemedti has seen no reason to compromise because he has been winning.
Burhan has not been able to offer concessions because his coalition is fractious. Veteran securocrats from Bashir’s regime are determined to even the military score before negotiating. Some generals have told me they hope that the unlikely combination of Iranian drones and Egyptian intervention might yet save the day.
The U.S. government doesn’t have easy options and is relearning that there’s no such thing as benign neglect in Africa policy. Shortchanging Sudan was shortsighted. At least the administration now recognizes that it needs to step up its engagement.
** The executive director of the World Peace Foundation.

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