Analysis: SAF versus RSF

By Cameron Hudson

This is hard to look at. In terms of shaping a summit outcome, Burhan’s absence cost him nothing as nothing significant or new emerged from today’s discussion in Uganda.
But the visual of Hemedti flanked by regional leaders is a win for him. In a war of propaganda that’s a lot.
However, the more these meetings happen with only one side attending, the more the international community gives the time and space for fighting to continue. And with now a proliferation of envoys and initiatives, that trend only seems more likely unless dedicated effort is made to give SAF the reassurances it needs to come back to the negotiating table.
Presently, SAF is at a disadvantage in these kinds of venues. In the past, there were plenty of Bashir-era Islamist-apparatchiks to represent them in peace negotiations, in South Sudan and Darfur. Today, they can’t defer to those people, certainly not publicly lest they prove the RSF’s point that the SAF is captured by the former regime. Burhan is not someone who seeks the spotlight, but nor is he in a position of strength internally where he can defer to others, like Kabashi, to lead the negotiations.
Left on his own, my understanding is that Burhan is feeling outmatched and ill at ease at a negotiating table where his enemy is aided by world-class, foreign-financed legal and PR talent, not to mention potentially sympathetic foreign leaders who Hemedti has cultivated for months/years.
People talk about Egypt or KSA being in SAF’s corner but I think that is entirely overstated. The external support going to SAF and RSF is not anywhere near balanced. Until it is, I don’t see SAF coming to the table. Whoever it is that can advise them (Turkey, Qatar?) needs to help them to understand that the conflict is different now than when they agreed to the Jeddah Declaration. Given current battlefield dynamics, it isn’t realistic to hold out for the RSF to abandon the territories it controls–even if many of those holdings are civilian residences and private infrastructure that under international law they shouldn’t be occupying. The RSF isn’t going to give up the high ground now and no one from the international community is going to compel them to.
similarly, as much as the RSF deserves to be branded a terrorist group, no one is going to do that. First, because most believe it would be counterproductive to getting them to make peace. Second, because the strength they have in negotiations was earned through battlefield superiority which a terror designation wont erase. Third, because as much as the crimes the RSF commits against civilians are horrific, in the eyes of many in the international community the SAF’s bombing of civilian areas, their arrests of civil society activists and their blocking of humanitarian aid are seen as at least sufficiently bad that no one is willing to take targeted punitive actions against the RSF alone.
Where does that leave SAF? Looking like a petulant child who hasn’t gotten its way. Its upset that the world doesn’t see the conflict through its lens, it can’t acknowledge to itself its tactical deficiencies and it feels more and more isolated the longer Hemedti’s diplomatic tour lasts. Investing in its own PR, doing more to secure outside assistance, performing better on the battlefield and distancing itself from the tactics and advice of former regime Islamists would all help its cause in negotiations.
But until the SAF is able to see with clear eyes where they are after 9 months of fighting and understand where they are going if something doesn’t change, they risk increasingly being blamed for the prolongation of the conflict, held more responsible for the plight of those they claim to be defending, and further wed to the only force that virtually everyone agrees should have no future in Sudan.
I continue to believe that the fate of the SAF and the fate of the country are intertwined. The lose of one will mean the lose of both and more pictures like the ones released today: of a smiling Hemedti in a bespoke suit surrounded by his fellow heads of state. A scenario few would like to contemplate
Cameron Hudson

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