Stopping Sudan’s Descent into Full-Blown Civil War
Fighting in cities across Sudan has left hundreds dead and trapped untold numbers at home in severe danger. If not halted, the conflict could become a devastating civil war. Local and outside actors should demand a humanitarian ceasefire, especially around Eid al-Fitr, followed by talks.
The nightmare scenario that many feared in Sudan is unfolding. In cities and towns across the country, including the capital Khartoum, the Sudanese army, led by General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the command of Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, are fighting pitched battles. Millions of civilians are caught in the crossfire and fast running out of basic necessities. The combat could quickly slide into a sustained war that risks rippling through the country’s restive peripheries into its neighbours. Acting in concert, Sudanese, African, Gulf Arab, Western and other actors – some of whom have close ties to Burhan and Hemedti – should demand that the belligerents, both of whom believe they can attain their goals on the battlefield, agree to a ceasefire. The impending Eid al-Fitr celebration marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan – one of the most important days on the calendar for Sudanese Muslims – is a compelling opportunity for the army and paramilitary leaders to call a halt to the war, give beleaguered civilians a respite and allow mediators to fly into Khartoum to jump-start talks.
Fighting broke out on 15 April, after days of escalating armed manoeuvres by the rivalrous forces. Tensions had run high for days amid a dispute related to demands from the army that the RSF dissolve, with its members to be integrated into regular military ranks. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but both sides had clearly prepared for battle. Clashes erupted first in Khartoum, spreading rapidly to major towns to the north, south, east and west. Since then, the momentum has swung back and forth, with the two sides issuing conflicting claims to be in control of key institutions. What is unambiguous is the human toll. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 290 civilians are dead, countless others are stuck in their homes in baking 40-degree Celsius heat without electricity or (sometimes) water, hospitals have run out of supplies and aid agencies have suspended operations. Widespread looting means that food is also growing scarce. The number of deaths is likely much larger than is known.
Bashir fragmented the security forces into competing centers of power so that none could unseat him.
The roots of this severe and mounting crisis lie in the late years of former President Omar al-Bashir’s disastrous 30-year reign. Distrustful of the army, traditionally Sudan’s strongest institution and one with a history of staging coups, Bashir fragmented the security forces into competing centres of power, so that none could unseat him. The paramilitary RSF, in particular, grew from a brutal counter-insurgency militia in Darfur into something like a praetorian guard for Bashir. The outsider status of Hemedti, the RSF leader, served as a check on challenges to the former president from the riverine centre, whose elites have ruled the country since independence in 1956. Hemedti rose from humble beginnings in Darfur near the Sudan-Chad border to become an agile, canny operator, expanding into gold mining and mercenary activity, all while building a political base at home and forging ties abroad.
Thus, when Sudan’s popular uprising ousted Bashir in 2019, the army and RSF needed to collaborate in seizing power. The protests – an awe-inspiring, millions-strong movement – toppled Bashir in a matter of months but then struggled to also sweep away his generals. Hemedti became Burhan’s number two, first in a Transitional Military Council, and then as deputy chair of a Sovereign Council, after the generals agreed to a power-sharing deal with the country’s civilian opposition, which had been protesting the military takeover for months after Bashir’s downfall.
The Burhan-Hemedti partnership was shaky from the start, as Crisis Group warned it would probably be. It grew increasingly unstable as military rule persisted, especially as Hemedti’s power and ambitions grew along with his paramilitary force, which expanded across the country. The rivalry showed even more signs of strain after Burhan and Hemedti deposed the civilian government in an October 2021 coup. The coup backfired, doing little to assert military authority, and Hemedti started to distance himself from Burhan, whom he saw as increasingly linked to Bashir-era Islamists. Meanwhile, the listless economy, whose woes were a major cause of the 2019 uprising, tipped further into sclerosis, exacerbating social unrest as Sudanese continued to press for restoration of civilian government. Increasingly, the RSF leader tried to align himself with the public’s demands, even presenting himself as an unlikely reformer. He cultivated an unofficial partnership with members of Khartoum’s civilian elite, who were negotiating in fits and starts with the military to bring the above demands to fruition.
Subsequently, Hemedti’s rift with Burhan grew wider still. In courting the civilian elites, Hemedti exploited the fact that many of them – much as they distrust the RSF – view the army as their historical enemy, a redoubt of Bashir sympathisers including Islamists who had staffed the former president’s bureaucracy. In December 2022, a framework agreement promising to restore civilian rule accentuated their rivalry. While Burhan signed the deal only under heavy external pressure, Hemedti championed it, due to clauses he saw as giving him autonomy from Burhan and the army. The agreement recognised the RSF as a regular entity affiliated with the armed forces but placed it under the direct command of a civilian head of state, rather than the army chief, during a transition period. The deal also required the RSF to integrate into the army but left the timetable open to negotiation. This arrangement only deepened the distrust between Sudan’s two military overlords.
Tensions escalated in February and early March, following intense competition between the army and RSF to recruit new members across Sudan and particularly in Darfur, Hemedti’s stronghold. Rumours that the army was re-establishing a border guard historically tied to Hemedti’s long-time rival, Musa Hilal, head of a tribal militia that had helped suppress the Darfur revolt in the 2000s, further intensified the animosity between the regular army and its paramilitary foe. Burhan’s proposal to dissolve the Sovereign Council and form a new military council also heightened frictions, as it implied that Burhan could strip Hemedti of his formal political position as deputy chair. After an alarming military build-up in the capital, Burhan and Hemedti reached a deal to de-escalate the situation on 11 March. Hemedti agreed to withdraw forces from greater Khartoum, and the two military leaders agreed to form a new joint security committee.
The hostilities have pushed the country toward the full-blown civil war Sudanese have dreaded for years.
But the final negotiations to form a new civilian government soon put the country back in the pressure cooker, as the parties missed the early April deadline. Talks about security-sector reform, one of five sticky issues put off for further discussion in December, dragged on, postponing the entire process. While most of the negotiations pitted the civilian elite against the military as a whole, the wrangling over security arrangements pitted Burhan and Hemedti against each other. In particular, the two disagreed over the timetable for merging the RSF into the army and the leadership structure of an integrated force. The civilians and Hemedti rallied around a proposal for a ten-year integration period. Burhan and the army demanded a two-year timetable, unwilling to give the RSF a decade in which to continue extending its influence and entrenching its autonomy outside the army’s supervision. Amid mounting mutual suspicion, Hemedti reportedly accused Burhan of reneging on deals on integration schedules and the chain of command under pressure from other army generals. More generally, it is clear that Burhan faced stiffening resistance inside the army to the December framework agreement as tensions with Hemedti spiked.
Both sides started to ready themselves for a possible armed confrontation. They continued to recruit new members and mobilised large numbers of troops in strategic areas, including in Khartoum. On 13 April, a sizeable contingent of RSF solders redeployed near an air base in the northern town of Meroe, where Egyptian air force personnel were also stationed. The army publicly accused the RSFof unauthorised movements and gave it an ultimatum to stand down. Emergency mediation inside and outside Sudan tried to calm the situation, with a trio of prominent ex-rebel leaders meeting with the two sides in Khartoum, together with efforts by the UN and the Quad, a bloc composed of the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Fighting began anyway two days later.
The hostilities between the army and RSF have pushed the country toward the full-blown civil war Sudanese have dreaded for years. Because both sides are positioned in major urban bases across the country, fighting broke out nearly simultaneously all over the map, most prominently in Khartoum and Darfur. Although Sudan is no stranger to internal conflict, sustained urban warfare in Khartoum is unprecedented. Millions there are trapped in a burgeoning humanitarian disaster. While the Sudanese air force bombs the capital, civilians hunker down inside their homes without electricity amid sweltering temperatures. Many lack water as well. Residents have covered social media with reports of shops and homes being ransacked for supplies, with most pointing fingers at the RSF, who appear to be trying to overcome their aerial disadvantage by fanning out into residential neighbourhoods. The picture may be just as grim in other parts of the country, where information is harder to come by.
With neither Burhan nor Hemedti appearing ready to back down, the situation could get much worse. A prolonged conflict will be ruinous for Sudan. Some analysts expect the army to prevail in Khartoum, its home turf, but that outcome is by no means assured. Even if the army eventually does secure the capital, and Hemedti retreats to Darfur, a civil war could well follow, with potentially destabilising impact in neighbouring Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan, which are all already scarred by conflict to varying degrees. Further, Sudan is riddled with countless other armed groups and communal militias, any or all of which could throw in its lot with Burhan or Hemedti, turning a two-sided war into a much more complex free-for-all, especially in the country’s peripheral areas.
Since neither main actor seems willing to discuss an end to the fighting, the best way to keep peace on the table is for all other parties, inside and outside Sudan, to remain united in rejecting the war. Sudanese actors, including political parties and the resistance committees that have comprised the backbone of opposition to military rule from the 2019 uprising onward but also the above-mentioned armed groups and tribal leaders, have shown impressive resolve in rejecting the conflict and calling for a ceasefire. They should all keep refusing to pick sides, to illustrate the belligerents’ isolation and the public’s horror at the lurch into all-out urban combat. As soon as possible in the emergency conditions, they should form an official united front, an anti-war alliance that would be all the more powerful because many of its constituent elements are otherwise at odds.
A lasting settlement will include very difficult talks (...) on the thorniest issues so far: handing over power to civilians and integrating the RSF into the national army.
Regional players, particularly neighbouring countries including Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Eritrea, should likewise avoid supporting either of Sudan’s warring parties. Were any of these countries to get involved backing one or the other, the risk of spillover would grow, especially as the conflict might directly involve ethnic groups whose homelands straddle their borders with Sudan. Instead, they should try to convince Burhan and Hemedti to resolve their differences through dialogue.
The UN, African Union (AU) and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional bloc in the Horn of Africa, should respond with the utmost urgency, despite the many challenges. The UN has been trying to broker a ceasefire on the ground, thus far to no avail. Once it is safe to do so, IGAD and the AU should work together to dispatch emergency high-level delegations to mediate between the two sides. IGAD has lined up a delegation including the presidents of Kenya, South Sudan and Djibouti. The AU Commission chairperson should also travel to Khartoum, as planned, to try bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. The UN should support these missions alongside its own work to calm the fighting. All three should closely coordinate, as part of their existing trilateral partnership, so that their efforts do not wind up at cross-purposes.
Alongside the African initiative, the leaders of powerful Arab countries with influence over Burhan and Hemedti, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which together with the U.S. and UK have mediated the political negotiations in Sudan, should insist on a ceasefire. They should also make clear they will not back or resupply either side should the conflict continue or escalate. Washington, London, Brussels and other Western capitals should also urge a ceasefire. International actors should take a firm stance against indiscriminate air raids, exploitation of civilian infrastructure for warfare, fighting in residential areas, using human shields and blocking emergency workers from providing life-saving assistance.
All these actors, but especially Sudanese parties and the Gulf Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, should urge the belligerents to agree to a sustained humanitarian ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr. In Khartoum and many other parts of the country, Eid al-Fitr is the year’s most significant holiday for Muslims, marking the close of the widely observed period of fasting during Ramadan. Parties should make it clear to the army and RSF leadership that they will earn widespread opprobrium if they cannot use this occasion (expected to begin on 22 April) to pause the fighting, allowing civilians caught in the conflict to leave the worst-affected neighbourhoods in search of relief and especially medical attention. Such a pause could also allow African mediators to arrive in person for urgent talks to explore the terms of a longer ceasefire.
A lasting settlement to this conflict will doubtless include very difficult talks on a way ahead that ensures the unity of Sudan and the safety of its people. That should mean a clear agreement on the issues that have proven the thorniest so far: handing over power to civilians, as long promised, and thrashing out the timeline for integrating the RSF into the national army. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, allies that both have relationships with the belligerents and backed them when they first took power, will need to firmly support any initiative to improve the odds that both sides will comply.
The immediate priorities, however, must be achieving a humanitarian ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr and then getting aid into the country fast. The army’s bombing of Khartoum neighbourhoods and the widespread house-to-house looting and worse committed by Hemedti’s militias will haunt Sudanese for years to come. Neither side seems ready to stop, but continued confrontation can only further degrade what political relevance the two main protagonists, who are already held in contempt by most of the public, might have in the future. Only when the catastrophic fighting ends will Sudanese be able to pick up the pieces, assess the damage and determine the path forward. For now, though, it is up to the two forces struggling for power and anyone with any influence over them to bring an end to the nightmare millions of Sudanese are living through.