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Smoke is seen rising from a neighborhood in Khartoum, Sudan, on Saturday. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

Explainer: Why has violence broken out in Sudan and what might happen next?

Two opposing factions have taken over key sites in Sudan – but what’s at the root of the conflict?

THE RECENT OURBREAK of fighting between two rival armed factions in Sudan has brought rare international attention to the political situation in the North-East African country, which has failed to make a transition to civilian-led government following coups in 2019 and 2021. 

The conflict is being fought by two opposing sides, the Sudan Armed Forces led by General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces under the command of General Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Hamdan Dagalo.  

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Sudan’s warring parties to immediately cease hostilities yesterday as his envoy to Khartoum said at least 185 people had been killed by the fighting.

The UN chief said any further escalation of the conflict between the army and the paramilitary forces, led by rival generals, “could be devastating for the country and the region.”

Both sides claim to have control over key sites in Sudan. Neither has admitted to firing the first shots that sparked the violence. 

In the last 24 hours, the EU ambassador to Sudan, Irish diplomat Aidan O’Hara, has been attacked in his home in Khartoum, while a US diplomatic convoy was also attacked. No casualties were reported from either incident. 

How we got here

In October 2021, Burhan and Dagalo together orchestrated a coup, upending a fragile transition to civilian rule that had been started after the 2019 ousting of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under the three-decade rule of now jailed Bashir, took the top job.

Dagalo, from Darfur’s pastoralist camel-herding Arab Rizeigat people, assumed responsibility as his number two.

The alliance has now fallen apart due to the rivalry between the two sides and their leaders. It was only ever “a marriage of convenience”, according to independent researcher and policy analyst Hamid Khalafallah.

“It was never a genuine alliance or partnership, they just had to tie their interests together to face the civilians as a united military front,” Khalafallah added.

The rift widened, with Dagalo coming to call the coup a “mistake” that has failed to bring about change.

As the army and civilian leaders came together to hammer out a deal to end the political crisis that began with the coup, the integration of the RSF into the regular army became a key sticking point.

According to Alan Boswell, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group, Daglo saw in the agreement an opportunity to become “more autonomous from the military” and enact “very large political ambitions”.

According to analyst Kholood Khair, a December framework agreement for the deal “ratcheted up tensions” between Burhan and Dagalo, when it elevated Dagalo’s position to “Burhan’s equal, rather than his deputy”.

Khair, founder of the Khartoum-based Confluence Advisory think-tank, said “that shift in power is why conversations about security sector reform and integration of the RSF have ended up in armed conflict rather than heated debate around the table”.

The two warring sides

The two parties to the conflict are different in nature but well-matched in capability, according to Alex de Waal – executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in the US and an expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa.

“What the RSF lack in aircraft and tanks they make up for in mobility, demonstrated tactical effectiveness, and territorial spread.

“No-one should see the current combat as anything other than the first round of a civil war.”

Dagalo, the leader of the RSF, comes from a humble background and is a “self-made man,” according to de Waal.

2MJXK46 General Mohamed 'Hemedti' Hamdan Dagalo AP Photo via Alamy AP Photo via Alamy

“The RSF was formalised as a paramilitary under his command ten years ago, in recognition of its prowess in defeating insurgents in Darfur.

“The RSF is a battle-hardened militia which is tactically capable. It has fought in Yemen and has dealings with Russia’s Wagner Group. It has cut deals with former armed groups.”

Dagalo and his family control “a commercial empire trading in gold and other commodities, which has diversified including into banking,” he says.

On the other side, General Burhan commands the country’s better-equipped, more formal military forces. 

“Al-Burhan is chairman of the Sovereignty Council and will present himself (flatteringly) as the head of state. He commands the Sudan Armed Forces which is a plausible imitation of a professional army, but which is more impressive in its shows of hardware and its commercial dealings than its combat capacity,” de Waal explains. 

abdel-fattah-al-burhan-president-of-the-republic-of-sudan-at-the-international-conference-in-support-of-the-sudanese-transition-at-the-grand-palais-ephemere-in-paris-france-on-may-17-2021-photo-b General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“He sees the military as the institution of sovereign power above the political sphere. This is his public justification for why the army should be in charge of its own security sector reform.”

The conflict, for the moment at least, is first and foremost a fight between these two sides, says de Waal. 

“All other players are secondary. This includes the two blocs within the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and the civilian groups that cling to the dream of a revolution that will sweep away the entire rotten deep state.”

How the conflict may play out

As the fighting has only just begun, a conclusion to the hostilities is unlikely to materialise in the short term. In fact, there is a chance the conflict will become more complicated as it develops, says de Waal. 

The conflict is currently a war between two readily-identifiable parties over state power.

“While it remains thus it has the best chance of a resolution through the standard format of a ceasefire and political dialogue. If the war continues, it will become a two-level game in which the principals also bargain with their subordinates, clients and junior allies.”

This, he says, could lead to a war of “all against all.”

The conflict will also take on a financial element on top of a military one, de Waal predicts. 

“At the moment the visible conflict is a series of battles for key locations. The less visible conflict is a contest over money in which each side will try to cut off the other’s funds, and secure additional resources for themselves.

“Control over political funds will be no less decisive than the battlefield. The SAF will want to take control of gold mines and smuggling routes. The RSF will want to interrupt major transport arteries including the road from Port Sudan to Khartoum,” he says. 

This war over resources may eventually lead to the intensity of the fighting petering out and devolving into a fragmented struggle for key locations, according to de Waal. 

“Command and control may not stay unified for long,” he says.

“The material and organisational resources needed to sustain an intense war effort will be quickly depleted.

“The current phase may be sustained for some months, but will likely morph into a less intense but more widespread conflict with fragmented parties contending for control of different locations, many of them switching sides or acting opportunistically.”

This fracturing would make a peace deal even more difficult for any potential mediators, he says, as they would have to choose to deal just with the two key actors or to bring in smaller groups as well, which would make reaching an agreement more complicated. 

A full-blown civil war would also leave Sudan vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers, who may wish to further their interests by supporting one side or the other.

Additionally, de Waal says, it could lead to regional powers sending in their own troops or conducting proxy wars within Sudan. 

“Unless it is swiftly ended, the conflict will become a multi-level game with regional and some international actors pursuing their interests, using money, arms supplies and possibly their own troops or proxies.

“Most of the same external parties that are fishing in troubled waters will be members of the mediation effort.”

With additional reporting from - © AFP 2023 

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