21 December 2023

Everybody’s Business

The War in Sudan as a Threat to International Peace and Security

War has devastated Sudan since it first broke out on 15 April 2023. What started as a power play between the country’s two most powerful armies, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has since metastasized into a major civil war. International actors have not paid this war the high-level attention it requires and deserves. On 1 December, the UN Security Council decided to terminate the mandate of the UN International Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), a political mission originally tasked with supporting Sudan’s transition to democracy. While the Council acted on a short-term request by the Sudanese authorities (controlled by SAF), it has not been able to agree on a substantive resolution since the war started. Driven by divisions, it has abdicated its responsibility under the UN Charter.

In this blog post, I explain why international actors need to pay more attention to what is happening in the strategically located country at the crossroads between the Red Sea and the Sahel, between the Arab and African worlds. The war threatens Sudan’s integrity as a state, displaces millions and draws in neighbouring and other regional countries, all in a region already in turmoil because of coups, insurgencies and violent extremism.

A War within the Security Sector

The conflict originates in a competition between the regular armed forces, the SAF, and the paramilitary force, RSF, for control over the security sector and ultimately the state as a whole. Having dislodged long-term ruler Omer al-Bashir from power in the face of broad public protests in April 2019, SAF and RSF agreed to share power with civilian parties a few months later. In October 2021, they felt the civilians were overreaching, arrested the civilian prime minister and declared a state of emergency. Since then, they have not been able to agree on forming a new government, trying instead to seize power yet again, this time from each other. This has led to the current hostilities.

While the conflict parties increasingly appeal to ethnic and racial identities to mobilize support, many Sudanese do not consider themselves truly represented by either armed force. The SAF, whose leadership comes from the riverine region of Central and Northern Sudan, are supported by elements of the former Islamist government as well as some armed groups. SAF generals look down on the RSF, whose commanders they consider uneducated. The RSF was created out of informal Arab militias, called “Janjaweed”, who embraced an ideology of Arab Supremacy already during the genocidal violence against non-Arab groups such as the Masalit and Zaghawa in Darfur in the West of Sudan twenty years ago. Since then, the RSF have recruited widely among Sudan’s peripheral communities, drawing on citizens of other Sahelian states (such as Chad) and co-opting units from SAF and other armed groups.

The Destruction of a Major African Capital

The war has wreaked havoc on Khartoum and the adjoining cities of Omdurman and Bahri. The RSF have captured most of the tri-state capital area, as they continue to engage in fierce artillery battles with the SAF. RSF troops occupy residential areas and loot vehicles and other valuables on a large scale. Around 37% of Khartoum state’s pre-war population of 9.4 million have left their homes. This will be the bulk of the country’s political and economic elite, its upper and middle class and others with means to make the journey. With records of their properties being deliberately destroyed, they will struggle to return. This is by design: Many RSF fighters, coming from the country’s poor peripheries, feel that the riverine elite that has dominated Sudan for decades has marginalized and instrumentalized them. Thus, while successive Sudanese governments have equipped and supported some Nomad communities, for example, to fight insurgencies for them, Nomad children go to primary school far less often than their peers from displaced communities. For those RSF fighters sensing a lack of respect, this is payback time. The result: a major African capital is falling apart in an effort to reshape the country. In time, this could lead to the split of Sudan into several territories, as the SAF-controlled ministries have already moved their administration to Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast.

The World’s Largest IDP Crisis

Sudan now also presents the world’s largest internal displacement crisis. Since the war started, out of a total population of around 49 million, 5.4 million people have been internally displaced, while more than 1.4 million have crossed into other countries (mainly Chad, Egypt and South Sudan). When fighting broke out, Sudan already had around 3.7 million IDPs, mainly in Darfur, and 800,000 Sudanese were already refugees in third countries. Sudan was also hosting more than a million refugees from other countries such as South Sudan. Many of the latter have now sought to return home (or make their way to third countries). All told, there are likely more than ten million Sudanese that have left their homes both before and after the war started. With every new offensive, there are going to be more people fleeing from one place to the next.

The Commission of International Crimes

What is more, the conflict parties are likely committing international crimes. SAF engages in indiscriminate bombing, killing civilians in the process. RSF fighters and allied Arab militias loot properties, engage in sexual and gender-based violence and kill members of non-Arab groups, in particular Masalit. 68 villages in the greater Darfur area showed signs of fire damage, some were burnt down almost completely.

Many of these atrocities have taken place in West Darfur, where most Masalit used to live. Now around half a million have fled over the border to Chad. A detailed Reuters investigation based on interviews with survivors and open-source information found that the SAF officers had deserted the base in Ardamata in early November when they could no longer defend it. The remaining SAF rank and file and members of an allied Masalit armed group negotiated a surrender with the dominant RSF troops and gave up their weapons in exchange for promises to be spared. Instead, the RSF ordered the men out of the houses and started shooting them, targeting mainly the Masalit. Perhaps 1300 people were killed within two or three days.

Several international actors have classified these and other acts by the belligerents as international crimes, i.e. as erga omnes violations of international law. This means that all states have an obligation to prevent them. On 6 December, the US State Department issued an “atrocity determination”, where it formally found that the SAF and the RSF had committed war crimes and the RSF had committed also crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing as laid out above. Previously, Alice Wairimi Nderitu, the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, observed after a visit to refugee camps in Chad that many risk factors of genocide were in place. “In Darfur, innocent civilians are being targeted on the basis of race,” she said earlier.

Adding Fuel to Fire

Regional actors further fuel the conflict by delivering arms or allowing those deliveries to take place via their respective territories. The UAE supports the RSF with weapons and vehicles through Chad. Libya (under Haftar), Kenya, Uganda, the Central African Republic and more recently Ethiopia also seem to be involved in facilitating such shipments, as have been Russian mercenaries in Libya and CAR. In contrast, Egypt supports the SAF with weapons and other military support, including guns for tens of thousands of newly recruited SAF soldiers as well as Turkish Bayraktar drones. There have also been reports about Ukrainian drones and special forces supporting SAF, although the sourcing was relatively thin.

Insofar as they enter Darfur, many of those arms deliveries are a violation of the UN Security Council arms embargo on Darfur originally imposed in 2005. Even though it was never very effective as it only applied to one region within a larger country, it still provides ground for in-depth investigations by the UN Panel of Experts whose next report is due in early 2024.

The Threat of Spill Over

The war in Sudan is likely to spill over to neighbouring countries in various ways. Currently, the most-watched case is Chad. President Deby plays a risky balancing game by allowing the UAE to use Chadian territory for arms supplies to the RSF. The RSF have incorporated a significant number of Chadian Arabs and are increasingly getting into conflict with the Zaghawa in Darfur, the same ethnic group of Deby’s governmental elite. Unrest within the Chadian elite may lead to a military coup, or returning Chadian Arab fighters may strengthen armed opposition groups and ignite a civil war.

South Sudan’s transitional government may also feel the heat from the war in Sudan. Angelina Teny, South Sudan’s interior minister, confirmed that South Sudanese have joined both SAF and RSF. These might later return to their home country with their military equipment and join any number of armed opposition groups. Furthermore, small arms are flooding informal markets in Sudan at cheap prices.

Moreover, the hostilities threaten to disrupt the export of oil from the South to markets via the pipelines to Port Sudan. This might bankrupt South Sudan’s kleptocratic government at a time this money is needed to smooth over differences resulting from planned but likely flawed elections in December 2024.

Flawed Mediation Efforts

Mediation efforts by international and regional actors have not succeeded in halting the violence so far. Their response has been lacklustre, with no sustained high-level commitment. Mediators also continue to follow a deeply flawed approach. They focus excessively on SAF and RSF as well as their respective leaders, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, SAF’s commander-in-chief, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, called Hemedti, RSF’s commander.

For example, on 9 December, an extraordinary summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional organisation in the Horn of Africa, heard pledges from both Burhan and Hemedti for a personal one-on-one meeting as well as for an “unconditional ceasefire.” This ignores that neither of them appears capable of controlling the war on their own anymore, given the significant role of elements of the former regime, ethnic militias as well as other armed groups, some of which have increased the territory under their control in the Nuba mountains and in Central Darfur. Moreover, IGAD and AU member states lack leverage in holding the belligerents accountable. Within a week after these pledges, the SAF bombed Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, and the RSF started a major offensive in Al Jazeera state in central Sudan, a major humanitarian hub and breadbasket of the country. The RSF captured the state capital Wad Madani within four days.

What is urgently needed is a multi-stakeholder dialogue, something that a joint AU and IGAD team has been preparing for months. However, there are disagreements regarding the participation of the conflict parties as well as representatives of the former Bashir regime, which some civilian parties reject out of hand. It remains to be seen whether the Coordination of Civil Democratic Forces or “Taqaddum”, a new civilian coalition whose preparatory committee was founded in Addis Abba in October, can prove more effective. They are in touch with the conflict parties based on their own roadmap.

A Threat to International Peace and Security

The war in Sudan poses a threat to international peace and security, requiring European actors including Germany to engage more forcefully. Encouraging regional actors to convene a credible multi-stakeholder and potentially sequenced dialogue is one way. States such as the UAE and Egypt that are fuelling the war with arms deliveries should also be held accountable, at least by calling them out. The EU should also start adding names to the sanctions regime on Sudan that it created in October and ensure that companies active in its common market do not interact with the RSF, SAF and their respective economic entities.

Mobilising diplomatic and political capital to stop the war in Sudan is not just the right thing to do, it should be everybody’s business given the high stakes involved.