Can the international community stop the fighting in Sudan?

The warring generals have shown little appetite for ceasing hostilities amid what could be an existential threat to their power plays.

Damaged vehicles
Damage after clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Khartoum, Sudan on April 18, 2023. [Ömer Erdem/Anadolu Agency]

Intense fighting is raging in Sudan between the army and a paramilitary force for a fifth day despite calls by international stakeholders – Arab, African and international – to stop the violence and engage in dialogue.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) initially said on Tuesday that they had agreed to a day-long armistice, but it quickly broke down. A United Nations-brokered ceasefire on Sunday to allow aid and rescue was also broken.

The generals leading the two forces, Hemedti and the SAF’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, de facto president since the removal of his former ally, strongman President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, have increasingly taken their fight to residential areas in Khartoum and elsewhere, leading to at least 270 deaths.

Observers are growing increasingly concerned about the possible ramifications of this conflict dragging on.

“The situation in Sudan is a major regional security challenge for the Horn of Africa,” Ovigwe Eguegu, policy analyst at Development Reimagined, told Al Jazeera.

“Considering the risks of all-out civil war and associated problems such as refugees, there are also serious concerns that this may become a flashpoint for great-power politics because of the dependence of the Sudan Army and the RSF on foreign powers for finance and weapons.”

The United States has been coordinating with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Sudan, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking to both Hemedti and al-Burhan, calling for restraint.

Anna Jacobs, a senior analyst at the Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera that “at this point, regional and international actors are all trying to stop the fighting”.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have grown close to Hemedti recently as he sent his soldiers to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. But they are likely to pursue a neutral role, at least for now.

The two Arab countries, Jacobs said, will continue to work with the US and the United Kingdom through the so-called Quad, made up of all four countries, as other regional and international actors work through the larger Friends of Sudan, which includes regional and Western countries.

Meanwhile, regional power Egypt, which is trying to protect its interests in a dispute over a major dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, has deep ties with Sudan’s military.

The two armies regularly conduct war games, including this month when they held joint naval exercises at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

“Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have significant influence with Sudan’s various military and paramilitary groups and can use this influence to push for de-escalation and to stop the fighting,” Jacobs said.

Smoke rises from the tarmac of Khartoum International Airport
Smoke rises from the tarmac of Khartoum International Airport as a fire burns on April 17, 2023, in this screen grab from a social media video [Abdullah Abdel Moneim/via Reuters]

Meanwhile, leaders of several African nations have said they plan on visiting Sudan, but it remains unclear whether or when that will be possible as fighting continues and the airport remains a focus for the warring parties.

Eguegu believes that African Union (AU) mediation would be best in this situation, especially as it would avoid any perception of bias on the part of individual mediators.

For example, he added, “the RSF is unlikely to accept an Egyptian mediation. At this point, the AU is the best option … The effort will be within the Trilateral Mechanism [AU-UN-IGAD] as per the communiqué released by the emergency session of the AU Peace and Security Council yesterday.”

Al-Burhan has said the current situation is not suitable for the arrival of the presidents from the eight-country African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Further east, Russia and China have joined calls for restraint and putting an end to the fighting.

Russia had increasingly strengthened its foothold in Sudan during the decades-long rule of al-Bashir and at one point had even reached an initial agreement to build a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

The US and European powers had competed with Russia for influence in Sudan following al-Bashir’s removal, as Moscow tried to use Sudan as its gateway to Africa while also reaping economic benefits.

The Wagner Group, the powerful Russian mercenary organisation which has gained increasing visibility after fighting in the war in Ukraine, has been active in Sudan for years.

It is unclear whether its soldiers are currently fighting in Sudan, but the group has developed close ties with the RSF over the years, particularly over mining and shipping gold – a resource Sudan has in abundance.

Both Washington and Moscow, therefore, appear invested in ending the fighting in Sudan, but the US may work to simultaneously block Russia from bolstering its influence amid the conflict.

Existential threats

The warring generals do not appear interested in mediation or a lasting ceasefire at the moment, Cameron Hudson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera. He therefore believes that it would be unlikely for any power to make significant progress on securing peace.

“The parties are clearly not concerned about the consequences of their actions,” Hudson told Al Jazeera. “They are interested in their own survival and preserving their own power. In a situation like that, when the threats they face appear existential, it makes it hard to imagine what a compromise would look like.”

The Crisis Group’s Jacobs agreed that the local dynamics that are the main drivers of the conflict would complicate the situation.

“International and regional actors can push for de-escalation and a halt to fighting, but it’s unclear if and when this pressure will lead to positive results,” she said.

On the other hand, Hudson said the US is also concerned about regional countries’ different interests and how they could impact the situation.

“There is a real risk that neighbouring states could get involved to help ensure an outcome that suits their interests. That is what Washington is trying to avoid now.”

Regardless of how successful current efforts prove to be, some in Sudan have criticised the impact of mediation efforts so far and how a repeated emphasis by international stakeholders on a swift move towards civilian-led rule – but in a process overseen by military actors – has led the country to its current position.

“All these statements by US, EU and Gulf officials condemning the violence in Sudan without any acknowledgement of how their mediation efforts have directly led us to this point,” tweeted Nisrin Elamin, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who is currently trapped in Khartoum with her toddler.

Source: Al Jazeera