After weeks of escalating tensions, open military clashes broke out on April 15 between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), where the latter is a powerful paramilitary group. Despite the fact that both groups were previously close allies who jointly seized control of Sudan in 2021, subsequent tensions over control and decision-making on national key issues have driven them apart. This includes, but is not limited to, opposing views on the integration of the RSF into the Sudanese military and transitional planning for eventual civilian rule in Sudan. The currently developing events in Sudan resemble a typical power struggle seen in fragile states, where more than one powerful armed group exists and each is vying for control. However, the political conflict and escalating military confrontation is actually much more complex than a simplistic power struggle.
Generally, Sudan has a long history of authoritarian rulership, with the military frequently intervening in the political ecosystem of the country. In this respect, the RSF was formed in 2013 by the Sudanese government under the leadership of the former Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, whom the RSF would eventually play a key role in overthrowing in 2019. Regardless of the military groups involved in overthrowing al-Bashir, the move was highly supported by regional players, particularly in the Middle East. However, back in 2013, the RSF was established under the willingness and “blessing” of the Sudanese government to crush the rebellions in the western region of Darfur and fight on behalf of the Sudanese government. The RSF originally evolved from the Janjaweed militias, mainly located in Darfur, and their role grew over time over the course of the Darfur crisis in the 2000s, when the group was accused of numerous human rights abuses and war crimes amid an estimated 300,000 deaths and 2.5 million displaced. The paramilitary group’s influence grew, and in 2013 it was designated under the name of RSF; later in 2015, the RSF was granted the status of a regular force. In addition, in 2017, a new law was passed making the RSF an independent security force, allowing it to expand its operations across the entire country.
The RSF’s leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, became a prominent national figure during this past decade and maintained strong ties with al-Bashir due in large part to the wide-ranging support Hemedti received from al-Bashir in Darfur. Yet the RSF, under the leadership of Hemedti, eventually cooperated with the SAF in the ousting al-Bashir in 2019, raising the possibility that the RSF’s true ambition was more political, involving some degree of control over Sudan.
From the early 2000s until now, the RSF grew in number to over 100,000 fighters, which is nearly the size of the SAF fighting force. However, unlike SAF which is modestly trained on conventional battles and traditional warfare, the RSF rank and file is extremely well versed in guerrilla tactics and have gained vast battle-hardened skills over the past two decades in Darfur, in addition to their practical involvement in Yemen fighting against the Houthis. This helps to explain how the RSF was able to swiftly occupy critical positions across Sudan and the country’s capital, Khartoum, over the past few days.
Funding of the RSF has been a controversial issue, especially foreign funding associated with political players. However, one clear fact concerning the RSF’s sources of income is that the group controls the gold mining industry in Sudan and sells this gold to Russia and Middle East buyers, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is the largest importer of Sudanese gold. Thus, the current political conflict is complicated by the distinct possibility of foreign support to various domestic proxies in the conflict.
Over centuries, Egypt has always considered Sudan crucial for its strategic security along its southern border. Many of Sudan’s military and government heads have received their education and training in Egypt, including Sudan’s current military commander and de facto ruler, general Abdul Fatah al-Burhan. Since 2019, the Egyptian administration has coordinated and strongly supported general al-Burhan in key strategic interests for both nations, including joint military exercises and wargames. Bilateral cooperation was further solidified amid growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia following the latter’s construction of al-Nahda dam, which poses a national security threat to Egypt stemming from possible negative agricultural and social impacts from upstream control over flow volume of the Nile River. This helps to explain the continuous presence of Egyptian air force members in bases in Sudan, including Egyptian MiG-29 fighter jets when the RSF captured the Merowe air base. In this respect, it is highly likely that Egypt will continue to support the SAF, headed by general al-Burhan. This is especially true because the RSF head, Hemedti, maintains strong ties with Ethiopia’s government and prime minister, which is clearly opposed to Egypt’s strategic interests.
The UAE, which has been a longstanding and historical ally to Egypt for decades, has also maintained strong ties with both the SAF and RSF. This is evident from the UAE’s massive gold procurement from Sudan, where most of the mines are controlled by Hemedti. Although it is not clear which side the UAE will formally support in the current conflict, whatever the next move is, it will surely require very close coordination and agreement between the UAE and Egyptian administration where the strategic interests of both nations require common ground. Any disagreements in this regard risk negatively affecting the ongoing political conflict and military confrontation between the SAF and RSF.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a key player also in the possibility of resolving the conflict in Sudan. Over the past few years, tens of thousands of Sudan’s soldiers were sent to Yemen to fight under the Saudi-led coalition. In this respect, KSA has maintained strong and close ties with both commanders of Sudan’s SAF and RSF. Earlier this week, the United States (US) Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, discussed with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, the situation in Sudan and urged the need for de-escalation of the developing conflict. KSA has played a key role in mediating the peace discussions between civilian groups and the military in Sudan during the past period as a part of its attempts for reconciling both sides for the sake of Sudan’s peace and political stability. Although it is not yet clear how the same approach might work for KSA in such heavily armed conflict in Sudan, coordination between KSA, Egypt, and the UAE is unavoidable, especially given that Egypt’s strategic security interests and the UAE’s strategic economic interests are both deeply rooted in Sudan’s political and military ecosystem.
Israel’s position in this regard is important to consider as well, along with the possible indirect support it can offer. In 2020, the Israel-Sudan normalization agreement took place where it was agreed that both countries will normalize relations, peace, diplomatic, and trade relations. Furthermore, the agreement was reached under the SAF commander and the country’s de facto leader, General al-Burhan. Considering the developing armed conflict between the RSF and SAF, the actual implementation of the normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan raises a question mark, especially with the current events ending the hopes of forming a civilian government in Sudan. Despite that, the RSF’s Hemedti indicated before that normalizing ties with Israel that it would be a gain for Sudan; however, history shows that armed groups that are not originally and officially born from the state military can easily change terms and agreements.
Russia can thus far be viewed as an observer with no formal support for any side in the ongoing conflict in Sudan. However, Russia has maintained arms supplies and close military relations with the Sudanese government for decades. Furthermore, Moscow recently agreed with the SAF and Sudan’s de facto leader, general al-Burhan, to establish a naval base in Sudan, allowing Russia to place troops and naval articles in Sudan to serve Russia’s regional interests across the Red Sea. In this respect, it is unclear how the implementation of this agreement, which is strategic for Russia, will be impacted, especially should it require “civilian” parliamentary approval in Sudan. The civilian parliament is yet to be formed, but given ongoing developments and the RSF’s apparent objective to control the Sudanese state apparatus, it is highly unlikely that a civilian parliament will come into being anytime soon. While the delay of formation of a parliament is certainly devastating for Sudan, this delay can serve the US and Western nations’ strategic interests by potentially delaying an official presence of a Russian naval force in the Sudan and the Red Sea.
Although Russia’s interests are evidently more oriented toward the SAF and general al-Burhan, the presence and involvement of Wagner group in Sudan suggests otherwise. The Wagner group is a private Russian paramilitary group with longstanding ties with the Russian administration. The presence of the Wagner group in Sudan over the past few years has been strongly associated with protecting gold mines in Sudan, which are controlled by the RSF. Furthermore, the group is said to be involved in the trade of the gold between the RSF and Russia. More alarming is that recent reports shows that Wagner group is arming the RSF against the SAF, the latter of which should “presumably” be supported by Russia. That said, the Russian position and involvement is a complex one given that Russia, via Wagner group, does have armed “boots on the ground” in Sudan. More interestingly, Russia’s involvement in Sudan can possibly have a different angle from the Russian side in terms of taking advantage of the situation and opposing the U.S. and Western agenda in Sudan. However, Russia’s involvement in Sudan, especially with the RSF, may not be in the best interests of Egypt. which provides longstanding direct and indirect support to Russia.
In conclusion, the political turmoil between the RSF and SAF in Sudan is much more complex than it appears. While it may appear to be a straightforward issue of power struggles, the underlying factors, as briefly indicated above, risk complicating the situation and rendering any peace initiatives useless. Given the RSF’s history and operations, existing conflicts, and the international community’s involvement, addressing and maintaining stability in Sudan will require very close policy coordination between Egypt, KSA, the UAE, Russia, the USA, and Israel.
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