The conflict between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) has unleashed widespread violence and instability throughout the country for almost a month now. At the beginning of the conflict, there was a belief that one side would be able to take control of the country decisively, yet the conflict now shows no signs of ending anytime soon. While there are ongoing de-escalation efforts and peace initiatives from global and regional influencers including the United States (US), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, it is highly unlikely that there will be any peace between the two groups in the foreseeable future, due to several underlying factors that continue to fuel the conflict.
Firstly, the RSF is a paramilitary force, or a militia of sorts, that was created in 2013 to support the Sudanese government in combating rebels in the region of Darfur. In other words, the RSF was originally not a part of a nationally organized army authority and most of the RSF fighters are from the tribes of Janjaweed in western Sudan. The word Janjaweed itself means “devils on horseback.” The group is currently made up of heavily armed troops with mostly light weapons, making them move easily and more flexibly across Sudan. In contrast, the SAF is Sudan’s official military and has a larger and more sophisticated heavy arsenal that is made up of both ground and air forces, making it more versatile in the battlefield yet slow to counter the RSF’s swift movements and guerrilla warfare tactics.
Thus, the contrasting fighting tactics between the RSF and SAF is challenging for both sides, and this stands as one of the main reasons why the fighting is likely to continue for a longer period than originally imagined. One facet of this battlefield dynamic is evident in SAF air force attempts to counter the rapid moves of the RSF on the ground while the RSF attempt to occupy civilian districts to pressure the SAF not to attack. Overall, the RSF has demonstrated its military capabilities in previous conflicts in Darfur, and the group’s ruthlessness has been key to its successes. However, despite its military might, the RSF is mainly composed of militias, which makes its operations less organized and coordinated than those of a regular national army, therefore giving an extra edge to the SAF, which roughly has the same number of fighting manpower as the RSF.
Secondly, it was reported that the SAF commander and acting leader of Sudan, general al-Burhan, held a secret meeting with the RSF leader, Hemedti, in a farm located in the outskirts of Khartoum on April 8, just days before the military confrontation kicked off between both sides. In that meeting, the RSF’s Hemedti demanded from al-Burhan that Egypt’s military jets to be removed from Merowe air base while al-Burhan demanded to stop the inflow of RSF troops to Khartoum as well as the withdrawal of RSF forces from the city of al-Fasher, an RSF stronghold. The demands presented by both sides suggest that the Hemedti was planning for the conflict weeks in advance. Reports have also showed that Hemedti was not comfortable reporting to al-Burhan, or in other words, he did not regard him as the acting leader of Sudan, thus further explaining why any internationally proposed resolution between both sides will not be easy to reach. Furthermore, the fact that Hemedti requested from al-Burhan the removal of Egypt’s military jets shows how he views Egypt as an enemy to his ambitions in controlling Sudan.
Thirdly, this negative attitude toward Egypt on the part of Hemedti, which was also evident in a TV statement where he accused Egypt’s air force of bombing the RSF, will do nothing to alleviate Egyptian concerns over the geopolitical fallout from an RSF-controlled Sudan. By any means, Egypt will not accept a “militia” with a long history of abuses gaining full control over Sudan, a country that Egypt has always considered crucial for its strategic depth. This is especially true in the context of the RSF already displaying hostility toward Egypt’s influence in Sudan as well as capturing Egyptian soldiers when the conflict broke out (they were released immediately afterwards). Furthermore, a history of regional conflicts in the Middle East shows that Egypt has always taken the side of nationally organized armies and not militias that emerge from the turmoil. Accordingly, it is highly unlikely that Egypt will accept nor “bless” the RSF as a controlling power at its southern border.
In addition to supporting the SAF, additional moves by the Egyptian government hinge on two considerations. The first is the interests of diverse players in the region including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia, the US, and Israel. The second is fears of a potential a spillover effect. In this respect, the last thing that the Middle East needs is a new military escalation involving the Arab world’s most powerful army.
Fourthly, there can be two main routes to end the conflict, but each carries a set of unique disadvantages. The first one is the attempt to reach a peace agreement between the RSF and the SAF, as proposed by Saudi Arabia, with the support of Egypt and the US. However, it can be argued that any peace agreement will not be easily reached since both sides of the conflict harbor deep and mutual mistrust regarding future control of the country. Therefore, any resolution depicting the division of control between both sides will serve to create more instability in Sudan since the basic ground for any peace in Sudan was originally the main source of the conflicting views on strategic issues between the RSF and the SAF, and this included the process of handing control over to a civilian authority as well as the integration of the RSF into the SAF. Furthermore, developments on the battlefield suggest that both sides by now have the belief that each can eliminate the other by force of arms and thus gain full control, making any peace agreement, if it happened to be concluded, a short-lived delaying tactic more than anything. One critical aspect in such delay is that it would allow foreign influencers to take sides, get more actively involved, and provide support to either side, potentially making the conflict much worse.
The second route to end the conflict is for one of the sides to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield. On one hand, should the SAF be able to win and gain full control, this would surely be of advantageous for the long-term stability of Sudan, Egypt’s strategic security interests, and the US agenda for promoting democracy and civilian ruling given that the SAF’s original plan was handing control to civilians along with normalizing relations with Israel. On the other hand, should the RSF win, this will undoubtedly create more regional turbulence and tensions with Cairo.
Although indications suggest that the SAF is an overall more reliable partner for the international community regarding restoring stability in Sudan, external and political factors may affect the level of support the SAF may receive. For example, the SAF had a preliminary agreement with Russia to allow the latter to set up a naval base in Sudan by the Red Sea – a development that Washington surely isn’t happy about. A possible combative US-Russia dynamic is also reflected in the increased presence of Russia’s Wagner group in Sudan and the arrival of several US navy combat-support vessels to help with evacuations.
The current turmoil in Sudan is also drawing in certain undesirable elements, namely terrorist fighters and smugglers. Extremists and terrorists’ groups can easily take advantage of the current instability, allowing them to form training camps and turning the deserts of Sudan into a hub for regional operations. Recall that Sudan has a history of activity involving al-Qaeda and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In this respect, it is not in the best interest of any member of the international community to allow for a prolonged fight between the SAF and RSF, which will destabilize the country and therefore allow terrorist organizations to exploit the situation. Additionally, dwindling security in Sudan means an increase in illegal border smuggling of armaments, which pose a serious threat to all of Sudan’s neighboring countries, especially Egypt, which has already had to respond to a similar situation over the past decade along its western border with Libya.
In conclusion, predicting who will win the ongoing conflict in Sudan between the RSF and the SAF is challenging and complicated. While the RSF has demonstrated military might in its ruthlessness and fast-moving tactics, the SAF has an arsenal that is more versatile and advanced; the resulting dynamic is that of a longer, drawn-out fight. However, the conflict is multifaceted and cannot be won solely by military victory. Instead, a diplomatic solution that addresses the underlying issues in Sudan is also a key to a lasting peace. Despite the latter, reaching a peace agreement between both sides is not an easy task for the international community as discussed, especially given the presence of external actors that have their own strategic interests in the region, and might have little incentive to help resolve the conflict between the two groups. Accordingly, the ongoing conflict in Sudan is highly unlikely to be resolved anytime soon and given the current state-of-affairs, it is difficult to remain optimistic about the prospects for peace in Sudan.