Since declaring its independence in 1956, Sudan has been beset by conflict. The country lies in an unstable region on the edge of the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Five of its seven neighboring countries have experienced some degree of turmoil in the past few years. The current fighting, centered in the country’s capital and key cities, has already drawn the attention of world powers. Many foreign governments have evacuated their nationals in recent days, as the fighting has spread to all of Sudan’s 18 provinces. The emerging humanitarian crisis is also causing concern for Sudan’s neighbors and international relief organizations. The country could be headed for full-fledged war and even disintegration, which would have broader implications for the Middle East and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Sudan’s Potential and Pitfalls
Sudan accounts for 10 percent of the Arab world’s population and more than 35 percent of its arable land. It is rich in resources, including iron, copper, silver, mica, talc, manganese, chromium and platinum, as well as black sand, gold, marble and other minerals. However, the country also has many agricultural, livestock and mineral resources that have been left untapped. That’s because successive governments since independence have failed to exploit the country’s economic potential, exhausted by political crises, ethnic wars and military coups.
Following the ouster in 2019 of President Omar al-Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, the relevant parties in Sudan agreed to an internationally backed plan to transition the government to civilian rule. However, the deal is now being undermined by the fighting in Khartoum between the army, commanded by Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as Hemedti). The relationship between the two generals became strained because of Burhan’s insistence on integrating the RSF into the Sudanese army, which Hemedti considered an attempt to liquidate him politically. Both helped to overthrew the al-Bashir regime but then turned against civilian politicians who were calling for democratization. Now they’re turning against each other.
While Burhan has not spoken to the media since clashes began on April 15, Hemedti has taken to social media to call on the international community for support in his fight against what he called Islamist extremists. His appeal for help was driven by the fact that the military situation in the country did not go as Hemedti expected. His support for civilian rule, campaign against extremists and implicit request for help from Israel are nothing but a smokescreen from a militant leader who accumulated great wealth and power through illicit means. Indeed, the RSF committed massacres in Darfur and allied with counterrevolutionaries to defeat the 2011 uprising in Libya, where RSF fighters have played an active role in the protracted civil war.
In 2021 and 2022, mercenaries from Russia’s private military company the Wagner Group provided training for the RSF in areas of Libya controlled by Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army. For Wagner, the RSF provides a critical link between its logistics centers in Libya and its battlefields in Mali and the Central African Republic. However, supporting Hemedti’s forces could be costly for Wagner and Haftar. There are concerns within the LNA leadership that association with Hemedti could jeopardize Haftar’s relationship with Egypt, his primary source of military aid. He has thus decided to curtail his relationship with the RSF.
In recent years, Sudan has become a transit route for migrants heading to Europe via Libya, as smugglers take advantage of the instability in the region to promise refugees passage across the Mediterranean. It’s also a major source of migrants fleeing to Europe and neighboring countries. Sudan itself hosts 800,000 refugees from South Sudan. A mass return could further strain efforts to deliver essential aid to the more than two million displaced people in South Sudan who fled the north after the south gained independence in 2011.
The recent fighting has driven thousands of Sudanese refugees to Chad, Sudan’s impoverished western neighbor where more than 400,000 displaced Sudanese sought refuge during previous conflicts. The country is concerned that the crisis could spill over across their shared border into areas that had experienced years of ethnic fighting and now host thousands of refugees, many from Darfur. During the bloody conflict in Darfur, Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, which eventually evolved into the RSF, frequently carried out raids in Chad, attacking refugees and marauding villagers.
Egypt is also concerned about a potential influx of refugees. Economic conditions in Egypt are already deteriorating, meaning the country would find it difficult to cope with an inundation of migrants. Sudan’s implosion could also aggravate Egypt’s security challenges by facilitating the smuggling of weapons and radical Islamists into its Nile River Valley and Delta heartland.
The Sudanese crisis also raises concerns for Israel. Thousands of African migrants, primarily from Sudan, flee to Israel each year. Since 2017, successive Israeli governments have issued temporary residency permits to these refugees while trying to repatriate them to their countries of origin. This issue prompted Israel to accelerate talks on normalizing ties with Sudan. Since agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with Khartoum in 2020, the Israeli government has sought to reach a deal that could see some of the migrants returned home.
Sudan has long been an arena of confrontation for regional and global powers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long sought to intervene in Sudan and saw the ouster of former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir as a step toward rolling back the influence of Islamists in the country and bringing stability to the region. Saudi and UAE business leaders have invested in ambitious projects in Sudan, especially in agriculture, aviation and ports on the Red Sea coast.
However, some are wary about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s growing influence there. Egypt, in particular, is uneasy about Sudan’s increasing cooperation with the Gulf countries and Turkey in the agricultural sector. These types of collaborations can over time undermine Cairo’s traditional role in Sudan and erode its prospects for economic cooperation with Khartoum. Egypt also fears that Turkish and Gulf agricultural investments will lead to the expansion of dams on the Nile River in Sudan, which could deplete Egypt’s own share of the Nile’s waters. Sudan’s descent into full-fledged war would have repercussions for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on which Egypt has coordinated closely with Sudan. If Sudan were to disintegrate, Egypt would have to deal with warring mini-states, further weakening its position.
Bogged down with internal political and economic problems, Egypt is increasingly losing its ability to wield influence in the region, leaving a vacuum in Sudan that has largely been filled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The U.S. secretary of state’s communications with the Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers on the Sudan issue attests to Egypt’s declining regional role. Last year, Egypt sent warplanes and pilots to support the Sudanese army. The RSF captured them at Merowe airport and released them only after the UAE mediated an agreement with Hemedti. Egypt and other regional countries worry that Sudan could become another Somalia, leading to the rise of more armed militias. Given the U.S.’ withdrawal from the region in recent years, the security situation could get out of control if another conflict erupts, threatening the stability of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
Meanwhile, the South Sudanese government says the fighting has already hampered the export of 170,000 barrels of oil per day via Port Sudan. However, considering that Sudan receives $9 per barrel in transit fees, it’s not in the interest of either side in the conflict to block the pipeline that delivers South Sudanese oil to the port.
If the violence continues, the involvement of foreign actors will only complicate the prospects for peace. Chad fears that rebels operating on its territory could receive support from the Wagner Group in the neighboring Central African Republic, which has close ties with the RSF. The fighting will likely spill over into both countries and other parts of the troubled region. Israel is concerned about the rapprochement between Russia and Iran and their presence in the Red Sea. It has therefore sought to include Sudan in the Negev Forum, which grew out of the Arab-Israeli normalization process, to demonstrate its desire to access the Red Sea and address Russia and Iran’s growing naval presence there. Sudan’s deterioration could put this process in jeopardy.
Burhan cannot rule the country alone. He needs to enter into power-sharing agreements with other political parties but lacks the support to do so. None of the two belligerents in this conflict will be able to achieve a decisive political or military victory, in part because the country’s political landscape is so fractured. The two combatants are allied with different political factions vying for inclusion and a share of the spoils of a potential full-scale war.
Sudan is now in danger of joining the list of Arab countries that have fallen into protracted civil wars, possibly ending in a de facto partition. Its descent into tribal warfare would eliminate any possibility of a swift resolution to the conflict and rule out the potential for reunification, especially considering that the Sudanese army is comprised of the country’s diverse ethnic groups. More than a decade after the start of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, Sudan might be facing a similar fate.