The head of the UN mission to Sudan, Volker Perthes, announced to the Security Council on March 27, 2023 that he was ‘encouraged by how little substantive difference there remains among the main actors’. Civil war broke out in Sudan less than three weeks later. Since then over 600 people have died, most of whom are civilians, the United Nations has stated that over 700,000 have been displaced, there are reports of atrocities committed by both sides, and there are worries the conflict may cause a domino effect resulting in conflict across the troubled Chad and wider Sahel region. The conflict has been narrativized as one that escalated out of nowhere; however, it has been a while in the making.
The conflict at its heart is between two personalities: the leader of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the de facto President of Sudan; and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Hamdan Dagolo. While the SAF are the actual armed forces of Sudan, the RSF is a paramilitary force which is of roughly the same size and capacity. Both of these men also overthrew the former leader of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019 and then launched another coup in 2021 to oust the fragile transitional government that had been put in place after Bashir’s expulsion. They were placed jointly in charge and promised that civilian government would return and free elections would eventually be held. However, that has not happened as each wants to rule the country.
Multiple countries and organisations have been involved in negotiation between Sudan’s warring factions, namely the UN, the African Union, the USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The outbreak of war signals a failure of Western diplomacy, as in late March, diplomats from both the UK and the US presented Sudanese leaders with proposals which only seemed to aggravate tensions. Since then, the US, UN and Saudi Arabia are attempting to broker talks between the two sides; however, successive ceasefires have collapsed rapidly after being agreed to, and little progress has been made.
The civil war has regional and international implications, which Pakistan should monitor closely.
First, there are a number of international actors that have a lot to lose in Sudan because of their considerable leverage over each party, and high stakes in the outcome of this conflict. Egypt is backing Burhan and the SAF as President Sisi wants someone like him in power in Sudan. Egypt has always been very involved in Sudanese politics- Sudan was once part of its territory. This is especially since it seeks Sudan’s support against Ethiopia in its dispute over the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam project. As Pakistan faces India’s attempts to modify the Indus Waters Treaty, we should take note of the ways in which co-riparian states may choose allegiances on basis of water disputes.
Meanwhile, the Gulf countries also pursue their own interests. The UAE and Saudi Arabia used both the RSF and SAF as mercenary groups to fight against the Houthis in Yemen. They also fought against Haftar in Libya. The Gulf is heavily invested in the gold mines found in Darfur as most of it goes straight to the Emirates, and as Hemedti is largely in control of these gold mines, the UAE leans towards supporting the RSF while Saudi’s support is not currently clear. The Gulf’s funding of non-state groups has backfired many a time in the past, not least in Pakistan (for instance, through the jihad experiment in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union). We should be attentive towards the rise of an Arab-bankrolled mercenary military regime, not least because it may increase tensions between the Gulf and Egypt. Saudi Arabia is simultaneously attempting to be a peacemaker in this conflict, holding talks between both sides in Jeddah on May 6. It may be worried that the civil war could hurt Saudi’s ambitions for NEOM, its futuristic smart city project and tourist sites on its Red Sea coast.
As always in Africa and wherever there is conflict, there is also the US and Russia. There are arguments that a ‘new Cold War’ will play out in Sudan as the Americans seek to defuse Russian influence in the continent while Russia desperately seeks wealth and power elsewhere due to sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine. The US has already leveraged its own interests at tumultuous times in Sudan over the last few years. For instance, Sudan normalised relations with Israel in exchange for being removed from the US’ state sponsors of terror list in October 2020. Moreover, Sudan also liberalised its economy and invited conventional austerity economic measures of both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank into its economy. Both of these policies were immensely unpopular with the Sudanese people. As Pakistan itself currently experiences an IMF chokehold, and talk of normalising relations with Israel sits just under the surface of public reporting, it should note the ways in which an unpopular political economy often finds its way into countries experiencing, or recovering from, large-scale shocks like those being witnessed in Pakistan today.
Russia meanwhile is supporting the RSF through its mercenary Wagner group which is supplying it with missiles. There are reports that Hemedti has granted Russia access to Darfur’s gold riches in exchange for military and political support. Russia is looking for wealth elsewhere following post-Ukraine sanctions imposed on it and countries of the North American/European bloc anticipate Russia attempting to establish a naval base on the Red Sea. This is very important to Pakistan as Russia requires a warm water port. If Sudan is embroiled in conflict in the long term this only increases further the importance of Gwadar. This port city may be crucial for Pakistan’s geostrategic interests in the future, but should Pakistan join another war?
Another important area of concern is the rise of non-state groups, which have ambitions to take over the state. The RSF has employed a French Public Relations firm called Think Doctor in order to run its social media accounts which leverage human rights language against the SAF. This is largely the strategic planning of Hemedti, a former camel trader turned warlord who rose to power as a chief of the janjaweed, as an outsider which is not part of the Khartoumi elite, Alex de Waal states that his ‘ascendancy is also, indirectly, the revenge of the historically marginalised’. The power of a good story can never be undermined. For Pakistan too, are there parallels here in the resurgence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan? The TTP has also started to try to win hearts and minds by targeting security forces only, claiming to support the Pakistani people in acquiring their basic needs. But a non-state group with statist ambitions and powerful backers is a dangerous challenge to state writ that requires serious intelligence, diplomatic, political and socio-economic analyses to address effectively.
Pakistan is currently facing challenges on all fronts – political, economic, and environmental – and the combination of all three may result in a lost generation which are poorer and have fewer hopes for a future than the generations before. While Pakistan may not see a Sudanese level civil war, might it see the effects of that conflict trickling in? The parallels are stark – IMF austerity measures leading to subsidy cuts, the effects of climate change, and the involvement of international actors using the state as a proxy battlefield. The rise of what has often been called ‘angry young men’ in this region is one that the state should be careful of, as they increase the likelihood of violent conflict in the future and are prone to radicalisation by non-state actors. The lack of political cohesion precludes the ability for us to respond to these challenges in a way which is united and this is what is (at the very least) direly needed. In its absence, we may be drifting further away from a point at which conflict can be prevented.
Back in Sudan, the UN’s Head of Mission in Sudan, Perthes, has maintained that he did not have any early warning of the conflict and The Guardian described him as honest, if unapologetic. It is not clear how long this conflict will continue or who the winner may be; however, it is clear that civilian rule is unlikely and that Western diplomats’ attempts to push for free elections have been a marked disaster. Pakistan should watch and learn from this conflict, not just carefully, but especially, quickly.
Ayesha Malik, Senior Research Fellow, Research Society of International Law