A little over a week since military conflict broke out in Sudan on April 15 between the two main military factions, the situation is fluid and confused. As thousands of Sudanese civilians flee for their lives and Internet connectivity severely declined as of late on April 22, the situation seems even more murky.
Anyone predicting what will happen or even what is happening, with total clarity, pursues a fool's errand – the lack of clarity made worse by extensive, aggressive information operations and disinformation by both sides. But whoever winds up on top and however long the violence endures there are some broad trends that can be identified.
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF)
As of the ninth day of fighting, the regular Sudanese Army (SAF) clearly has the upper hand in the conflict between itself and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (nicknamed "Hemedti"). The SAF has recovered territory initially lost to RSF, such as the northern airbase at Merowe, and more or less holds the country's north and east, and dominates the Nile River Valley where most of the country's population still resides.
SAF commander and interim head of state General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan is very much alive, and has spoken to the Arabic-language media (and to foreign diplomats) repeatedly. An RSF attempt early on to take SAF General Headquarters failed, so the Army's leadership seems to be intact and working.
While it is clear that SAF, as of this writing, has the upper hand, it is not exactly clear what its internal posture actually is, or who is in real control of the country's regular armed forces. While they are all opposed to Dagalo and RSF, army leaders are not exactly speaking with one voice. Al-Burhan seems to have taken the high road – talking of a return to the status quo as of December 2019 or trying to differentiate between RSF and Hemedti himself. He has called for negotiations to stop the fighting, while making clear that the RSF must be incorporated into the SAF- but other voices are calling for a harder line.
One of the interesting early developments as fighting broke out was the release from captivity of Major General Abdel Baqi Al-Bakrawi, former SAF Deputy Commander of the Armored Corps, who had launched a failed coup in September 2021 aimed as much against Hemedti as against the civilian interim government (that government that was overthrown in October 2021 by Al-Burhan).
After his release from prison, Bakrawi made a point of giving his first interview to the hardcore Sudanese Islamist satellite channel Tayyiba, which for years has been supporter of a very hardline against Hemedti. Breathing fire, he explained that this was a "battle of national dignity" against those who plotted against the SAF, the Sudanese state, and the Sudanese people, and that the only voice that should be heard is the voice of the battlefield.
In the statements of some military figures, of civilian supporters of SAF, and of Islamists, the preference was for the fighting to continue until the RSF was utterly destroyed. Partisans of the former Al-Bashir dictatorship are openly pro-SAF. The question then for SAF is not only whether it will prevail – that seems possible – but who exactly within it is prevailing and to what end. It is possible that neither Al-Burhan nor Hemedti are fully in charge of all their forces.
Still another video, released April 21, showed General Yasser Al-Atta, a member of the ruling military council (where Hemedti is still, bizarrely, vice chairman), cheering on a long column of SAF troops mounted on technicals heading into battle. Al-Atta's name has been whispered in the past as a successor to Al-Burhan. He was one of the members of the security committee that agreed to disperse the sit-in of the General Command in Khartoum in June 2019, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians (Hemedti's RSF was also involved in this slaughter). Al-Atta had also been criticized for the negative role he played as head of the Empowerment Removal Committee, tasked with seizing the assets of the previous regime. He was seen more as blocking the work of the Committee rather than facilitating it.
A SAF statement issued April 24 made it clear that RSF's days were numbered, calling it "a former institution" that "rebelled" against the state (thereby identifying SAF as the state, of course) and calling on RSF members to surrender and be incorporated into the ranks of te SAF. Evidently, the 2021 military coup did not constitute "rebellion" against the state in Sudan.
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The situation is fluid but, so far, not only has the military establishment appeared to have the upper hand, but hardline and Islamist members are raising their profiles with seemingly greater impunity. The confrontation with their bitter rival has in a sense blessed or normalized all who chose to stand with the SAF against Hemedti. Some pro-army discourse also includes ultra-nationalist or xenophobic discourse eerily similar to what one might hear in Cairo.
Rapid Support Forces (RSF)
The good news for the RSF and Hemedti is that they still exist, are still fighting, and are present in many locations across the country. Their mobility and ability to hit and run is an advantage as much as airpower has been a major advantage for SAF. They probably maintain a stronger presence than SAF in Darfur but even there, every state capital is either contested or still in SAF's hands.
The rest of the news for the RSF is bad. They failed, in the early hours of the fighting, in the priority task of cutting off the head of the SAF "snake" – the SAF leadership. They struck important locations but failed to take many of them, or to keep the ones they did take. At the same time, numerous civilian observers have been witnesses or victims of looting, robbery, and murder at the hands of poorly disciplined RSF troops. If Hemedti and the RSF had a poor reputation before, it is much worse now among the people of Khartoum. Meanwhile, the RSF defiantly claims that it will only submit to an accounting by a (yet-to-be-formed) civilian government, rather than the SAF.
It is as if both sides have reverted to type: the SAF is bombing indiscriminately in Khartoum, hitting civilians as SAF tries to strike elusive RSF units in a city of 10 million people – in an echo of bloody decades of SAF bombing of civilians in rebel held areas of Darfur or Nuba Mountains or what is now South Sudan. Meanwhile, the RSF are acting like bandits and highwaymen in Khartoum, as they so often did in Darfur, treating the population of the capital in ways similar to how they dealt with their tribal enemies in Darfur during the days before the RSF was formed.
The RSF may be able to hold on and survive, but it is hard to see how they can win outright. Even in Darfur, Hemedti had numerous rivals among his own Darfuri Arab community and non-Arabs, who will be licking their chops at the possibility of becoming the region's new big men backed by Khartoum. And if there is one thing that Khartoum elites know how to do, it is to turn one ethnic or tribal group against another in the country's vast hinterlands. Hemedti's improbable and ambitious political project seems balanced on the edge of a knife and on the verge of falling.
The RSF certainly will never have the influence and presence in the Nile Valley that they boasted of before this conflict. The best they can hope for is a bloody draw, a low intensity conflict that leads to some sort of stalemate and a new deal. This would be a disaster for a Sudanese people already suffering from a deep economic and social crisis even before the first shot of this fight was heard. A third of the country's population already needed emergency food aid before the fighting began.
As a result of the fighting, Sudan's civilians are experiencing suffering in ways and places never seen before. Sudan has experienced decades of war and displacement for decades. But Khartoum was for years, paradoxically, the place to which where people suffering bombing and bloody conflict would flee from war-torn regions. Now thousands are fleeing the capital to the countryside, unsure of when they can return and what will remain when they get there. Khartoum saw some minor war damage as a result of rebel raids in 1976 and 2008, but never this type of destruction.
Despite the terrible suffering inflicted on the civilian population in the past days, the war has revealed the very best qualities of Sudan's civilian population, as activists and ordinary citizens used social media to share scarce resources, share information, and try to rescue desperate people trapped in the fighting. Particularly noteworthy was the work of the Resistance Committees. The same activists that marched and faced the bullets in demonstrating against the military dictatorship worked to save lives during the conflict. In sharp relief, Sudan's political parties have been mostly passive as they seek to calculate how to ingratiate themselves with the winning side, but it is the Resistance Committees – often patronized and belittled by foreign diplomats – who turned out to be the real heroes. Most Sudanese want the fighting to stop.
The International Community
After Sudan's innocent and long-suffering civilians, both the RSF and the international community working on Sudan are probably the biggest losers in this conflict to date. While the SAF and RSF have their regional patrons who will pursue their interests in propping up their patrons as much as possible, Western countries and their diplomacy, along with the work of UN diplomats, have been exposed as futile and short-sighted. There have been allegations made of direct or indirect support, since the fighting began, for one of the factions by Egypt, Khalifa Haftar's Libya, Russia, the UAE, and Eritrea, often by interested parties, but not fully confirmed.
It also seems clear to anyone who is honest that the October 25, 2021 military coup against the civilian government led by Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok was a disaster, a clear precursor and key contributor to this current conflict. Carried out by Al-Burhan's SAF with the tacit approval of Hemedti, the coup strengthened both rival military factions and sharpened their competition while dealing a deadly blow to a civilian counterweight to the generals that could have prevented the fighting.
No one, including the United States, lifted a finger to actually punish the generals who carried out the 2021 military coup. Somehow, it was felt to be acceptable by those in authority to have, for well over a year, two armies and no government in Sudan. Washington either didn't care or, more likely, burdened by multiple crises elsewhere, placed its hopes in UN mediation and on the arrival of a new U.S. ambassador in Khartoum – the first in decades – in August 2022. He lasted eight months before the U.S. Embassy was evacuated.
If diplomacy on Sudan was difficult and clumsy before, with diplomats on the ground trying to manage a democratic transition, it will be even harder with them outside the country and hobbled with the added burden of immediate problems such as trying to stop the fighting and provide humanitarian assistance. The so-called Trilateral Mechanism (African Union-United Nations-Intergovernmental Authority on Development) held a "virtual meeting" on Sudan on April 19 to try to plot a path forward.
But the international community has also been discredited with a key audience, the Sudanese people, who see months and years of expensive, futile foreign diplomatic coddling of the men with guns leading to disaster. What Sudanese feared could happen has finally arrived, and the international community needs to reevaluate many of their cherished premises and take a hard look in the mirror at their own actions.
A bullet or a bomb falling on the right person could change the equation in the coming hours or days. But the dueling specters of either anarchic, atavistic fighting or of military dictatorship loom larger than they have in years in Sudan, while the dream held by so many Sudanese of a transition to something much different and better seems to have become more distant. It is not clear whether the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people will be safer in the near future, with one predatory military institution instead of two.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.