War in Sudan: a cluster bomb

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30 avril, 2023
Leslie Varenne

One month after the announcement of the Iranian-Saudi peace agreement signed in Beijing, the first signs of appeasement in the Near and Middle East are visible in Lebanon and Syria, with a sustained diplomatic ballet between Arab capitals. After nine years of conflict, Yemen is preparing for peace, with an exchange of prisoners and the reopening of embassies between Riyadh and Sana'a scheduled for May 9. It is always a relief to know that a war that has caused so much death and suffering for so many years is coming to an end, even if the road to peace is full of obstacles. But  after this good news quickly came, on April 15, a new battlefield. Misfortune has been dispersed elsewhere, in Sudan, which was once an Arab-African giant before its southern part was amputated in 2011. Nevertheless, it remains a large, strategic country, a land of transit to the seven states that surround it and at a short distance from Saudi Arabia. If conflict settles in Khartoum, a terrible ripple-effect is to be expected in the region and far beyond...

Restoring peace and democracy....

Since the revolution of 2019 that led to President Omar al-Bashir’s departure, Sudan has experienced a short period of military transition, then another military andcivilian transition. In October 2021, the two generals in power staged a coup to oust the civilians. Yesterday's allies, General Burhan, president of the Transitional Council, head of the regular army, and Mohamed Dagolo, known as Hemedti, vice-president, head of a powerful paramilitary force (FRS), declared war on April 15.

Throughout these last four years, Khartoum had been the scene of countless agreements, arrangements, and negotiations that were intended to put an end to the instability and allow the establishment of democracy. On December 5, 2022, the military and political parties ratified a framework agreement, sponsored by an international mediation (the United Nations, the African Union, the regional organization (IGAD), under the auspices of the United States). This compromise was supposed to launch a new "political process to restore the transition" and establish democracy. However, as the journalist Mat Nashed points out, "this framework agreement had a number of problems from the start. It was not inclusive, had little popular support and was overly ambitious - it promised to tackle key issues such as transitional justice and security sector reform in a matter of weeks or even days." Furthermore, this agreement and all the prior negotiations ended up endorsing the two generals as legitimate political actors and feeding their personal ambitions.

In addition to this disastrous political aspect, there was an economic aspect. In a well-documented article entitled: "Sudan's manufactured economic crisis or how the West destroyed Sudanese democracy", the analyst Mahmoud Salem sifts through all the decisions that have strangled the country and accentuated the political crisis by adding economic and social crises to it. He explains how a country, already reeling after decades of Western sanctions, was forced to devalue its currency and pay off its debt. And once these commitments were painfully fulfilled, the institutional actors did not keep their promises and release funds. In four years, the Sudanese pound has fell by 950%. By 2022, inflation had reached 150% and nine million people out of 45 million were food insecure. The population was being punished, but the United States refused to punish the two generals. Yet there were solid grounds to do so; as both political figures have put the country under their strict control. Burhan and his military have taken over whole sections of the economy, while Hemedti has taken over the gold mines in Darfur, his stronghold. Sudan is a textbook case of all the old recipes for imposing regime change in the name of democracy.

"It was written on the wall, it is now written in blood," says Mat Nashed.

Only the United Nations representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes, did not see this coming. On March 15, one month to the day before the fighting began, he declared before the Security Council: "The return to peace is near”.

The protagonists and their allies

The profile of the generals shouldhave, at the very least,  called for caution and circumspection. They are responsible for the repression of the opposition’s protest in Khartoum on July 3, 2019, 127 people died, hundreds were injured or remain missing. They also both participatedin the Yemen war. Burhan organized and took command of the Hemedti mercenaries who were fighting on behalf of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is also accused by the opposition of being in contact with Omar al-Bashir's still active Islamist network , who, according to several sources, would be fueling the current conflict. Nevertheless, in this country, nothing is so simple, and the former president's clan may well have a foot in both camps. In his book, "Le Soudan dans tous ses Etats", a historical sum and an ode to this country and its people, Michel Rambaud describes very well this "tangle of complex relations, between communities, religions, interferences from neighbors and great powers. Moreover, Burhan would have the support of Egypt, whose opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood is notorious.

Hemedti's record is even darker. Originally from Darfur, he joined the Janjaweed militia, of sinister memory, before becoming its leader and serving as a praetorian guard for the regime of Omar al-Bashir. Alex de Wall, a professor at the Fletcher School, sums up his career: "Hemedti's career is a lesson in political entrepreneurship from a specialist in violence." His mercenaries participate in conflicts in the whole region, in Chad, in Libya alongside Marshal Haftar, in the Central African Republic.

As allies, he can count on the Emiratis, who support him even if they do not admit it publicly, as well as on the help of Marshal Haftar, who would be sending him supplies in weapons and ammunition. The private military company Wagner is also working on behalf of Hemedti. It seems to be acting here for strictly commercial purposes. It would be simplistic to summarize Russia's position by the mere presence of "musicians" in one of the sides.

Finally, and most surprisingly, the RSF have benefited from European funds and from the help of Italy. While the EU seems to have stopped its funding in 2019, Rome continued its partnership to fight against immigration, and  provided training and logistical support. The Italian newspaper Africa Express published a video of Hemedti from August 2022 in which he said, "We are supported above all by the Italians. (...) They could continue for two years with us.”

For the time being, Rome, like all the other European and regional actors, members of the Security Council, has officially maintained a neutral position. Many are hiding their game, others are waiting to see which way the wind will blow.

Balance of power

After 15 days of war, it is difficult to know who has the upper hand. The regular army seems to be in a stronger position in the main cities, yet news from the country is scarce, as the internet has been cut off. The two sides are equally strong in numbers of fighters. Burhan leads around 100,000 men and controls the equipment and military bases. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are estimated to  70,000 to 150,000 fighters but lack logistical resources. Everything will depend on whether the armed groups that have been operating in the country for many years will rally to one side or another. For now, according to a Chadian diplomat, the Juba agreement negotiated in 2020 by the late Idriss Deby seems to be holding: "the groups are maintaining the line of peace and have not rallied to one side or the other, but until when?” Everything will also depend on external actors who could be tempted to fuel the conflict by backing one camp, theother or both.

The big losers...

The first loser in this conflict is obviously the Sudanese people. The second will be, Egypt.4 million Egyptians live in Sudan, 10 million Sudanese live in Egypt, which has historical ties and close relations at all levels with Khartoum. This conflict comes at the worst time for Cairo, which is going through a violent economic crisis.

The second state in the eye of the storm will be Chad, which remains very cautious at the moment, so intertwined are community, family and cultural relations in Sudanese society. Next in line is the Central African Republic, where there are currently clashes at the Chadian border. Then come Libya, the Sahelian countries, which will suffer on three levels from this conflict, with all the trafficking that a war generates, arms, smuggling ; the lack of interest in their country because of this new conflict ; and less humanitarian aid because of increasingly reduced means. To the East, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and of course South Sudan.

It is also a hard blow for the Middle East which was beginning to see tensions ease following the Iranian-Saudi agreement signed in Beijing.

It is bad news for China, which invests in Sudanese oil and which, as part of the Silk Road project, has opened its first direct maritime line between Qingdao and Port Sudan in June 2022.

Lastly, Russia obtained both Burhan’s and Hemedti's agreement last February to open a logistical base for its navy, in exchange for military equipment for the Sudanese armed forces. Strategically located in the Red Sea, in Port Sudan, a short distance from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, a state that is preparing to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

Leslie Varenne


IVERIS will soon devote several notes to deciphering the consequences of the war in Sudan for each country.


Leslie Varenne