What’s Behind the Fighting in Sudan?
The ongoing confrontation between the military and Rapid Support Forces undermines stability in Sudan and the Horn of Africa.
Since Saturday, violent clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been raging in the capital Khartoum and in other strategic areas throughout the country. While it’s unclear who initiated the fighting, the situation brings the de-facto leader of Sudan, the SAF’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, into direct confrontation with his deputy, the RSF’s General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is also referred to as “Hemetti.”
The two leaders had previously worked together, toppling the al-Bashir regime in 2019 and orchestrating a military coup in October 2021 that removed the civilian prime minister and cabinet and suspended the constitution. But after the SAF, RSF and civilian political leaders agreed to a new framework for a democratic transition in December, questions emerged over how the RSF would be integrated into the SAF, as well as over who would assume leadership of the newly consolidated military.
Negotiations to resolve the issues stalled, and tensions quickly rose between al-Burhan and Hemetti in the weeks leading up to the current violence. While immediate details have been difficult to discern, it’s clear the two sides are battling for control of the country’s major institutions, as reports indicate much of the fighting has centered around locations such as the presidential palace, SAF’s military headquarters and Khartoum’s airport.
Many countries in the region, as well as major powers like the United States, have called for an end to hostilities, and efforts to secure a cease-fire are ongoing. There is still a chance to prevent the situation from escalating further. But even with successful mediation, this outbreak of violence threatens to weaken Sudan’s already shaky stability — and could undermine peace in the broader Horn of Africa region as well.
Both Sides Were Prepared for Confrontation
Both al-Burhan and Hemetti are trading accusations about who started the clashes in Khartoum. But in the weeks before, the RSF had deployed large numbers of armed men into Khartoum, and the SAF had deployed tanks and heavy weapons. And just days before the clashes in the capital, the RSF had deployed to Marowe, a town in the northern part of the country, and fighting had taken place there.
In short, both al-Burhan and Hemetti were anticipating and gearing up for a confrontation. Both appear to have lost confidence in the political process, shifting instead to the logic of war and violence.
At its foundation, the fighting is a struggle over power in the security sector and the exercise of power in the state. The timing and sequencing of the integration of the RSF forces in the SAF has been one of the main sticking points, as Hemetti argued that reforms for a more inclusive, professional military are needed before his forces integrate. It appears that he also argued to maintain his own paramilitary as a guarantee through the elections. Conversely, elements in the SAF expressed fears that the proposed reforms could hollow out the military and leave it open for the RSF to dominate. The other sticking point is the command structure and the relationship between al-Burhan and Hemetti in that structure.
An Unprecedented Form of Fighting
The fighting is different than what Sudan has experienced in the past. During previous civil wars in Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan (Nuba Mountains), the Sudanese government or paramilitary groups have fought against armed resistance movements. Today, the SAF is fighting a paramilitary force that was created by the Bashir regime. The RSF is not a “rebel” group — it’s recognized by law and was developed, tolerated and sustained as an instrument of state power, making the situation much more complicated.
This does not change the risk of civilian casualties or alter the chances that a war spreads across the country. Media reports already confirm that the violence has spread to other areas of Sudan, including Kassala, Gedaref and Port Sudan in the East and Darfur in the West.
Swift International and Regional Reactions
There has been a resounding and quick mobilization by countries in the region and globally calling to halt the violence.
A joint statement from the “Quad for Sudan” (the United States, the U.K., the UAE and Saudi Arabia) echoed the calls for calm made by each country individually. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres released a statement and issued calls to al-Burhan and Hemetti. International concern about this escalating situation even managed to override global competition between the United States and China and tensions over the war in Ukraine, with the U.N. Security Council calling to immediately cease hostilities, restore calm and return to negotiations.
The African Union Peace and Security Council also held an emergency session on Sunday and called for an end to the fighting. At the council’s instruction, Moussa Faki, chairman of the African Union Commission, was also poised to travel to Khartoum as soon as the security situation allowed.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight African countries that includes Sudan, held an extraordinary meeting on Sunday with the heads of state of member countries. IGAD heads of state all articulated their concern about the implications for regional peace and security and planned for three heads of state to travel as soon as flights could land. For the leadership of the IGAD secretariat to convene this meeting is noteworthy, given that Sudan currently serves as the chair.
Eminent leaders, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki, added their voices calling for a swift end to the violence. Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok made a similar appeal and warned of the risk of a regional war.
Risks of Regional Spread and Intervention
USIP’s Red Sea Senior Study Group has previously warned that war in one country in the region has the risk of spilling over and spreading instability through the flow of refugees across borders and widening humanitarian crises (recall that Sudan currently hosts refugees from the Tigray war in neighboring Ethiopia). Chad and Egypt have already closed their borders with Sudan, indicating that regional leaders believe these clashes could escalate further.
In the days ahead, it will be important to pay attention to any fluid alignments and re-ordering of alliances in the region — with the postures of Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan being particularly noteworthy. If fighting continues without a viable avenue for peace or even in the case of a humanitarian pause, the SAF and RSF will need supply lines, and regional governments, as well as those in the Gulf, with vested interests in Sudan may be tempted to throw their weight behind one or the other.
The Role of the United States Going Forward
Both before and after the December agreement, the United States had been closely involved in the ongoing political negotiations facilitated by the U.N., African Union and IGAD.
Amid these ongoing clashes, the United States must call for swift and urgent engagement at the highest levels both directly with the warring parties and with neighboring countries who have influence, interests and sway. Investment today will not only save lives — it will be less costly than waiting.
In the immediate term, the priorities of any diplomatic engagement on Sudan needs to be:
1. Protection of civilians and prevention of atrocities.
Fighting is taking place in urban centers and downtown Khartoum. Several days into fighting, people are in dire need of access to water, food and basic goods. Civilians have not been evacuated, and many are stuck hiding from the violence. In such urban fighting, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate rapidly.
Despite claims by both the SAF and RSF that they will be “precise” in their targeting, residential buildings are being used as staging points for the fight between the RSF ground forces and the SAF air force, and media has reported SAF air strikes both within Khartoum and the surrounding region. Hospitals and medical clinics have been hit, if not outright targeted, and reports of civilian casualties keep flowing in. Particularly concerning are reports of looting of residences, including embassies, harassment, and assaults by security forces, as well as indications of the risks of mass atrocities.
Messaging from the United States and other partners needs to articulate in the strongest terms that the leaders are responsible for the actions of their forces and will be held to account for violations of international humanitarian law. Immediate steps are needed to open humanitarian corridors and ensure the safety and security of those agencies or local initiatives seeking to provide life-sustaining assistance.
2. Pause in the fight.
Multiple efforts toward a U.N.-brokered humanitarian cease-fire only yielded partial success. It’s unclear whether this was because the agreement came too late, the orders were not given from the top or those below did not obey. Effective truces rely on intensive diplomatic engagement, clear technical steps and robust means to de-escalate if fighting flares. With the close of Ramadan and Eid in the coming days, renewed efforts are needed to respond to the building humanitarian crisis. Activation of Sudanese leadership, close consultation and active engagement of regional powers (in the Horn and the Gulf) and broad international coordination will be critical.
3. Sober plans for options once the fighting stops.
Saturday marked a further rupture in the political situation and left no doubt about how power is being exercised. A frank reappraisal of the architecture for the mediation will be needed for any future political talks, and the approach must soberly reflect the balance of power. At the same time, commitments to Sudanese aspirations for a civilian-led, democratic government must be affirmed.