What started as clashes in Khartoum this April between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has devolved into a civil war. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the SAF, and his former deputy, the RSF’s General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, had worked together in toppling the Bashir regime in 2019 and orchestrating a military coup in 2021. But tensions over how the RSF would integrate into the SAF eventually led to fighting that has metastasized over the last six months. Caught in the crossfire are Sudanese civilians, who are experiencing a growing humanitarian crisis. The international community’s efforts to broker peace have been uncoordinated and ineffectual, as various regional powers’ efforts to pursue their own interests have exacerbated the situation. 

Sudanese refugees in Borota, Chad, May 10, 2023. The civil war has unleashed a new wave of violence in the Darfur region, sending tens of thousands into neighboring Chad, where a new humanitarian crisis is looming. (Yagazie Emezi/The New York Times)
Sudanese refugees in Borota, Chad, May 10, 2023. The civil war has unleashed a new wave of violence in the Darfur region, sending tens of thousands into neighboring Chad, where a new humanitarian crisis is looming. (Yagazie Emezi/The New York Times)

USIP’s Alex Rondos analyzes the latest efforts to broker peace, what Sudanese civilians need most and how the conflict has impacted the region.

Where does the fighting stand as of now? Has either side gained an upper hand militarily?

The fighting in Sudan must now be understood as the sum of several operational theaters in a fragmented country. The civil war has spread geographically, and violence has dispersed beyond the SAF and RSF commands. Much will depend now on the degree of reinforcement the combatants receive from foreign patrons. The United Arab Emirates has the most documented relationship with the RSF. Egypt’s historic relationship with the SAF is well-established. Sudan’s fate now risks lying in a competition between foreign interests who are not deterred by the multiple and rather timorous efforts at international mediation.

Khartoum, once the emblem of a unified, independent Sudan, is in the hands of the RSF, with the exception of some SAF strongholds. The city’s fate will depend on whether the SAF will deploy artillery or air power to dislodge the RSF — now using civilians and civilian dwellings as shields — at an inevitably enormous human and material cost.

In the meantime, the SAF has secured its base in Eastern Sudan headquartered at Port Sudan along the Red Sea coast, effectively turning Sudan into a Libya on the Red Sea. The citizens living between Eastern Sudan and Khartoum and Eastern Sudan and Darfur appear to be left to be exhausted — absent food, services and basic security — to join one side or the other. The SAF may also be betting on the exhaustion of the international community and an eventual favorable swing in regional alliances to support its claim to represent the legitimate government of Sudan.

There are militias in Sudan who have avoided the conflict so far. Several were signatories to the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement and they recently gathered in the Eritrean capital to stake out their political position.  

But a shift in fighting to Darfur has been the most striking and shocking development in Sudan’s war. The unremitting violence — much of it attributed to the RSF — is now of a rapacity that far exceeds the exactions of the Janjaweed, the RSF’s predecessor, 20 years ago.

Tenuous cease-fires have not managed to hold. What is the latest regarding efforts to broker peace?

There have been multiple, uncoordinated efforts to create structures to broker peace. But as of today, much still remains to be done among the peace brokers. This is a sad reflection of the current international state of brokering peace and means that combatants in Sudan, and elsewhere, feel a new level of impunity. The ideal — in any effort to broker peace — is to have a unified initiative to prevent combatants from forum shopping and to minimize outside powers' attempts to advance their own interests.  

Both the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, spearheaded by Kenya, have put forward initiatives. Egypt, a vital neighbor to Sudan, has pushed for a forum of all neighboring frontline states. In Jeddah, the United States and Saudi Arabia set up their own initiative, which brought the parties together for emergency diplomacy, but that was not sufficient to create a sustainable cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile, just this week, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, announced that next week he is hosting representatives of the fighting factions next week to resolve the conflict. More than six months on, a new approach is needed.

Some might be tempted to parcel out peacemaking for each region of Sudan hoping that peace might stick somewhere. Darfur is an obvious candidate. Unless there is a clear overall strategy and leadership, that approach will likely lead to accelerating the fragmentation of Sudan and to further expose the country to all manner of external state and non-state interference.

There are attempts underway to try to bring together the African initiatives with the talks in Jeddah. For that to succeed, Sudan’s multiplying militias must be persuaded that the process is credible and not just for the benefit of two original contestants. And the international community must ask itself what guarantees can be secured for the vast unarmed population and their civilian political representatives, who must also rapidly find some degree of coherence to participate effectively in any effort to restore peace and build a constitutional future for Sudan.

As the humanitarian situation grows more dire, what assistance is most needed for Sudanese civilians caught in the crossfire?

Sudanese civilians’ greatest needs are access to the essentials of life: food, shelter, medicine and security.

Food is diminishing because transport routes are largely closed. The country’s only port is controlled by one party and there is no guarantee of supply inland where other opposing groups have control. The latest harvest was paltry, and indications are that by November and December conditions will be dire. Sudan’s neighbors should put their territory, roads, ports and airports at the disposal of what will have to be a massive humanitarian effort from the international community. There is little time left to prepare.

For urban populations like those in Khartoum, there is no capacity to store food in households as occurs in rural areas. The situation now verges on the catastrophic and people are surviving thanks to the trade networks that bring food from Egypt to the markets and the extraordinary efforts of Sudanese groups providing solidarity and support to their fellow citizens.

Still, the price of food is prohibitively expensive. Households need cash to purchase essential supplies. This is best done by working with the network of volunteer emergency rooms. They are a testament to the spirit of the Sudanese people. Donors should give money knowing that it cannot be accounted for except by the honesty of those risking their lives to help their compatriots. In times like this, bureaucratic accountability in humanitarian work is the enemy of the hungry and sick. Donor agencies must make special arrangements for such circumstances.

Nor should we forget that Sudan’s lifeline of water is the Nile. The dams on the Sudanese Nile, generate electricity, produce potable water and provide for irrigation. The longer this conflict lasts, the greater the risk of fatal damage to Sudan’s water and power supply.

The toughest and boldest decision for Sudan is whether an external force will be needed to protect supply routes, logistics centers and critical infrastructure. While neighboring countries debate the question and the imperative, that question sits squarely with the authorities that claim legitimacy and authority — but fall shorts on their ability to deliver.

Sudanese refugees are fleeing into neighboring countries by the millions. What impact has the conflict had on the region, and what concerns are there going forward?

Sudan’s conflict could have a devastating effect on Egypt, South Sudan and Chad. The alignments emerging in support of SAF and RSF, which extend to the United Arab Emirates and beyond, mean that external influences will make themselves felt in Sudan. Sudan’s conflict has attracted competing national interests from the Arabian Peninsula and this will have a direct impact on the security of the Red Sea.

South Sudanese oil is exported through Sudan and Juba has been threatened by an interruption in the flow if it is seen to take sides. It is therefore impelled to find a mediated solution, which means Juba should not be excluded from any regional or international peacemaking effort. Moreover, they probably know Sudan better than anyone else. Any sustained interruption of regular flow of Nile waters in Sudan will be a direct threat to Egypt’s economy and security. The communities of Darfur straddle the Chadian frontier — their future becomes Chad’s fate. Saudi Arabia is investing much of its economic future toward the Red Sea Coast. Any threat to the security of the Red Sea is a threat to that investment. The United Arab Emirates has worked closely with the RSF and companies linked to it.

All actors who are planning a unified effort to broker peace need to see these various neighboring interests as a factor that cannot be avoided and should be considered in some manner in peace talks.

Alex Rondos is a senior advisor for USIP’s Africa Center and co-chair of the Institute’s Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena.

Related Publications

Four Priorities for Sudan a Year into the Civil War

Four Priorities for Sudan a Year into the Civil War

Thursday, April 18, 2024

By: Susan Stigant

This week marks a year of war in Sudan. A once promising revolution that led to the overthrow in 2019 of the country’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, has devolved into a devastating civil war. The fighting started over a dispute on how to incorporate the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the country’s military, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). A year later as the conflict between the RSF and SAF grinds on, Sudan is experiencing the world’s worst displacement crisis and one of the world’s worst hunger crises in recent history.

Type: Analysis

Global PolicyPeace Processes

For Sahel Stability, U.S. Needs Broader, Coordinated Policy

For Sahel Stability, U.S. Needs Broader, Coordinated Policy

Thursday, March 21, 2024

By: Kris Inman;  Matthew Reitman

As military coups and violent insurgencies have spread across Africa’s Sahel over the past decade, U.S. policy has professed to recognize and address their interconnections across the region, notably through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Yet this effort remains insufficient to meet the scale and complexity of the violence and the underlying failures of governance.

Type: Analysis

Violent Extremism

The Latest @ USIP: Grassroots Efforts to Address Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis

The Latest @ USIP: Grassroots Efforts to Address Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

By: Sara Pantuliano

More than half of Sudan’s population of 46 million is in need of humanitarian assistance -- and less than a quarter of them are actually receiving aid amid the country’s civil conflict. Sara Pantuliano, the chief executive for the Overseas Development Institute, discusses the current crisis in Sudan, why Sudan is important for global peace and how grassroots organizations in the country can help deliver aid to places that international organizations cannot reach.

Type: Blog

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

The Latest @ USIP: How to Address Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis Amid War

The Latest @ USIP: How to Address Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis Amid War

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

By: Patrick Youssef

Nearly nine months into Sudan’s civil conflict, the fighting has not only upended daily life across the country, but also disrupted Sudan’s already shaky economic and social services — leaving millions in need of dire humanitarian assistance. Patrick Youssef, regional director for Africa at the International Committee of the Red Cross, discusses how the conflict is affecting Sudan’s civilian population and why some sort of agreement between the warring sides is the only way to safely clear avenues for humanitarian intervention.

Type: Blog

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications