Who is fighting in Sudan, and what are their aims?

Sudan General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan
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For the past week, forces loyal to Sudan’s de-facto ruler – army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – and rival fighters of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been battling for control.

As of early this week, more than 400 people have been recorded as killed and thousands wounded. But the actual toll is expected to be far higher. Witnesses have described the dead lying on the streets as fighting rages on.

The forces involved

The Military Balance+, a database compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), estimates that the army has 100,000 troops. That’s compared with the RSF’s 40,000 fighters.

However, several experts have put forward figures as high as 100,000 RSF troops while giving numerical superiority to the army, or Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

But on the ground, neither side seems to have seized the advantage in nearly a week of bitter fighting.

There are no exact figures as to sizes of the two forces. In fact, the conflict exploded precisely because of the dispute between the two generals on the methods of integrating the RSF into the regular army.

Burhan wanted to do this within two years, by imposing the army’s recruitment criteria on the paramilitaries.

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Daglo, also known as Hemeti, wanted a 10-year window. He and also wanted ranks equivalent to those awarded in 2013 to RSF fighters who led the war in Darfur for autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

The military objectives

Aly Verjee of the local nonprofit Rift Valley Institute stated that:

Neither SAF nor the RSF has much incentive to back down.

The two forces normally fight together against rebel groups in far-flung provinces, but this time they’re in a race against time as they fight each other on unfamiliar terrain: Khartoum.

The RSF wants to prolong the conflict, while the army was aiming to use its warplanes to weaken the paramilitary force as quickly as possible. Verjee also stated that “Hemeti … has an interest in stretching out the conflict”. He said this is because the main difference “in capacity between the SAF and the RSF is air power”.

Political goals

Jehanne Henry, a US human rights lawyer who has monitored Sudan for years, told Agence France-Presse that “doomsday scenarios run the gamut”.

Henry warned that if the army wins, “Burhan and his colleagues will re-install old regime Islamists” and ignore international pressure. This is similar to what they did during decades of international embargo under Bashir’s rule. Bashir was ousted in 2019.

Henry added that:

At best, they could make a flimsy pretence of appointing some allied civilians.

The other possibility was that the RSF win, but that scenario was seen as less likely, she added.

In such a case:

they won’t go down easily, and could draw out the conflict, allying with other armed groups in peripheral areas.

Allegiances outside of Sudan

Henry also stated that, in the north:

Egypt, seen as a would-be coloniser, supports the SAF and has an interest in Sudan’s Nile water and agricultural land.

To the south, Ethiopia “has its own interests, including to counter Egypt”, she said.

She added that, in the east:

the United Arab Emirates, which supported Hemeti, has benefited from the RSF’s participation in the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and may have sold weapons to the RSF.

As for Chad and Libya, which border Daglo’s stronghold in Darfur, these desert countries are possible channels for ammunition and reinforcements.

The International Crisis Group think tank has warned that the “risk of spillover” could grow as the conflict “might directly involve ethnic groups whose homelands straddle their borders with Sudan”.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin,ru, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License, resized to 770*403

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

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  • Show Comments
    1. Thanks for this analysis.
      I’ve just seen a TikTok clip suggesting that there is more to this than meets the eye and that what’s going on is another US / Russia proxy war.
      Sudan has recently agreed to host a Russian military base once it completes its transition to civilian rule. The US obviously doesn’t want this to happen so delaying or preventing the transition is in America’s interest. Is there any evidence to suggest the conflict is being stoked by the US?

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