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Sudan: Escalated fighting between rival factions and its implications

  Jerry Franklin A

Sudan: Escalated fighting between rival factions and its implications
The current state of affairs in Sudan is highly disconcerting, with escalating violence that threatens to plunge the country into civil war. Such a scenario could have grave repercussions for the country's democratic aspirations as well as the safety and prosperity of its people.
Jerry Franklin A

On 19 September, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reported that more than 1,200 children have died in Sudanese refugee camps from suspected measles and starvation; thousands more including newborns, are at risk of dying before the end of the year. Additionally, the agency stated that every month in Sudan, more than 50,000 children need to be treated for malnutrition.

On 18 September, for the first time since the conflict began more than five months ago, fighting in Sudan reached the seaside city of Port Sudan where the Sudanese army battled with tribal militias, the Forces of the Eastern Sudan Parties and Movements Alliance.

On 17 September, clashes between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) resulted in the burning of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) tower, located in the heart of Khartoum.

On 14 September, the commander of Rapid Support Forces (RSF), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, threatened to install a government in regions under their control if his adversaries in the army established a government in Port Sudan.

On 13 September, the UN's special envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, stated that he would resign from his position after being declared unwelcomed by the military administration in the war-torn region for more than three months.

Increased fighting in terms of intensity and geography
Since mid-April, when hostilities broke out between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under the direction of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, open warfare has shaken Sudan.  Khartoum has become an urban battle zone as a result of the fighting. The military retaliated by bombing the residential neighbourhoods of Greater Khartoum after RSF forces seized civilian residences and transformed them into operating bases. According to rights groups and the UN, the fighting in the western Darfur area has turned into interethnic violence, with the RSF and affiliated Arab militias assaulting ethnic African populations. Heavy artillery and airstrikes were deployed in the city as the army and the RSF continued to battle for control of Khartoum. The armed fighting between the warring sides intensified as it destroyed several iconic landmarks. The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), the Ministry of Justice, and the Sudanese Standards and Metrology Organization in the Al Mugran neighbourhood were destroyed by fire during the recent violence in the capital. The Sudanese army engaged in combat with tribal militants devoted to the Beja tribe's leader Sheba Darar in Port Sudan. This was the first violence in the important coastal city in more than five months of conflict. Government representatives and representatives of the United Nations, who have evacuated from the country's war-torn capital Khartoum, are accommodated in Port Sudan, which is the only city with an operational airport. 

Struggle between the warring parties for legitimacy
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) commander, Al-Burhan, recently set up a base in Port Sudan, the capital of the Red Sea state, after departing the General Command of the Armed Forces' headquarters in Khartoum. Many federal government entities have now moved their operations to Port Sudan. The army, together with supporting political groups, reportedly intends to set up an interim administration with Port Sudan as its capital. As a retaliation, the leader of Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, has threatened to proclaim a new government with Khartoum as its capital. Besides, SAF leader al-Burhan had carried out regional visits to South Sudan, Qatar, and Eritrea, calling for political and humanitarian support. Meanwhile, RSF’s special envoy, Yousif Izzat, met with the African Union chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to discuss RSF’s vision to end the conflict. RSF firmly opposes the Sudanese Army’s effort to represent Sudan on the international front and claim legitimacy. Additionally, the assets in the US of Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy and brother of Mohamed Hamdan "Hemedti" Dagalo have been blocked, while Abdul Rahman Juma, an RSF commander in West Darfur, has had his visa suspended. Both were punished for human rights violations, notably crimes committed in Sudan's West Darfur area. According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Juma was sanctioned for ordering the death of West Darfur Governor Khamis Abdallah Abakar on 15 June. Due to US sanctions, the RSF faces an issue with legitimacy and its attempt to gain political credibility is now in peril. Legitimacy is crucial to be politically relevant and the current sanctions by the US pose a setback to RSF’s effort to establish international legitimacy. Additionally, the Sudanese army attempts to gain firm support by spreading operations from the capital to the eastern half of Sudan, where most eastern tribes support the army. 

International efforts to resolve the conflict and its failure to reach a long-term truce
Several international actors, including the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League, have attempted to establish a ceasefire in the region to de-escalate the conflict, however, they failed to sustain it. Since the commencement of the conflict, both parties have routinely breached several ceasefires led by the US and Saudi. In August, the RSF's leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, made a 10-point plan calling for new negotiations to end the conflict. However, the Sudanese army rejected the proposal, declaring that they would not negotiate a deal with traitors, and denied appeals for a cease-fire. 

Consequences of the continued cycle of fighting
The majority of the violence has been concentrated in Khartoum and the western Darfur region, with Port Sudan and the east remaining free from violence. However, the recent violence in Port Sudan poses a threat of violence expanding to other parts of Sudan which could worsen the humanitarian crisis and lead to a prolonged power struggle. According to estimates from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), nearly 5,000 people have died due to the violence. According to UN statistics, more than 4.6 million people have been compelled to evacuate their homes in the four months of conflict. Food supplies are entirely exhausted and humanitarian workers are unable to reach the needy due to conflicts and roadblocks. The humanitarian crisis exacerbates as the conflict worsens, and there is less hope for the long-awaited democratic transition.

The RSF and SAF are competing fiercely for recognition and validation. The army has attempted to characterize the fight as a confrontation between the state and a rebel group rather than a combat between two sections of the security forces. US sanctions against the RSF seem to support the army's narrative. The army could be less receptive to peace negotiations due to the sanctions against the paramilitary. The SAF has been using the US sanctions on the RSF to turn international opinion against the RSF and hence to seek legitimacy. The constant efforts to establish regional, national, and international legitimacy by both the warring sides may result in a full-fledged civil war shortly.

(Part of this commentary has been previously published as part of NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly.)

About the author
Jerry Franklin A is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai.

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