Foreign Players In Sudan’s Civil War – OpEd
By Atiqa Tariq
To understand the recent conflict in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and how they are supported by regional and foreign powers, one needs to understand the strategic importance of Sudan first.
Sudan shares a border with seven countries and is the third largest nation in Africa. Having a strategic location on the Red Sea and access to the Nile River, Sudan holds vital strategic importance for international powers, especially for Russia and China who are intended to build naval ports on Port Sudan. Sudan possesses a vast swath of gold reserves and has “realized agriculture potential”, which also makes it geoeconomically crucial.
Sudan’s economic and political unrest
Despite the economic opportunities, Sudan is heavily indebted and is one of the poorest nations of the world; around 32 percent of Sudanese are living below the poverty line and resources are smuggled out of the country to finance internal conflicts.
Hopes of the Sudanese people emerged after the ouster of authoritarian leader Omar-al-Bashir in 2019, but were suddenly dashed after the 2021 coup, led by Lt Gen Abdel Fatteh al-Burhan and his deputy Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, who is the leader of RSF. Due to a disagreement on the direction in which the country is going on and the proposed shift towards civilian rule, fighting erupted between the two groups on 15 April following days of tension and Sudan became the center of civil war.
Contrasting Interests of foreign players in Sudan
Both leaders, Gen al-Burhan and Hemedti are supported by the tangled web of international powers with competing interests that could “imperil the country’s future.”
Russia, UAE, Egypt, the US, Libya, and Israel; all have contrasting interests and are supporting their favorite side; many experts suggest that they are the ones responsible for the conflict in the first place. “Everyone wanted a chunk of Sudan,” a Sudanese analyst, Magdi el-Gizouli, told the New York Times. “Too many competing interests and too many claims,” he added, “ then the fragile balance imploded, as you can see now.”
United Arab Emirates
Among all the players, the UAE is the most important one as it has aggressively expanded its influence in North Africa in recent years. Publically, Abu Dhabi has not taken a side in Sudan’s ongoing conflict, but many officials say that UAE helped shore up Hemedti who has expanded his power and influence through business dealings with the Emiratis. In 2018, Hemedti sent thousands of his men to support UAE and Saudia Arabia in their war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. He received a handsome sum of money in return, which helped him build his paramilitary forces even stronger and today they are more equipped than the Sudanese military. Moreover, American officials say that Libyan warlord, Khalifa Hifter, who has been funded by UAE, sent weapons to Hemedti, although it is not clear if those weapons are from Hifter or UAE.
Still, many other Emirati princes have sided with Hemedti’s rival, Gen. Burhan, and invested billions of dollars in agricultural projects across the country to ease UAE’s food supply worries. Abu Dhabi is also interested in building a naval base in Port Sudan to expand its influence on the Horn of Africa. Thus, it is unclear which side UAE wanted to support. An analyst told Agence France-Presse (AFP), a French international news agency, “The Gulf States will pick a winning side, but wait until victory is clear.”
Russia has long recognized the need to have a strong foothold in Sudan from where it can have easy access to Libya, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The Kremlin has also intended to build a naval base in Port Sudan, and according to a BBC report, “Moscow has come close to finalizing a deal about the base with Sudan’s military government which seized power in a coup in 2021.” Meanwhile, the Russian mercenary organization, the Wagner Group, has close ties with Hemedti. The Wagner Group has been plundering Sudan’s gold resources in order to bankroll its operations in Ukraine in return for providing weapons and training to RSF.
According to Samuel Ramani, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, “Russia’s approach to the intra-military conflict in Sudan is more nuanced than it appears,” he added, “Russia’s primary goal is not to see one or another side win the civil war but rather to thwart a democratic transition in Sudan, as continued authoritarian rule facilitates profits from Sudanese gold mines and the construction of a Russian Red Sea naval base in Port Sudan.”
Egypt has strategic interests too, most notably they wanted to secure the grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which they consider a threat to their water security. Economically, Egypt has also benefited from the cheap trade considering its difficult economic situation right now. Both states have also conducted joint military drills and are allies against Ethiopia. As the tensions grew in Sudan, Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, openly sided with Gen. Al-Burhan and sent weapons and aerial support to the Sudanese military. Furthermore, there is a personal link too; President el-Sisi and Gen al-Burhan attended the same military college.
Cairo has been supporting Gen al-Burhan since 2019, because the pro-democracy revolution that toppled Bashir was inimical to el-Sisi, as it may have a ripple effect that could encourage Egyptian people to envision a different life for themselves as well. (el-Sisi is a military general who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist after coming to power in a 2013 military coup).
The US is also concerned, as Russia has intentions to build a base in Port Sudan, which is clearly against US interests. The Biden Administration released the National Security Strategy which emphasizes that the United States will not allow regional or foreign powers to jeopardize the freedom of navigation through Bab al-Mandab (a narrow waterway that connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden). US ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, also gave Sudan a warning against allowing Russians to build the port in Port Sudan. Moreover, the US is also concerned about Sudan’s growing partnership with China. Under The Belt and Road Initiative, Sudan has deep economic ties with China as in 2020, Sudan’s export to China reached $766 million, making China its second-largest trading partner after the UAE. China also vetoed the UN resolution against Gen al-Burhan’s coup, which openly challenge US influence in the country.
To shift Sudan towards a so-called democracy and to prevent the further escalation of civil war, the US has, diplomatically, engaged with Arab states — Saudia Arabia, UAE, and Egypt — but these states are backing rival factions in Sudan.
Israel has a stake too. With the US backing, Sudan normalized its relations with Israel in 2020. In 2022, an Israeli delegation met with Sudan’s security officials including Hemedti, and offered counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation.
In the recent conflict, the Israeli government has not decided who they are going to support and is playing a double game by helping both leaders at the same time. “Mossad is more identified with Hemedti’s side,” a source said to Al-Monitor, a news website, while “the director general of Foreign Ministry [Ronen Levy] is on Burhan’s side.” Whoever they support, the ultimate goal of the Israelis is to bring both leaders to the table and complete the formal signing of the 2020 agreement, which would pave the way for Israel to be formally recognized by other Muslim nations.
We have seen, how the contrasting interests of International powers resulted in the escalation of conflict in Sudan. And it is not just the case of Sudan, we have seen a similar situation in the past in Syria, Libya, and Yemen to name a few, where the foreign powers are competing to gain influence while innocent people are dying.
The situation in Sudan might have been solved if the parties to the conflict agreed to negotiations. Instead foreign interferences have worsened the conflict at an alarming rate. Honestly, I don’t know what would be involved towards a possible solution to end the conflict right now, especially as there has been a continuous violation of ceasefire agreements that will continue in the near future unless foreign aid is halted.
Atiqa Tariq is a student of BS International Relations at International Islamic University Islamabad, with areas of Interest in International politics, peace and conflict studies, Asian and African studies.