By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell
As the world takes stock of six months of unrelenting civil war in Sudan, the scale of human suffering and devastation is staggering and impossible to ignore. The conflict has claimed up to 9,000 lives and displaced almost 6 million people, forcing them to seek refuge in neighboring countries. An estimated 25 million people are in dire need of aid. However, the world’s priorities have largely been drawn away from this catastrophe.
The war in Ukraine and the escalating crisis in the Middle East have diverted the focus of the international community, leaving Sudan’s conflagrations suffering an inadvertent “visibility crisis.” Irrespective of how profound the devastation in Sudan may be, its plight is likely to worsen, as pleas for empathetic global intervention and support get suffocated under the weight of the world’s divided attention.
Adding to the complexity of this situation is a growing health crisis. The conflict-ridden parts of Sudan are already grappling with cholera outbreaks, with more than 1,000 suspected cases reported. Continued fighting not only hampers aid efforts but also exacerbates the spread of this and other communicable diseases, creating a vicious cycle of violence and despair. As the war rages on, there is also the potential for significant long-term damage, creating another “lost” or displaced generation. Basic services are crumbling, infrastructure is devastated, and the social fabric torn asunder. The underfunding of humanitarian efforts, with just 33 percent of the required $2.6 billion received, further compounds these challenges.
Extensive research has consistently shown that neglecting conflicts of this nature not only exacerbates the dire humanitarian crises, but also leaves room for the propagation of extremism, the threat of regional destabilization, and generational loss to an entire nation. If left to fester, Sudan’s tumult could mature into a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
So, after six months of escalation, sporadic violence and brief lulls, what is the situation in Sudan today? At the heart of the conflict remain the two powerful entities: the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Both were instrumental in the overthrow of the Omar Bashir regime in 2019, and engineering a subsequent military takeover that effectively sidelined civilian participation in the post-Bashir interim government just two years later. However, a deep-seated power struggle over the integration of the RSF into the SAF has resulted in these erstwhile allies becoming enemies, with catastrophic consequences for Sudan’s civilian population.
As it stands, the SAF has managed to secure its base in Eastern Sudan, headquartered at Port Sudan along the Red Sea coast. This strategic positioning gives the SAF a degree of control over maritime trade routes, which could potentially be leveraged for military advantage. However, the capital Khartoum, once the emblem of a unified Sudan, is under the control of the RSF. The SAF’s ability to dislodge the RSF from Khartoum (or not) will be a critical determinant of the conflict’s trajectory.
On one hand, the RSF’s control of the city is significant, not just symbolically, but also for the practical control it offers over the country’s remaining, still-functional administrative apparatus. Moreover, the RSF’s seizure of the town of Kas in South Darfur has allowed it to strengthen its foothold in Sudan’s peripheries, highlighting the group’s ability to expand operational reach. Tragically, a “return” to Darfur with unremitting violence, much attributed to the RSF, paradoxically surpasses the brutality of the Janjaweed, the RSF’s notorious predecessor, intensifying the damage to Sudan’s social fabric.
Meanwhile, the SAF’s control of Eastern Sudan and Port Sudan offers it a strategic advantage. This region’s proximity to the Red Sea could potentially facilitate foreign military assistance, notably from Egypt, with which the SAF has a well-established historic relationship. This rush to establish competing areas of influence risks transforming Sudan into a disastrous mirror image of neighboring Libya, yet another casualty of a chaotic post-2011 era, and now torn apart by internal conflict and external meddling.
Foreign patrons, with vested interests and reduced deterrence from a distracted global community, will likely continue fueling this conflict, or hardening the resolve of either side in hopes of tilting the balance of power and gaining an upper hand in ceasefire negotiations. The SAF, for example, still maintains a few stubborn strongholds in and around Khartoum. A haunting anxiety hangs over the city, its fate relying on the unknown pendulum of military strategy. Will the SAF employ artillery or muster air power to expel the RSF? Failure to negotiate a credible truce and the need to up the stakes would only deepen the humanitarian catastrophe, as civilians and critical infrastructure are caught in the crossfire.
Clearly, the international community’s role in this conflict is influential. The UAE’s documented relationship with the RSF and Egypt’s ties with the SAF could potentially tip the scales in either direction. After all, the possibility of foreign reinforcement for either of the combatants could drastically alter more than just the military landscape in Sudan — it could also shape the contours of an enduring settlement. Unfortunately, despite renewed attempts, encouraging diplomacy and conciliatory efforts at conflict resolution, the quest for an enduring peace remains elusive.
Thankfully, efforts persist to bring the feuding sides together at the negotiation table. It is much too premature to opine on whether the latest iteration of talks will either establish a durable ceasefire, freeze the conflict in an uneasy stalemate, or simply sow more discord. Still, the imminent return of Sudan’s army and RSF to negotiation talks convened by the US and Saudi Arabia does offer some hope, with both sides indicating a readiness to resume discussions. The military’s declaration that it will not stop fighting raises serious concerns, but it could just be more bluster to eke out greater leverage before engaging in dialogue behind closed doors.
However, the situation on the ground remains as precarious as ever. Prolonged inaction has planted the seeds of disillusionment and distress, while intense battles and the fog of war nurture fertile grounds for malign actors to emerge in pursuit of interests diametrically opposed to Sudan’s stabilization. As it stands, the balance of power seems to oscillate between the SAF and the RSF, with both sides showing an uncanny resilience and a troubling defiance when neighboring Libya’s woes are a stark reminder of the kind of future that awaits Sudan.
The international community’s role in this conflict, particularly that of regional powers, will be crucial in determining the eventual outcome. It is a grim situation, and the world must act swiftly and decisively to quell the violence and restore peace in Sudan. Should fighting resume, as always, it is civilians who will endure unimaginable suffering amid this power tussle. Thus, the global community must develop a coordinated response, not only to broker a lasting peace but also to address the unfolding crisis, while taking care not to repeat the mistake of facilitating Sudan’s stabilization and transformation with deadlines and ultimatums. The conflict in Sudan is not merely a localized squabble to be compartmentalized and dismissed, but a regional crisis with potential global implications.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative (IKSI) at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C., and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.