Africa East Africa Politics & Diplomacy Sudan
MENASource May 11, 2023

Experts react: Sudan at the crossroads—where the conflict goes from here

By Benjamin Mossberg, Alia Brahimi, Thomas S. Warrick, Shahira Amin, and R. Clarke Cooper

On April 15, fighting broke out in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary force, Rapid Support Forces (RSF). General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of SAF, and General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the leader of the RSF, had run Sudan together since the 2021 coup d’état (when the military took full control), which dissolved the transitional government that was put in place after nonviolent pro-democracy protests in 2019. The current conflict between the two leaders—each of whom is seeking full control of Sudan—has permeated to urban civilian areas, creating a humanitarian crisis with a rising death toll and more than seven hundred thousand internally displaced people.

As the scope of fighting widens and the number of Sudanese refugees grows, neighboring countries fear the impact on their populations, potentially igniting political turbulence. While there have been diplomatic efforts to coordinate a ceasefire, it’s unclear whether it will hold and what could be done otherwise to stop the fighting.

Atlantic Council experts react to the conflict in Sudan and discuss how it will impact the region and beyond.

Benjamin Mossberg: ‘The United States must continue to prioritize the Sudanese people’

Alia Brahimi: Libya’s Haftar is resupplying the conflict in Sudan

Thomas Warrick: ‘Governance remains one of Sudan’s greatest challenges’

Shahira Amin: Sudanese are fleeing to Egypt while the country’s resources are overstretched

R. Clarke Cooper: The conflict in Sudan will have broad transregional impacts

‘The United States must continue to prioritize the Sudanese people’

The significant policy failure that the United States faces in Sudan cannot be understated. The importance of Sudan’s stability to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East is closely linked to the events inside the country as it faces ongoing fighting, the potential for a significant humanitarian disaster, and human rights abuses. While there is no easy solution to help Sudan exit this period of instability, the international community must act.

There appears to be little popular support for the violence facing the people of Sudan, as a majority of the Sudanese people face significant challenges in securing food, water, electricity, and shelter. Significant pressure must be brought to bear on General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the commander of the RSF, and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the SAF, to encourage a firm cessation of hostilities and a return to negotiations over the civilian-led future of the country.

The announcement of an Executive Order—“Imposing Sanctions on Certain Persons Destabilizing Sudan and Undermining the Goal of a Democratic Transition”—on May 3 by the United States can be useful if applied in concert with more concrete action. US policymakers who do not work on Africa specifically must elevate Sudan on their priority list and engage their counterparts at sufficiently senior levels in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and elsewhere to encourage them to apply pressure on the Sudanese generals. This could be done by freezing and seizing their financial, business, real estate, and other assets in the relevant countries. Cutting off these links will impede the two generals’ ability to fight, resupply their arms, and pay their soldiers, which would force them back to the negotiating table. 

The United States must continue prioritizing the Sudanese people and rely on Sudanese leaders that have support and roots in the country. While it is unlikely that either the SAF or RSF can win a decisive military victory, the United States should not abandon the country regardless. Geopolitical competition by China, Russia, and others continues to play out in Sudan and the wider Horn of Africa. It is critical that the United States continue to assert its values, communicate its interests, share its redlines consistently, and avoid the transactional nature of relationships that its geopolitical competitors value.

Benjamin Mossberg is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. 

Libya’s Haftar is resupplying the conflict in Sudan

Libya is particularly exposed to developments in Sudan. The first point of vulnerability is the heavily partisan role of General Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east of Libya and large parts of the south and is a central node in the alliance between the UAE, Hemedti, and the Wagner Group. External support to the RSF ideally runs through southeastern Libya, a vast area largely in the grip of Haftar proxies. The border between Libya and Sudan, for example, is manned by Subul al-Salam, a Salafist militia in the pay of Haftar’s fourth son, Saddam. Additionally, Haftar’s 128th Brigade controls many of the transit routes in central and southern Libya. It is led by Hassan al-Zadma, who has strong personal links with Darfuri militias and has taken charge of sourcing mercenaries for Haftar from Sudan and Chad.  

Haftar’s role in the resupply of the RSF is more than a detail in this conflict—it is important to the war’s viability. There have already been documented reports of ammunition shipments, missile deliveries, and intelligence sharing. However, fuel is the critical resource for Hemedti’s Darfur-based fighters who must cross great tracts of the desert by truck to reach Khartoum. Thus, Saddam Haftar has personally overseen the effort to divert Libyan fuel towards the RSF, redirecting the refining capacity at the Sarir oil field—ten thousand barrels a day—over the border to Hemedti. 

The second point of danger is Libya’s status as an optimal rear base. Libya is a major black market logistics hub—for weapons, food, fuel, fighters, fresh dollars—and, thus, an ideal base to launch attacks into Sudan or Chad. If Hemedti retreats from Khartoum to Darfur, tribal fighting within the Darfur region and the collapse of the peace deal there threatens to pull Libya into a regional conflagration. 

The third source of vulnerability is a lesson that might be drawn from the descent into war in Sudan. The international community may rightly conclude that the strategy of dealing with warlords—empowering them as legitimate “stakeholders” in democratic transition—has been exposed as deeply flawed by Sudan. Most Libyans would agree. At the same time, Haftar will note that Hemedti was an integral part of the United Nations-approved power-sharing deal and a party to official political agreements. However, his position was ultimately insecure. Haftar and his sons may, therefore, recommit to growing their military power and leveraging their relationship with the Wagner Group to obtain a preponderance of military power in Libya. This would upend the delicate balance in Libya and portend a regional war.  

Alia Brahimi is a nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East Programs.

‘Governance remains one of Sudan’s greatest challenges’

I have two memories of Sudan. The first is in 2016, when I was just about to fly out to Khartoum to lead the first high-level US government delegation to Sudan in a decade. My boss called me into his office to give me the benefit of his experience leading such a delegation more than a decade earlier. “The people are warm and friendly towards Americans,” he recalled, “but their government has a history of disappointing them.”

My second memory is of when I was there to discuss rebuilding counterterrorism ties with the Sudanese government. They helicoptered us to an important remote base in the northwest that lay astride one of Africa’s major human smuggling routes from east Africa to southern Europe. As we flew out of Khartoum, a US official with years of experience there pointed out the two bridges over the White Nile: “You do realize that the government’s remit stops at the west end of that bridge?”

Seven years later, and after a brief period of hope, governance remains one of Sudan’s greatest challenges. The popular support for civilian leaders who came to power in 2019 was undercut by generals vying for power, each afraid that “second place” meant “last place.” Yet Sudan remains strategically important to the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East because of its role at a crossroads. During the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) time controlling parts of Syria and Iraq, Sudan was a transit country for ISIS operatives and money transiting in and out of Libya. Human traffickers carried Ethiopians and others toward Libyan ports, taking advantage of false hopes of leaving behind drought and food crises.

Sustained pressure now needs to be brought by the Quad—the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and UAE—and others on the countries supporting the warring generals in order to reach a resolution that will benefit the Sudanese people. They deserve better than another decade of disappointment.

Thomas S. Warrick is a senior fellow and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

Sudanese are fleeing to Egypt while the country’s resources are overstretched

Concerns are rising in Egypt as the fighting in neighboring Sudan rages on. Since the outbreak of the conflict in mid-April, tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing the violence have crossed over into Egypt through a shared southern border with Sudan. The mass influx threatens to put an additional strain on Egypt, which is already facing an acute economic crisis.

But the added burden on Egypt’s already-overstretched resources isn’t Cairo’s only concern. Egyptian leadership is even more worried about prospects of a Muslim Brotherhood resurgence next door, which may, subsequently, pave the way for infiltration over the border. This follows the April 26 release of imprisoned, key figures from Sudanese ex-President Omar al-Bashir’s deposed regime. The SAF reportedly ordered the release of members of the former Islamist regime after protests by inmates broke out inside Kober prison, where they had been jailed after Bashir’s overthrow by the military in 2019. 

Egypt’s army is already stretched thin: troops have been deployed on Libya’s western border to guard against foreign infiltrators. Moreover, after more than a decade of battling an insurgency fueled by Islamic State militants—many of whom had allegedly crossed into Northern Sinai from the Gaza Strip by way of underground tunnels—the last thing the Egyptian military wants is a new front in its war on terrorism.  

The ongoing conflict also pits Egypt against its longtime ally, the UAE, which backs the RSF (the powerful paramilitary forces embroiled in a power struggle with the SAF, which is backed by Egypt). Supporting opposing sides may cause tensions between the two countries at a time when Egypt is in dire need of financial backing to shore up its ailing economy. The sale of Egyptian assets to Gulf countries, including the UAE, has provided Egypt with the lifeline it needs to avert economic collapse and a looming debt default (so far, at least).

Egypt has also relied heavily on Sudan’s support in the ongoing dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which sources say threatens to exacerbate Egypt’s water shortage challenge. There are growing concerns in Egypt that the instability in Sudan may overshadow or even derail the negotiations with Ethiopia.

While the Egyptian leadership has insisted it is not taking sides in the conflict, Cairo is watching the developments in Sudan with trepidation, as the unfolding crisis may have far-reaching implications for its northern neighbor. 

Shahira Amin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

The conflict in Sudan will have broad transregional impacts

As with previous civil wars in Sudan, the collapse of security and the displacement of the population will have broad transregional impacts beyond immediate neighboring states. Some internally-displaced Sudanese may eventually return home, while others will seek permanent refuge anywhere outside of Sudan—be it on the African continent or further afield in Europe or North America. Exasperating an already fragile security environment, the disruption from the weeks-long conflict is already enabling a more permissive environment for transnational crime and illicit trafficking and terrorism.

Unfortunately, in the multilateral space, there is diminishing capacity to properly address Sudan’s increasingly dire humanitarian and security issues. War in Ukraine, earthquake recovery in Turkey, and flood relief in Pakistan already occupy significant amounts of attention and resources from United Nations agencies, various NGOs, and the national governments of the world. Still, beyond the immediate humanitarian appeal to help the civilian populous of Sudan, this latest iteration of civil conflict also requires global attention in the peacekeeping, security, and conflict resolution space. If ignored, Sudan’s humanitarian and security crisis will manifest itself elsewhere in the world well beyond the Middle East and North Africa.

Absent conflict resolution led by a group of responsible states or a multilateral body, there is an increasing risk that the conflict will become a regional war. Neighboring states have already aligned with either of the two generals and, bizarrely, in some cases, aligned with both sides. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has the affirmed support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The UAE, and General Haftar of Libya, however, support the RSF. As other international actors assess where to align, a united front of regional and Western states is required to stop the march toward greater conflict, and the time for such a united front is now. 

R. Clarke Cooper is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

Image: A Sudanese refugee woman who fled the violence in Sudan's Darfur region carries a jerrycan of water as she walks to her makeshift shelter near the border between Sudan and Chad in Koufroun, Chad May 10, 2023. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra