After months of crisis in Sudan, civilians remain caught in the middle of the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
The civil war, which began in April, “is triggering a monumental humanitarian crisis, [threatening] to destabilize the entire region… [it] has profound international security and economic implications for the United States and far beyond,” explained Amb. Mary Carlin Yates, an Atlantic Council board member and former chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Khartoum.
Yates gave her remarks at a roundtable, hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, that explored the current trajectory of the conflict, with a particular focus on the humanitarian angle, as well as the options currently available to the international community to help restore peace. At the event, a panel of experts gave their takes on the challenges facing Sudan and the international community’s next steps in responding to the conflict.
The event kicked off with opening remarks from Africa Center Senior Director Amb. Rama Yade that highlighted the strategic importance of Sudan in the region and the Africa Center’s continued work to draw greater attention to Sudan before and after the current violence. Since the breakdown of the democratic transition in April 2023, the Africa Center has ensured Washington remains engaged on the issue by organizing a series of high-level events that bring together policy experts, stakeholders, and peacebuilders within the scene.
Below are highlights from the conversation, moderated by Africa Center Nonresident Senior Fellow Ernst Jan “EJ” Hogendoorn, a former senior advisor to the US special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.
The current state of play
- Nureldine Satti, former Sudanese Ambassador to the United States, noted the difficulties of encouraging the warring parties to establish a ceasefire as neither side “is serious about stopping the war” and “cannot envision an end game without them being the victor.” Satti noted the difficulties on the ground and that the victory of either the SAF or RSF will unlikely be a positive outcome for the future of Sudan unless civilians can play a more robust part.
- Eva Kahan of C4ADS warned about military control of the Sudanese economy and the “threat to the democratic transition in the country.” She noted that recent US sanctions have been a delayed but notable response to the Sudanese military’s control of the economy. Kahan explained that the sanctions targeted belligerents on both sides of this conflict with a goal to reduce economic activity all around; but, she argued, they were limited in scope and may not have the intended effect.
- Providing Amnesty International USA’s perspective, Kate Hixon shared that the situation for civilians in Sudan is “horrific.” Hixon explained that “civilians are caught in the crossfire, being used as human shields; hospitals have been attacked; civilian infrastructure destroyed”—and the violence extends beyond Khartoum. Hixon explained that situation is escalating in the Darfur region, where there have been reports of “ethnically motivated targeted killings, sexual violence, widespread burning of homes, and mass displacement of non-Arab residents.” It “bears a resemblance to previous iterations war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur,” she added.
- Will Carter, Sudan country director at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), noted that neither the scope nor scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in the country was foreseen. Carter stated that the NRC is seeing other Sudanese rebel groups take advantage of the massive humanitarian displacement to take advantage of the chaos in the country to advance their own positions and settle in for a long-drawn-out conflict. Bureaucratic and logistical challenges of operating in a conflict zone have further complicated the NRC’s efforts in the country.
Where this conflict goes from here
- Satti highlighted the need for a more realistic process that includes a more “cohesive and cooperative response by key stakeholders” including the United States and Saudi Arabia with the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, United Nations, and the European Union. Satti stressed that the government of Sudan should not be allowed to pick and choose specific mediators and that the key stakeholders should “converge together to better coordinate their actions to stop the violence in the country.” Satti stressed his preference for a more proactive and robust response by the African Union to address the crisis in Sudan.
- To address the illicit financial flows funding the conflict, Kahan encouraged policymakers to identify the scope of US sanctions, announce or coordinate sanctions with multilateral partners, and deploy future sanctions in a more adaptive, expansive, and effective manner to target subsidiaries or entities linked with the individuals and entities currently under US sanctions.
- Hixon noted that the international community “needs to do more to monitor and document potential human-rights abuses including using creative ways to improve communication and access to the conflict affected regions.” Hixon stated that Amnesty International would like to see great political heft from the United States to secure a UN-led monitoring mechanism as well as apply creative solutions to limited human-rights abuses and protect human-rights defenders.
- Echoing comments made by previous speakers, Carter stressed the need to think about creative ways to provide physical protection to humanitarian workers operating in the country. Looking beyond the physical security of his team, Carter also highlighted that greater cooperation and cohesion by the United States and other partners is needed to properly scale up a humanitarian response to address the massive crisis in the country.
Drawing on lessons from previous conflicts in Sudan
- According to Satti, since independence, Sudan’s government has failed to learn two critical lessons. First, successive governments in Sudan have chosen military solutions to address economic and social problems, leading to an inability to understand or address the root causes of the problems facing the county. A second failed lesson, Satti said, is the importance of addressing the diversity of Sudan’s population, specifically understanding local dynamics as they related to national issues in the country.
- Drawing on the comprehensive sanctions regime applied by the United States on Sudan from 1997 to 2017, Kahan drew two main lessons. First, Kahan said, sanctions should be applied that are comprehensive and address potential sanctions evasion behaviors seen during the previous sanctions on Sudan. Kahan pointed out that “the Sudanese military and government evades sanctions,” and between 1997 and 2017, the United States “saw the complexity of ownership structures that hides the actual owners of companies conducting trading.” Thus, Kahan explained, sanctions should broadly include these networks and be well publicized to the private sector to ensure enforcement and a clear understanding of the risks of doing business in Sudan. Second, Kahan argued that the international community must be aware of the need for de-risking associated with the financing of the delivery of humanitarian aid, the need to avoid appearing to be comprehensive punishment of the people or economy of Sudan, and the need to ensure sanctions can be removed should conditions permit.
- “The pace of response by the international community to the scope of the crisis in Sudan has been slow,” according to Hixon, “which indicates that [the international community] failed to learn the lessons of the past.” Hixon shared her concerns about the potential for a long period of violence in Sudan, featuring too many unnecessary casualties, as the crisis in Sudan remains at the bottom of the agenda for the media and policymakers. According to Hixon, most Americans are unaware that the crisis in Sudan is getting worse, and it is very difficult to get senior-level attention from officials as most of the foreign-policy focus in Washington remains focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Viewing the ongoing violence in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, as a continuation of previous iterations of violence and humanitarian displacement, Carter stressed that a comprehensive solution to protect people in the country is overdue. Carter added that there should be an “impatience” in the efforts of key allies, including the United Nations, to “avoid unnecessary suffering and death” in Sudan in a way that there had not been in the past.
Benjamin Mossberg is the deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
The Africa Center closely follows the evolving political climate in Sudan with the goal of highlighting Sudan’s geostrategic importance as a country positioned between the Arab and African worlds. In 2018, it created a Sudan taskforce, which has produced leading research and hosted public and private briefings on the situation in the country. For more information on our recent work, please see the Africa Center’s Eyes on Sudan page for updates on events, publications, and ongoing efforts to highlight the crisis in Sudan.
After two months of fighting in Sudan, civilians remain caught in the middle of the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Targeting against non-combatants and a resurgence of violence in Darfur have caused great concern among the international community around the potential for ethnic cleansing. More than two million people have left their homes to escape the conflict, with approximately 530,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.
Regional leaders from Kenya, Djibouti, South Sudan, and Ethiopia seek to mediate between the SAF and RSF but talks remain on hold. With outside actors from the Middle East and beyond supporting, arming, and resupplying different sides, the potential for continued violence and a human rights disaster remains high.
The Africa Center has closely followed the evolving political climate in Sudan with the goal of acknowledging Sudan’s geo-strategic importance on the crossroads between the Arab and African worlds. In 2018, it created a Sudan taskforce, which has produced leading research and hosted public and private briefings on the situation in the country. Since the breakdown of the democratic transition in April, 2023, the Center has ensured Washington remains engaged on the issue by organizing a series of high-level events that bring together policy experts, stakeholders, and peacebuilders within the scene.
Sudan Country Director
Norwegian Refugee Council
Advocacy Director for Africa
Amnesty International USA
Sudan Portfolio Manager
Ambassador Nureldin Satti
Global Fellow and Co-Chair
Wilson Center’s Sudans Working Group
Ernst Jan “EJ” Hogendoorn
Former Senior Advisor to the US Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan
Ambassador Mary Yates
Former Charge d’Affaires, US Embassy Khartoum
Board Member, Atlantic Council
Ambassador Rama Yade
Senior Director, Africa Center
The Africa Center works to promote dynamic geopolitical partnerships with African states and to redirect US and European policy priorities toward strengthening security and bolstering economic growth and prosperity on the continent.