*An edited and more polished version of this article was originally published at Al-monitor under the title “Meet Sudan’s web of warlords, foreign backers and their tangled alignments”, which you can find here*
It has been five days since the armed conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), under Commander Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under Commander Lt Gen Mohamed ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo, began all over Sudan. The conflict, allegedly caused by international pressure to force the RSF into integrating within the SAF too quickly for the latter’s liking, has radically changed the conversation on Sudan’s democratic transition from civilian rule to preventing another long and destructive Sudanese civil war.
So far, a number of competing narratives have tried to simplify the conflict as a regional proxy war , between a historically broke Egypt and the UAE, on whom Egypt depends for its financial survival, now for the third time in 9 years. Even if Egypt wanted to, it is not in the financial or physical shape to effectively be a proxy power in an active conflict, let alone a zero-sum-death-battle-civil-war where they are the sole backers of a Muslim Brotherhood-led army against the army that effectively aided the UAE in Yemen when Egypt wouldn’t? Backing a classical army in a potentially drawn out street battle against a well-funded large and trained paramilitary group that excels at urban warfare? Seriously?
Additionally, referring to the Sudan conflict as a regional proxy war is a reductive framing when discussing a country as complex as Sudan. Every war in Sudan thus far has always been a multi-level conflict, so here is an attempt to map out all the players and on which side of the conflict they “potentially” stand: the SAF, the RSF, the Sudanese civilian protesters or deposed Sudan President Beshir-aligned forces of Chaos.
The Main Players
Lt Gen Mohamed ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo: the infamous leader of the RSF, Hemeti rose from its ranks back when it was only the Janjaweed militia (which is accused of committing genocide in Sudan) to eventually take it over as it became an official part of the Sudanese state security apparatus under Bashir. Their status as a paramilitary group ended with the Sudan’s parliament passing of the Rapid Support Forces Act in early 2017, which put them under the office of the president. Under him, the RSF grew into a large and well-trained urban fighting force, and his control over Sudan’s western borders has allowed him to create direct ties with a number of regional and international players, as well as control over the region’s gold mines (estimated 40% of Sudan’s gold exports, annually in billions of dollars), and African migration/human trafficking through Libya. Hemeti’s unconventional rise to military power has irked the Islamist-leaning Khartoum-based SAF military brass as much as his ethnic (Darfur) and tribal background (the historically marginalized Darfurian Arab tribes), but that didn’t stop them from both sending troops to aid Saudi Arabia in Yemen, conspiring to remove Bashir from power, or launching the 2021 coup against the Sudanese civilian-led transitional government, the latter he recently publicly disavowed and regretted. Since the start of this conflict, Hemeti has tried to frame his actions as an attempt to salvage the democratic transition and accusing SAF Commander Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan of being an anti-democratic radical Islamist who is using foreign forces to kill Sudanese civilians.
Commander Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan: Sudan’s minister of defense and the leader of the SAF, Burhan came into his position in April2019 when the former leader Ahmed Ibn Ouf resigned during the Uprising, ending in Burhan’s promotion from former China’s military attaché to Army Inspector General to the minister of defense in 3 months. His other claim to fame was overseeing Sudan’s military deployment to Yemen, where he and Hemeti’s forces cooperated. As the highest-ranking figure in the SAF, Burhan is believed to either be a member of or influenced by the Kizan, a loyal clan of Islamist Al Bashir supporters with Muslim Brotherhood roots. Those Muslim Brotherhood ties have made Egypt and the UAE always view him with suspicion, but given Burhan’s institutional legitimacy as head of the military, they cooperated with him and supported him on multiple occasions. The SAF is twice the size of the RSF and has an air force and heavy weaponry, but they are not as well trained or suited for urban warfare like the RSF. Burhan has attempted to consolidate his position by maintaining formal relationships with old regional allies like Egypt, Saudi, and Chad, as well as forming a new one with Israel, to ensure his place in the future of Sudan. His unclear loyalties and mercurial positioning led to his failure in securing the backing of Abu Dhabi in 2022, and his ordered release of some Islamist prisoners has not endeared them to him further. Since the conflict started, he has called the RSF a dangerous militia and refused all calls for dialogue, which some Sudanese voices allude to as due to pressure from the Kizan who wish to eradicate the RSF and bring the deposed regime back to power.
Other Sudanese forces of note:
The Framework Agreement Signatory Coalition: a 40+ civilian parties and groups that signed the Framework Agreement to get the democratic transition going, represents the civilian population but has no real militia of their own. They have publicly blamed the defunct regime and political coalition, the National Congress Party, for precipitating the current conflict as an attempt to take overpower again. The side of the Sudanese Civilian Protesters.
The National Congress Party: the defunct regime’s Islamist political coalition, has nationwide organization and tribal and financial backing. While many claim they still have influence over the SAF, they are also allegedly behind the Sudan Shield Forces, which started last December in the Butana region of central Sudan by retired Lt Col Abu Aqelah Mohamed Kikal but is now nationwide, as well as the Patriotic Entity forces. Both forces claim that they are not a rebel group against the SAF, but rather formed to protect their areas and regions, which now include Kordofan, White Nile, Red Sea, and Khartoum states, amongst others. The SAF’s silence over their formation has fueled speculation that they have Burhan’s tacit approval, if not outright support. Forces of Chaos, leaning SAF.
The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM): a non-Arab western Darfur rebel group led by Jibril Ibrahim that took up arms against Bashir in 2003, was a formidable fighting force that was backed by Chad, and sent fighters to Libya on the side of the Turkey-backed Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA). The JEM ranks may have dwindled in recent years in comparison to other Darfur-based groups, and Hemeti has made no declarations since the start of the conflict, but he remains a force on the ground. Affiliation unclear.
The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N): formed by when the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) splintered in 2017, with its leader Abdelaziz al-Hilu taking most of the fighters with him. Based in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Al-Hilu commands the biggest rebel faction in his region whose aim is to turn Sudan into a secular state. He disliked both the Islamists and the Arabic-speaking elites in Khartoum for attempting to impose a “false Arab identity” on Sudan, which means neither SAF, RSF, or Chaos. Leaning Sudan’s civilian population.
Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM)- Minnawi faction: led by the Darfuri rebel leader Minni Minnawi’s, his faction of the SLM is reportedly based and operating in Libya, as part of General Haftar foreign mercenary fighters. Leaning RSF.
Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) Al-Nur faction: led by Abdul-Wahid al-Nur from his self-imposed exile in France, it is the last remaining significant armed group in Darfur, with sections in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions. Reports state that his group’s membership fractured due to his prolonged absence, but his fighters have reportedly also fought in Libya on Haftar’s side. Affiliation unclear. Potentially leaning RSF.
Immediate borders of Sudan:
Egypt: Given their long relationship with the Sudanese military, Egypt is firmly behind Burhan in spirit and may be diplomatically, but cannot financially afford to support him and the SAF in any other way at the moment. Their anti-Hemeti position was dealt a blow on the first day of the conflict, with the RSF capturing Egyptian military soldiers and painting them as part of foreign invasion forces supporting Burhan. Thanks to Emirati intervention and Hemeti assurances, the captured soldiers just returned to Egypt safely, allowing the state to save face after three days of public humiliation and inaction. Originally leaning SAF and still officially supporting them as the last remaining part of the state, they are unlikely to continue to be a factor on either side of this conflict, opting instead to be on the cease-fire and dialogue side. Unclear.
Libya: While the GNA is unlikely to take a position on the conflict, Rebel Libyan General Khalifa Haftar has many Darfuri fighters in his forces and received 1200 RSF fighters from Hemeti in May 2020 to support his forces in the war in southern Tripoli. Team RSF, but denies any support or involvement publicly.
Ethiopia: SAF-affiliated media accused Ethiopia yesterday of using the current infighting to attempt an invasion of the Al Fashaga disputed territory, one that the SAF allegedly thwarted, and Ethiopia officially vehemently denies. Al Fashaga, a fertile agricultural land, has been a contested Sudan-Ethiopia border for over 33 years of intense “cross-border tensions.” The Ethiopian alleged invasion accusation is ironic since Ethiopia accused the SAF of taking advantage of its Tigray Military-Genocide-conflict in 2020 to invade Ethiopian lands. Officially unaffiliated, but definitely not SAF. Most likely leaning Chaos or even RSF, since it would afford them the ability to actually invade it for real this time.
Chad: Hemeti’s Arab tribe straddles the border between Chad and Sudan and has ancestral links there that would allow him to call in fighters and support from eastern Chad if he needs it. Hemeti also maintains ties with armed groups in the Central African Republic, many of whom are linked to the Russian Wagner Group. RSF.
Saudi Arabia: While a player in the transition since the start, Saudi Arabia has remained neutral thus far despite having one of their planes burned in Sudan. The Saudis don’t necessarily trust Burhan but don’t wish to see the SAF and the state of Sudan destroyed in a pointless war. Additionally, both RSF and SAF have fought on its side in Yemen, so they are thankfully on neither side for now since their kind of financial support of any side would definitely cause exponential escalation in violence. Neutral and hopefully stay this way.
The United Arab Emirates: According to all reports, the UAE is accused of backing Hemeti and starting a proxy war, which they officially deny. What the UAE don’t deny is their history of hiring Hemeti’s forces to fight for them in their previous conflicts, which is different than using them to launch a civil war in a country which The UAE has billions of investments in agricultural farmland projects and signed a contract with Burhan to build a new Red Sea Port that they wanted for a long time to control the supply chain of their food security. Antagonizing the state institutions like that would not be wise, so it makes little sense for them to push for an armed conflict whose conclusion they can’t control and could end with the SAF winning. The UAE is always on the side of old and established institutions and believes chaos is bad for business. That being said, Abu Dhabi is deathly allergic to anything that even smells like the Muslim Brotherhood, and if they were forced to make a choice between Burhan or Hemeti, they will choose Hemeti, whom they know and trust and isn’t MB. Officially Neutral, but leaning RSF.
China: China has a significant population and history of investments in Sudan and knows Burhan personally since his time in Beijing serving as Sudan’s military attaché. They are, however, anti-chaos on principle and think that fighting is bad for business. Officially with the state, but will not get involved in financially backing the SAF in this conflict. Neutral.
Russia: There are many reports that claim cooperation between the RSF and the Russian infamous Wagner Group in Central African Republic, as well as Sudanese gold being sold by Hemeti and smuggled to Russia. If true, then Russia is firmly on team Hemeti, but given its state of geopolitical toxicity and its own quagmire of a war in Ukraine, that will unlikely be willing nor able to realistically offer Hemeti any type of practical support since it will definitely lead the western nations to back Burhan and the SAF. Officially Neutral. For now.
The US: More than any other country, the US’s Biden Administration “policy decisions” have led to this conflict. When Burhan and Hemeti implemented the 2021 military coup against the civilian-led transitional government, it was widely expected that the US would sanction both the generals for their acts against democracy. However, imposing sanctions on the individuals in the military who conducted the coup was never even considered seriously by the US government. If anything, it led to a clash in the Biden administration between Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. envoy who favors sanctioning Khartoum’s generals, and Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who was dead set against any sanctions against the generals, believing that they can be convinced to return to the civilian transition. Needless to say, Molly’s veto against the sanctions, much like her decision not to sanction Ethiopia for the Tigray Genocide a year earlier, has not aged well at all. It is on brand for the Biden administration, though, whose entire US Foreign Policy strategy can be summarized in two points: 1) The war in Ukraine, and 2) Do something to mess with China. If it doesn’t involve either of those objectives, they are not a priority, so their involvement will not go beyond “thoughts and prayers” and statements of “deep concern.” They are not big fans of Hemeti personally, but they really cannot be bothered. Neutral.
The UK and the EU: Like the US, all of them refused to sanction the generals for their 2021 coup, and all thought that pushing an agreement that mainly protects the generals from any criminal accountability would be an important step in supporting “Sudan’s transition to a civilian-led government.” Needless to say, that plan has gone as well as the Ukraine War has been going, and since they are actually involved in that conflict next door, they won’t get involved in another one, especially in Africa. Beyond Neutral; Sleeping.
SAF= Potentially Egypt, China, Sudan Shield Forces, and Sudan Entity Forces.
RSF= Potentially SLM (both factions), Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, and UAE.
Chaos= National Congress Party, Ethiopia, Potentially Sudan Shield Forces, and Sudan Entity Forces.
Sudan civilian protesters = the framework signatories, potentially the SPLA-N.
Neutral= The UK, the EU, the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia.
The situation in Sudan is still very fluid and has two potential scenarios. We are either watching a calculated skirmish that pushes the specter of the “threat of further escalation” to the world and the nation, Ito change the conversation from democratic transition to peace indefinitely, if not gain even more concessions, or-the sum of all of our fears- we are entering the existential war between the two arms of the Sudanese Security apparatus era, which will unleash unimaginable further suffering and misery, and could easily escalate to a conflict that makes Syria look like a picnic on a sunny day. Either way, the Sudanese people, after all that they have fought for and been through, definitely deserved way better than this.