regional spectators

Sudan: Upsurge of nostalgic supporters of Bashir and Islamic extremists, warns analyst

By Yves Plumey Bobo

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Posted on May 26, 2023 08:22

 © RSF fighters stand near the damaged Air Defence Forces command centre in Khartoum, Sudan. (RSF screen grab via Twitter/Reuters)
RSF fighters stand near the damaged Air Defence Forces command centre in Khartoum, Sudan. (RSF screen grab via Twitter/Reuters)

The fighting continues in Sudan, where generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemeti’, have been in open conflict since 15 April. Talks between the two factions were initiated in Saudi Arabia, while several other mediation attempts have emerged under the African Union and even Egyptian leadership.

What are the interests of the various players involved, as the shadow cast by Russia and the influence exerted by the United States have come under scrutiny? Roland Marchal, a researcher at the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a French specialist on Sudan, speaks on whether Sudan’s internal conflict could become a regional crisis.

Sudan’s internal conflict has now been going on for over a month. Can you describe the gulf that separates the two generals, Burhan and Hemeti?

Roland Marchal: The Sudanese army led by Burhan is closely connected to the former regime of Omar al-Bashir. Within these forces, we are seeing an upsurge of nostalgic supporters of the former president who want to regain power, as well as Islamic extremists. On the other side, we have Hemeti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is primarily a network of businesses, with various companies and holdings in public works, agriculture, and so forth, before being a paramilitary group.

RSF’s strategy was to push for elections so that their leader could emerge as a national political figure.

Hemeti, who wants to position himself in opposition to Islamic extremists who criticise him for the arrest of Bashir, realised that he is capable of creating a political party, participating in elections, and achieving a score that places him on par with the most important parties in the country. However, this does not necessarily mean that he is democratic.

The conflict in Sudan is primarily internal. However, it also involves a significant number of foreign actors and states. What is the reason for this?

The crisis in Sudan is internal, but all the states in the region have an interest in it. Some may have a preference between the two leaders, even if they haven’t officially chosen one. The only exception is perhaps Egypt, which is the former colonial power, alongside the United Kingdom [and has taken the side of Burhan, the President of the Sovereign Council]. Egypt acts in support of what it considers the legitimate leader of the Sudanese army and state.

Egypt is a military and authoritarian power. The emergence of a potential civilian and democratic regime on its southern border could represent a risk and an incentive for opponents of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime.

Cairo has reservations about the ability of a civilian government to govern the country. This is also the case for other countries in the region, including Ethiopia, Chad, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Most countries seem to be sticking to a neutral position, without choosing to support one general over another. Why is that?

The UAE, for example, has a long-standing relationship with Hemeti, but they have also invested a significant amount of money in Sudan through businessmen connected to the former regime of Bashir, and therefore to the military, potentially aligned with Burhan. Their primary goal, therefore, is to prevent a democratic regime from emerging in Sudan.

As for the Russians, they have a major strategic objective, which is to establish a naval base on the Red Sea in Port Sudan. Moscow is not particularly concerned about who governs Sudan. The important thing, whether it is Burhan or Hemeti, is to maintain the existing agreement for the construction of their base.

There has been much discussion in recent weeks about Wagner’s involvement in Sudan in support of Hemeti. Why is the Russian group involved in this conflict?

Several years ago, Wagner signed an agreement with the Sudanese army – to which Hemeti’s RSF was integrated through a 2017 law – to provide them with training.

However, the Russian mercenary group has primarily economic interests in Sudan and seeks to maintain a presence in mining, particularly gold mining. Its main intermediaries in this sector are the army and, more importantly, the RSF [which controls numerous mines in the western regions of the country].

Talks are being held by Saudi Arabia with the support of the US. To what extent do they have a chance of success?

Firstly, these are two important negotiators. Saudi Arabia can engage with Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Libya. It holds a position of influence. The US also holds significance as a leader in the Western world.

Both protagonists [Burhan and Hemeti] know that they cannot achieve anything if these mediators are hostile to their policies. The goal is not necessarily to agree with their enemy but primarily to avoid antagonising Riyadh and/or Washington.

What role does Europe have in these negotiations?

The EU, along with the UK and the US, has primarily played a financial role, but its political role is less prominent. The same applies to France.

After Hemeti and Burhan came to power, Sudan faced significant economic problems. The situation was dire in October 2021 but has seen some improvement, thanks in part to France and [French President] Emmanuel Macron. Macron organised a major international conference to address debt reduction, resume negotiations, and cooperate with Bretton Woods institutions.

However, it is regrettable that the EU is not actively involved in the ongoing process in Saudi Arabia.

And what about China?

The Chinese are never mentioned, even though they are the largest investors and Sudan’s top trading partner. Despite their position, they are not taking any action, an indifference that some may find scandalous. Similarly, the Russians play a very marginal role.

I don’t think Moscow would obstruct any efforts towards a ceasefire at the UN Security Council. This is because their interest lies not in supporting a specific individual but in ensuring the construction of their naval base project.

What could the consequences of the Sudanese conflict be in Libya?

It is both simple and very complicated. Southern Libya, which shares a border with Sudan, is largely controlled by General Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Egypt. However, the alliances are very complex.

On one hand, Hemeti has forged relationships with Haftar. On the other hand, there are armed movements in Darfur that are either neutral or allied with Burhan. These groups have a significant portion of their troops stationed in southern Libya and are, in a way, supported by Haftar.

The Libyan marshal can hardly go against Egypt’s policy of supporting Burhan. Nevertheless, the question remains: What will happen if all these fighters based in southern Libya decide to return to Darfur?

Could this conflict aggravate insecurity in Chad and the Central African Republic?

The RSF has recruited fighters from a large tribal confederation who have strong ties to Sudan but also to Chad. As long as Hemeti maintains control over his forces, there won’t be significant military effects on the Chadian side of the border.

However, if the RSF is defeated and the troops disperse, there will be security problems because some of these militia have families in Chad and will seek refuge there. This can create political aspirations and tension, especially at a time when the regime in N’Djamena shows little interest in the Arab communities in Chad.

The risk is also real on the CAR side. The country is already experiencing a humanitarian crisis, particularly in the north. Additionally, the Coalition of Patriots for Change [CPC, a CAR rebel alliance] is partly composed of troops who fought in Darfur before returning to the CAR.

What concerns do South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea have?

In the short term, the main concern is a humanitarian crisis with the additional difficulty of access. This is already the case in South Sudan, where military personnel and members of the RSF have sought refuge.

Ethiopia is also already in a difficult situation with the fighting in Tigray. Although Ethiopia has more sympathy for Hemeti than for Burhan, it’s in a position where it has no interest or inclination to get involved in this conflict.

As for Eritrea, it often needs to maintain good relations with the Sudanese government, regardless of who is in power. For now, Eritrea is remaining cautious and waiting to see which way the balance tips before taking a stance.

Are Burhan and Hemeti ready for a sustainable ceasefire?

Hemeti has a significant fighting force. However, since he has not been able to stop Burhan and gain control over the Sudanese army, he still faces some difficulties. Hemeti occupies part of Khartoum and denies a coup that could have taken place on 15 April.

But what can he gain? Not much at present. Some of his advisors say that he is ready for a ceasefire and the establishment of a political process. In that case, he could validate his late alliance with the civilians and feel that he has a role to play in the future.

Burhan is in a different situation. Within the army, the Islamic extremists have decided that Hemeti has to go. There is a certain alignment with Egypt, which believes that the leader of the RSF has become a problem that needs to be resolved once and for all.

The risk for Burhan, if he enters into negotiations, is that it could divide his army, and a part of it – particularly the radical Islamists – could break away from him. Moreover, the political agreement could bring him back to the situation that emerged from the 5 December agreement, which was not favourable to him and gave greater prominence to civilians.

It could also call into question the unity of the army. So for Burhan, it is imperative to continue the fight.

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