As clashes break out again in Sudan, the crisis in this African country unleashed a week ago over the reform of the security forces is triggering fears of a regional contagion and that forces from other countries may decide to intervene or support one of the sides. Fighting between military rivals vying for power resumed Saturday in the capital, Khartoum, in the vicinity of the presidential palace and the army’s General Command. In addition, a shell hit the Mansura residential area of Um Durman, near Khartoum, killing six people, humanitarian sources and witnesses told Efe news agency. Explosions have also been heard north of the presidential palace, and fighter jets are flying over the city, despite the cease-fire planned between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (FAR).
The truce proposed by the UN for three days was not respected. Despite this, the leader of the army, Abdelfatá al Burhan, announced that the evacuation of the nationals of several countries, including the United States, France, China and the United Kingdom, will begin “in the next few hours”.
A first indication of the risks of third party involvement in an already unstable region came on April 15, when fighting broke out in Khartoum. Another important battle was fought 300 kilometers to the north, which went more unnoticed and took place at a strategic air base located at the airport in the town of Merowe, more famous for the Nubian pyramids. The base was captured with relative ease by the paramilitaries, who were quick to disseminate a video of the site on social networks. In it, it was clear that they wanted to show not just who was holding control, but something more: Egyptian fighter jets stationed at the base and detained soldiers, some of whom were wearing Egyptian military uniforms.
Earlier this week, the Sudanese army recaptured Merowe without resistance from the paramilitaries, according to local media. By then, most of the Egyptian fighters had already been destroyed, satellite images show. But when they left, the paramilitaries took Egyptian soldiers to Khartoum, as they admitted in a statement that felt like blackmail to Cairo, which has close ties with Sudan’s military. Egypt then gave FAR leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo a 72-hour ultimatum, an Egyptian media reported. And shortly thereafter the handover of the uniformed men to the Red Cross was confirmed. By Thursday, all the Egyptian troops involved had returned, according to the army.
The episode of the Egyptian soldiers points to the danger to the future of the fighting in Sudan posed by the possible intervention of regional actors. The hostilities, which have already killed more than 400 people and injured 3,500, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), were sparked by an internal power struggle, not foreign interference. But as the clashes drag on, analysts fear that forces from the area will intrude and further aggravate the conflict, as has happened in neighboring countries such as Libya.
The Libyan predecent
So far there is no solid evidence that any actor from outside Sudan is providing support to one of the warring parties. But mistrust runs deep, especially towards non-state groups with which the FAR already had a relationship before the conflict. One of them is the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), strong in eastern Libya on the border with Sudan, which has already had to deny that it has assisted the Sudanese paramilitaries after being accused of having sent them military support.
Another hypothetical actor is the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which already operates in neighboring countries such as Libya and the Central African Republic and has been active for years in Sudan, where it has woven good relations with Dagalo, mostly linked to gold trafficking, according to the U.S. Treasury, but also to security. The Wagner group has been present in Sudan for years.
“FAR has some pre-existing links, including with General [Khalifa] Hafter in Libya, and also with the United Arab Emirates, but this does not necessarily mean that either is actively arming or resourcing it now, although the situation demands scrutiny,” says scholar Sharath Srinivasan, author of the book When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention and Endless Wars in the Sudans.
Alleged meddling by non-state groups such as the ENL and Wagner is not considered sufficient to tip the balance in Sudan, as their capacity is limited. But there are fears that, should it occur, it could be enough to maintain the disorder.
“When we talk about involvement of other countries, it’s not necessarily governments, but rebel forces and militias,” explains Cameron Hudson, a former CIA member with experience in Sudan and an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If it were to start happening in a serious way, it’s easy for governments to get dragged in,” he warns.
One key country is the United Arab Emirates, which has been weaving a complex web of intermediaries, companies and mercenaries for years to advance its interests in the region and includes, among others, Hafter in Libya, Dagalo in Sudan and the Wagner group, says King’s College London researcher Andreas Krieg, who has been following Emirati operations in the area for years.
“What you end up with is a kind of triangle of non-state actors using networks closely linked to the Emirates,” Krieg says. “What we see now in Sudan is also an extension of the networks that the Emiratis had established in Libya,” he argues.
Further south, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also came out on Friday to deny rumors of an alleged deployment of his country’s troops in Fashaga, a fertile border area with Sudan that the two countries have long disputed and which has generated cyclical spikes in violence in recent years.
At the other extreme, Egypt’s military authorities have a long-standing relationship with Sudan’s military leadership, but their primary objective is to maintain security on the southern border. “Egypt considers Sudan its backyard and what happens is a matter of national security,” notes Krieg, “but the Egyptian military is very risk averse.”
“Despite reports of Hafter’s limited military supplies from Libya, Egyptian aircraft in Sudan and Wagner’s offer of weapons for FAR, no foreign government has so far taken a position of support for one of the two belligerents, which is a hopeful sign,” believes Gerrit Kurtz, a research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “External actors must admit that neither side can be assured of a quick victory, even with their additional support,” he adds.
Parallel to the fears of foreign intervention in Sudan, there are also concerns about the consequences of further instability in Sudan for the Horn of Africa, where there are already open wounds in countries such as Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia that have left thousands dead and millions displaced.
In the Sahel zone, the Defense Ministry reported Monday that the army had disarmed 320 Sudanese soldiers who had crossed its border. And according to the UN refugee agency, between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians from eastern Darfur have already sought refuge in Chad since the fighting began.
This turbulent regional context also presents an obstacle to finding the most effective way to mediate between the army and the FAR, as so far no neighboring country or regional body has been able to set itself up as an arbiter. “Chad, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia all have interests and some have preferences between the army and the FAR,” Srinivasan notes.
In addition to possible foreign interference, the future of the fighting in Sudan will also be strongly shaped by what happens inside the country. For now, some of the most intense clashes have been concentrated in Khartoum, but they have also spread alarmingly to Darfur.
A prolongation of the conflict in Darfur, the paramilitary stronghold, could also provoke internal fissures in the two sides. At the top and among the ranks of the army, there are members linked to the Islamist movement that supported former dictator Omar Al Bashir – ousted in 2019 after 30 years in power – with strong influence vis-à-vis its commander, Abdefata Al Burhan, and who repudiate Dagalo. On the other hand, the paramilitaries have never been a cohesive regular force with a strong chain of command, particularly in Darfur, where tribal divisions and rivalry with other chiefs and militiamen also come into play.
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