Date: Friday, 28 April 2023
In full view of diplomats and international organisations in Khartoum, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had been preparing for battle for several months in the run-up to the outbreak of fighting on 15 April (AC Vol 64 No 8, Missed deadlines are part of the plan). The most surprising point about the clashes was how quickly they escalated into full-scale conflict in the capital. In little more than a week, most diplomats, many international officials and dual nationals have fled the country, reinforcing Sudanese people's sense of abandonment and fears, once more, that the warring factions would have impunity for mass slaughter of civilians.
Despite multiple attempts to dampen the tensions after the SAF commander General Abdel Fattah al Burhan and RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' failed to reach agreement on integrating their forces by the 29 March deadline, preparations for a fight to the finish rumbled on (AC Vol 64 No 9, Mediators proliferate as fighting intensifies and more flee Khartoum). Among the most telling signs were both sides' recruitment of local militia fighters in Darfur, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting outside of Khartoum (see Box, AC Vol 64 No 8, Battle of the Generals plays out in the rival militias).
The military balance remains tenuous after 10 days of fighting. We have heard reports of local clashes where one side has quickly lost, sometimes overnight, its advantage over the other. The fierce fighting in Nyala and El Fasher in Darfur over the last week has not been conclusive; each side has been able to reverse advances by the other.
For now, a few points seem clear. The RSF are still controlling most of Khartoum, including some symbolically important locations, such as the Presidential palace. The early clashes were confined to the outskirts of the capital but are now centred on Omdurman and Bahri (Khartoum North). Attempts by the SAF to break through to the southern part of the city, the K2 area, seem to have failed for now.
The metropolis of the capital, with some 7 million people, sprawls across the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile (see Map) and comprises three cities: Khartoum, Bahri and Omdurman. The RSF and the SAF are using different tactics across this vast conurbation.
The RSF is more mobile across the city and controls most of the main avenues. They announce their presence by shooting in the air and speeding around in technicals (heavily armed pick-up trucks). As militia fighters, many with combat experience in Yemen and Libya, the RSF fighters are bolder than their counterparts in the SAF.
Hemeti is facing two key challenges. Casualties are high among his troops (some observers say he has already lost over 1,000 fighters in Khartoum) Now he is calling in reinforcements from regions (notably West Kordofan) where the balance of forces is fragile. The RSF's latest recruits in Khartoum look younger but are less well trained than those that Hemeti had stationed in the capital over the past four years.
Fuel will be in high demand soon despite the reserves and supply lines from southern Libya. Reports on 26 April that RSF troops had seized control of Khartoum's oil refinery could prove critical.
Hemeti and advisors had calculated that the fight against the SAF would be short, if not a blitzkrieg. Their military planning looks closer to that a coup d'état. They had expected their targeting of the main military facilities, especially airports, in the cities would dramatically weaken the SAF. And by seizing the symbols of power in the capital, they could claim a quick victory on the ground.
But the SAF was ready and quickly called in air support. When RSF fighters surrounded the airport at Merowe on 13 April – a move which triggered national fighting two days later – they had wanted to show that the SAF was weak and dependent on Egypt. And the RSF took several Egyptian hostages whom they subsequently, and surprisingly, released. The RSF's message about Cairo's involvement got lost in the SAF's quick fightback.
Most of the SAF's senior officers had expected to fight the RSF. The main questions were when and how it would start. For months, Gen Burhan allowed officers who had been associated with militias set up under President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir's regime to rebuild them across the country. On 20 April, Burhan annulled the 2017 presidential order Number 450 that integrated 40,000 Border Guard Forces within the RSF. This latest effort was to promote defections among Hemeti's troops by offering them an alternative to the RSF. It was also meant to strengthen another Darfuri warlord, Musa Hilal, an arch-rival of Hemeti.
For now, the fighting is between two heavily armed factions, the SAF and RSF, whose size and weaponry would constitute substantive national armies in most countries. Sudanese people are hostages in this tragedy. Their community organisations, especially the brave resistance committees that spearheaded the national revolt to oust Beshir, have shown impressive solidarity, distributing food, medicine and clean water under the most dangerous conditions, often targeted by both warring factions.
Following from this, many are asking whether the mainly urban clashes across the country can mutate into civil war. In the north and east, and much of Khartoum, few will side with the RSF and may unenthusiastically rely on the SAF to defeat it. Civil war in those areas is unlikely.
In parts of Kordofan and Darfur the prospects are grimmer. The RSF, and its janjaweed precursor, has a long history of recruitment in those areas. Some communities side with Hemeti against the SAF. Other communities want to chase out the RSF and the groups that support it, including those coming across the border from Chad and Central African Republic (AC Vol 64 No 5, Border troubles threaten the region). Should the SAF enter this fight with its sponsored militias, it would rapidly escalate matters.
A key factor in Darfur will be the stance taken by armed groups, such as Minni Arkoi Minnawi's Sudan Liberation Army. More than the Justice and Equality Movement, whose leader Jibril Ibrahim was finance minister in the Sovereignty Council, the SLA has firepower in Darfur. So far, JEM and the SLA have declined to back either of the main factions.
The exodus of diplomats through the Wadi Seidna military airport, north of Khartoum, sends a chilling message to the Sudanese: there won't be any external witnesses to the bloodshed in Khartoum and elsewhere. Despite fulsome expressions of concern from foreign capitals, as well as from the UN and the African Union, many governments may simply wait for a winner to emerge from the carnage.
Only the most hopeful expect that the UN, the AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) together with key foreign power brokers, such as the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Quad mechanism may be able to broker an early return to negotiations for a transition to civil rule and elections. This horrific conflict may produce an indelible conclusion – that the armed forces are incapable of ruling Sudan.
HOW POLITICS SHAPES THE MILITARY BALANCE
The widely-reported picture of the Sudan Armed Forces as a national army fighting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a rogue paramilitary force, omits some key political factors. General Abdel Fattah al Burhan is relying on other military operators, especially the successors to the Islamist Popular Defence Forces that had thrived under the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regimes of Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir until his ousting in April 2019. After that, the PDF was renamed the Reserve Department and put under the formal command of the SAF. The associated Islamist parties, the NIF/NCP, were proscribed and their assets and properties, amounting to billions of dollars, confiscated. Those who suspected such changes were cosmetic, given the Islamist orientation of the SAF's officer corps, have been proven right.
Many of Beshir's allies and sundry Islamists are now working in coordination with Lieutenant Gen Shamsudeen al Kabbashi, a key member of the Transitional Sovereign Council (AC Vol 63 No 10, Burhan lets the Islamists back in). Reports on 26 April that the detained former Interior Minister Ahmed Haroun, who is indicted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges like his former boss Beshir, was freed from the Kober prison in Khartoum reinforces a sense of resurgence of the old regime. SAF officers say that Beshir was moved to a military hospital before the clashes started.
This raises the question of who commands the SAF. Multiple sources in the country have told us its military tactics on 15 April were coordinated by a militia group under the authority of veteran Islamist Ali Ahmed Karti (former PDF commander and Foreign Minister) and Usama Abdallah (former manager of the Merowe Dam). They were leading figures in the NCP.
On his social media platforms, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' emphasises these developments, hoping to win some international kudos by citing the threat of an Islamist regime returning to power in Khartoum. But as a sponsored militia leader and former 'protector' of Beshir, Hemeti's credibility in this regard is limited.
The SAF has honed its tactics after three decades of brutal warfare against rebel armies and its repression of civilian opponents. It specialises in using heavy artillery and aerial bombing to force its opponents into submission – in the war in South Sudan, where over two million died, as well as resistance movements in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur.
Yet, SAF officers are reluctant to deploy ground forces. Instead, they prefer to send in their specialised units (paratroopers and other special forces) with heavy back-up. Its Military Intelligence units, and associated groups such as the PDF, are ruthless and expert at setting up local militia forces to fight insurgents. That strategy, behind the Beshir regime's use of janjaweed fighters against its opponents in Darfur, led to the military, and then political, rise of Hemeti, although he detests the derogatory janjaweed term.
In fighting on the ground, the SAF looks ill-matched against the RSF. Its soldiers are more static. They depend on artillery and the air force to bombard RSF targets before they move in. That has led to the RSF taking over more houses and offices as shields in the capital, leading to even more civilian casualties. By 26 April, over 450 civilians had been killed in Khartoum and thousands more wounded with little prospect of hospital treatment.
In Khartoum, the SAF's march across the city is slow but deliberate. Its forces comb the small streets, searching for RSF fighters while their artillery bombards RSF positions on the city's main boulevards. Considering itself, and trying to persuade others, that it is the legitimate national army, the SAF thinks time is on its side in the fight for Khartoum.
Playing on what they calculate as the prejudices of the riverine groups against fighters from the hinterland, SAF officers assume people in the capital will back them against Hemeti's often undisciplined fighters. Yet both sides have been robbing and raping civilians since fighting started. Criminals and sundry Islamist activists have donned military fatigues for props as chaos mounts in the city. Over 15 medical doctors, including some of the most eminent surgeons, have lost their lives in the past week.