Washington must lean on Abu Dhabi to halt its support for Hemeti’s RSF.
In September, the United States imposed sanctions on senior leaders of the Wagner Group-backed Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which has been fighting the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) since violence erupted in Khartoum on April 15. The State Department announced visa restrictions on Gen. Abdul Rahman Juma, the RSF’s West Darfur commander, citing his involvement in human rights violations.
Similarly, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Gen. Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo, the brother of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo and a deputy leader of the RSF, for the paramilitary group’s role in human rights violations and ethnic killings in Sudan. While these steps suggest a shift in U.S. policy toward the conflict in Sudan, Washington needs to do more to help end the violence.
The U.S. government sanctioned business entities related to both the SAF and RSF on June 1, signaling a policy of equivalence toward the warring sides. However, the recent U.S. sanctions targeted only the RSF, suggest a slight shift in U.S. policy. As the RSF’s crimes reached an unprecedented level, the United States could not ignore Wagner’s ally in Sudan. Many U.S. lawmakers remember the 2003 Darfur genocide.
Despite all the RSF’s exorbitant lobbying and propaganda campaigns on Capitol Hill, the RSF is a synonym for the infamous janjaweed militia that killed thousands of Darfuris under Hemeti’s command. The United States made it clear with the new wave of sanctions that it won’t stand by while a new janjaweed repeats its genocide in Darfur and wreaks havoc in the country. While the U.S. government has many concerns about the SAF’s conduct, there is a clear distinction between a professional military and a family-based militia being advised by the Wagner Group and jointly operating gold mines linked to Russia.
However, these new sanctions lack teeth for one simple reason: The measures will not significantly hamper the RSF militarily or deter its atrocities because of the group’s vast financial network that operates out of the United Arab Emirates.
Inspired by the Wagner Group’s financial strategies, Hemeti created an enormous network of shadow companies run by Algoney Hamdan Dagalo, his younger brother in Dubai. However, the U.S. government is having a tough time dealing with its Gulf partner’s compliance with sanctions. Recent reports have shown that Wagner and Russian entities still operate out of the UAE despite U.S. sanctions.
This month, senior U.S., U.K., and European Union officials visited the UAE to press the Gulf country over redirecting dual-use goods to Russia. Washington should also work closely with the UAE to expose the RSF’s financial empire and target these entities that finance crimes against humanity in Sudan.
Furthermore, the U.S. government should put more pressure on the UAE to stop weapons shipments to the RSF. A recent Wall Street Journal report uncovered dozens of Emirati arms deliveries to the RSF through Amdjarass Airport in eastern Chad. Additionally, new footage from Sudan showed that the Wagner-backed militia had acquired new sophisticated weapons recently. One drone that the SAF shot down had clear tags indicating that it was made in Serbia and sold to the UAE. Another clip showed a new Kornet anti-tank missile in the hands of a militia soldier, which Wagner supplied in exchange for RSF gold.
The RSF used both weapons in its recent offensive in southern Khartoum. Still, the U.S. government has not condemned the UAE’s arms shipments. In a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed that weapons are going into Sudan through neighboring countries, but she didn’t name these countries. The RSF didn’t have these advanced weapons when the group began its campaign to seize power in April. Now, with this sophisticated weaponry, the RSF is able to attack fortified army bases and surrounding civilian neighborhoods.
The persistence of these advanced arms shipments landing in RSF hands is prolonging the conflict in Sudan and providing the human rights violator more power to commit more atrocities. Stopping these shipments could drastically alter the balance of power on the battlefield because it would limit the RSF’s ability to attack the SAF’s armored division and bases. Such a step will also freeze Wagner’s gold enterprise in Sudan, which is helping to fund the Russian assault on Ukraine.
Washington has the leverage to influence the UAE to drop its alliance with Hemeti and pursue its other strategic interests in the region. Despite recent hiccups in bilateral relations, the UAE remains an essential U.S. security and economic partner in the Middle East.
The UAE has vital interests in Sudan’s ports and agricultural lands. Months before the war, the UAE announced a $6 billion project on the Red Sea in eastern Sudan. The planned project included a new port, an airport, and a road to an agricultural zone in northern Sudan.
Abu Dhabi’s interests in Sudan can be well served without supporting Hemeti’s militia; indeed, a stable, peaceful country is better for such business. It is worth mentioning that the people of eastern and northern Sudan share an intense enmity toward the RSF, as many victims sought refuge there. As a result of its support for the RSF, the UAE is damaging its public image and long-term strategic interests in Sudan by supporting Hemeti.
“Instead of more threats, we need to act now.” These were the words of Joe Biden—then a U.S. senator—calling for an immediate stop to the genocide in Darfur in 2007. After five months of the war in Sudan, it is time for the U.S. government to listen to those members of Congress who demand to act against an aggressor who is committing atrocities against the people of Sudan.
A U.S. presidential special envoy to Sudan is needed to signal the White House’s strong engagement and to coordinate between the Africa and Near East bureaus at the State Department. But more importantly, the U.S. government should prevent the RSF from funding and arming its genocidal campaign through proxy companies in the UAE. Biden must not allow another genocide under his watch.
*Yasir Zaidan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington and former lecturer at the National University of Sudan. Twitter: @YasirZaidan91