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ChathamHouse.org: How a transnational approach can better manage the conflict in Sudan

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 26 December 2023

Approaching conflict as a national issue sidelines a complex web of transnational influences and threatens prospects for sustainable peace.

Currently much of the world’s attention is focused on the UN’s struggle to achieve a ceasefire and avert hmanitarian catastrophe in Palestine. At the same time, another devastating war rages in Sudan, with similarly violent consequences for millions of people and an inability to reach a ceasefire.  

Sudan is now the country with the largest number of displaced people in the world – more than 11 million people. Since April alone, 5.4 million people have been internally displaced and 1.3 million have fled to neighbouring countries including Chad, Egypt, and South Sudan. While over half the population – 25 million people (including 13 million children) – urgently need humanitarian assistance.   

The toll of the war on civilians continues to worsen, with devastating intercommunal violence and ethnic cleansing across Darfur, huge infrastructural damage, as well as loss of livelihoods and escalating humanitarian strife. 

Sudan is now the country with the largest number of displaced people in the world.

On the surface, the war in Sudan may seem like a typical civil war. Two rivals, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), are fighting for land and power.

The RSF have made gains in Khartoum and Darfur, where they are consolidating control, while the SAF have suffered a series of humbling defeats that seem to have made elements within their leadership more open to negotiations.

An effective partition has emerged in Sudan, with the SAF controlling the east and northeast and RSF controlling much of the capital and west of the country.

The transnational elements of the Sudanese conflict

However, looking at the conflict in Sudan as merely a civil war between two national groups is misleading. Sudan sits at the confluence of four regions, the Horn of Africa, North Africa, the Sahel, and the Arabian Gulf across the Red Sea.

Both the SAF and RSF engage economically, politically, and militarily with a motley of governments and armed groups from these regions (and beyond) to fight their war.

In its pursuit to control the supply chain of gold, the RSF has extended its economic operations beyond Sudan’s borders, selling primarily to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has consequently become a key backer.

The SAF accrue rents not only through taxing exports and imports transiting Port Sudan, but also by receiving support from foreign governments including Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, including via the sale of strategic commodities such as gold and livestock. Economic processes not only connect Sudan to the region, but also facilitate the supply chains that fuel and sustain the conflict.  

Sudan sits at the confluence of four regions. Both the SAF and RSF engage with a motley of governments and armed groups from these regions to fight their war.

These foreign actors also view Sudan as a playground for their own pursuit of regional influence. For instance, the UAE competes against its Gulf rival Qatar, with the former backing the RSF and the latter supportive of the SAF.

The UAE leverages its other regional allies, from Libya’s Haftar to the government of Chad, while the SAF have sought support from Turkey and Iran in providing them with drones to use in the war. These positions have complicated attempts to mediate between the warring parties during the Saudi–US sponsored Jeddah talks.

Many fear that without a swift and durable ceasefire this war could divide the country, with both sides declaring their own governments. If the war becomes protracted then further fragmentation and militarization is likely, including along ethnic lines. This will only worsen the humanitarian disaster and regional spillover.

A sense of growing urgency has driven recent mediation efforts by the regional bloc IGAD, given the limited success of other interventions to date. However, the lack of heft and collective approach needed of the international response has contributed to the inadequacy in resolving the war. This means negotiating not only between the two sides, but navigating all the transnational actors who have a stake in the conflict.  

Gaps in country-focused analysis

Many conflicts around the world suffer from similar dynamics, but policymakers often engage them as bounded by national borders, excluding the interests and influence of actors who fuel the conflict from other countries. 

This is partly a product of the structures of foreign policy and international development. For instance, the UK government has for several years administered Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability (JACS), used to guide the National Security Council Strategies. These JACS are in most cases country-focused, meaning they are based on the analysis of conflict advisors and external consultants who work on the country in question.

Many conflicts around the world suffer from similar transnational dynamics, but policymakers often engage in them as bounded by national borders.

What the exercise often misses, however, is analysis from advisors and experts who work on countries that seem geographically distant, but which nonetheless have a stake and fuel the conflict. In such cases, regional JACS should be more central to decision-making. In Sudan, for example, the wide array of country teams which focus on the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Egypt, the Gulf, Turkey, and Iran, should all be part of the analysis of the current conflict.

The gap in the analysis phase extends to both policymaking and programming in these conflicts. Most programmes that deliver aid or offer institutional support (like building hospitals or implementing anti-corruption initiatives) are confined to teams which focus on the country where the conflict has erupted.

However, these initiatives again become susceptible to transnational actors and processes which are not always identified by the country-specific focus. This means that potential spoilers may be present which do not map on the policymakers’ horizon, challenging the sustainability of peace agreements or development projects.  

In the Middle East and Africa, armed conflicts that have erupted in places like Sudan are not confined to national borders. These dynamics are also seen in the conflict in Sinjar, Iraq, where armed groups with authority across multiple countries vie for control; or in Libya where the smuggling and trafficking of people from Nigeria across multiple borders fuels conflict along the way; or in Israel and Palestine where regional and foreign governments arm and support one side or the other.

None of these conflicts are isolated from their wider regional and international arenas of interlocking actors, processes, and geographies that transcend the bounded terrain of nation states. Yet, current initiatives by foreign governments or multilateral organizations approach them by doubling down on those national borders.

This includes either closing off or securitizing borders, or focusing conflict response mainly on actors who come from within those borders. While external interests are often understood, solutions are developed largely in national terms, often sidelining the more complicated web of foreign influence.

Chatham House’s XCEPT research works to bridge these gaps and consider how transnational dimensions of conflict fuel and (re)produce armed conflict, often over great distances. This reality is critical to understanding why and how armed violence erupts and, critically, how to achieve more sustainable peace.  

 

 

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