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The Military Confrontations in Sudan are Complicating the Crisis and Exacerbating Its Repercussions
Position Assessment | This assessment examines the turmoil and armed confrontations that erupted in Sudan between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), as such events come due to a disagreement over security and military reform, specifically regarding the issue of integrating the RSF into the armed forces.
by Karam Saeed
- Release Date – Apr 25, 2023
Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, is witnessing a state of cautious calm, after reaching a 72-hours truce that began at midnight on Monday, April 24, ceasing hostilities between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces, amid fears that more intense and fierce clashes might be resumed between the two parties. Some countries, catalyzed by concerns, are rushing to evacuate their nationals and diplomats from Sudan.
These developments come after months of tensions between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces, before becoming direct military confrontations on April 15, 2023, especially in the capital's vicinity of Khartoum, the Merowe region in northern Sudan, and around strategic military areas. Such confrontations raised fears regarding the possibility that transitional arrangements may collapse, bringing Sudan back to a state of instability.
According to many estimates, the unrest and military confrontations, between the two parties of the military component in Sudan, were not surprising; statements and counter-statements between the two sides during the past months, due to the dispute over security and military reform, are a serious contradiction within the military component, specifically on the issue of integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the armed forces. Thus, the confrontations came in the context of escalating and protracted tensions between the two sides.
Military Confrontations Causes
There are catalysts that led to escalate the tension between the two parties of the military component, leading to armed confrontations between them. The most salient catalysts addressed are the following:
First: The increase of polarizing discourse between the two sides of the crisis
One of the main reasons for the armed confrontations in Sudan is the divisive rhetoric of polarization between the two parties of the military component, their growing distrust, and the lack of confidence about their political orientations.
Over the past months, the intensity of hostile statements between the two sides was increased. While some army leaders described the "Rapid Support Forces" as a militia organization, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (AKA "Hemedti") in statements on April 15, 2023, described the Sudanese army leadership as a "criminal" and accused the army of carrying out a coup.
Such verbal defamations, however, were not the first of a kind; on March 7, 2023, Hemedti criticized the army leaders, accusing them of refusing to step down to allow a democratic transition of power under a civilian administration, adding in a speech that "his dispute, which became public in recent weeks with military leaders in the Sudanese army, is all about the issue of handing over the power to civilians".
Second: The issue of integration and security reform
The tension, between the two parties of the military component, is significantly related to the continued problematic reform of security and military institutions. Despite the statements of Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on how important it is to build a unified army, and the need to unify the Sudanese military institution via integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the institutional structures of the army, as a necessary condition for the success of the stalled political transition, but the Rapid Support Forces practical positions went in contrary way.
The clashes came after the rift between the two sides culminated, with the army insisting that the period for the RSF integration is two years, while the RSF demands that such period should be 10 years, a response that army leaders oppose. In this regard, the clash – that are likely to be prolonged- between the two parties of the military component, can be explained by the fact that each side clings to its options.
Third: The conflict over undertaking foreign files
The Department of Foreign Relations file is one of the catalysts that contributed in erupting the conflict between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, in light of the unremitting lack of a consensual transitional government in Sudan, after dissolving the Sovereignty Council and the Council of Ministers, besides declaring a state of emergency in the country, and suspending the articles of the Constitutional Document in October 2021. The dispute between the two sides escalated over undertaking Sudan's foreign relations. This dispute was clear in the two sides' efforts to undertake Sudan's relations with regional and international powers, especially Moscow, Washington, Tel Aviv, and Sudan's neighboring countries.
It is no secret that the Sudanese army sharply criticized the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, accusing him of seeking to create diplomatic relations parallel to the state's foreign relations, in a clear indication to Hemedti's relations with Russia, which he visited in February 2022, a visit that came after his tour that included the Middle East and North Africa.
Similarly, the division between the two parties of the military component, over Sudan's foreign positions, emerged when Hemedti's refused to participate in the military operations (launched by the Sudanese army last year) against Ethiopian armed groups, ensuing an escalated tension between Khartoum and Addis Ababa in June 2022, over the disputed border area of Fashaga.
The challenge between the two sides was not limited on undertaking foreign files; within the atmosphere of tension, each side turned very keen to obtain international and regional support, for example: Burhan visited Chad last January, and Hemedti arrived the next day. On February 6, on the eve of the devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, the Sudanese army sent an aid and relief plane to the afflicted, then the Rapid Support Forces sent their aid planes a week later.
Fourth: The extended impact of past disputes
The outbreak of military confrontations, between the army and the RSF, is not limited to some current factors, rather, it dates back to previous crises and periods, this is when the level of disagreement over leading the transitional period was at its highest. Perhaps the most evident features of this tension appeared after the signing of the Framework Agreement on December 5, 2022, as the Agreement gave the RSF independence from the armed forces, thus revealing another disagreement related to the commitment of the RSF commander to form a civilian government, but with limited civilian forces. The RSF leader intended to create political grassroots for him. On the other hand, the army adheres to form of a government with a broad base and a great national consensus.
While these disputes froze the final political settlement agreement determined on 6 April 2023, they precipitated in bringing the hidden tension to the surface, as evidenced by the deployment of the RSF elements on the ground in Sudanese states and military sites on 13 April, including Merowe airport and Khartoum.
Fifth: The struggle over sources of wealth and power
In a part of it, the outbreak of confrontations between the two parties is inseparable from the exacerbation of the conflict over the sources of wealth and power. Sudan's military expressed concern that the RSF is in control of gold mines in Jebel Amer region, and at least three other mines in South Kordofan and elsewhere, making the RSF a major player in Sudan's most lucrative industry. On the other hand, the RSF fears grew of the military's control over large military bases and production complexes, in addition to holding the centers of a large part of Sudan's foreign trade. The outbreak of confrontations between the two sides can be explained according to the previous idea, as each side is seeking to strategically expose its opponent, by influencing the sources of its strengths and capabilities.
The wide-open military confrontations in Sudan have important implications, addressed as follows:
First: Parallel military groups' power of influence
The RSF's military moves and commanding a large-scale attack on some military headquarters and strategic locations of the Sudanese military, demonstrate that the RSF has a plethora of strong capabilities that enabled it to take such step. On the other hand, the confrontations reveal that the RSF was seeking -for some time- to make a wide breakthrough in Sudan. In this regard, the Sudanese army's position can be explained by considering RSF a "rebel" group, despite calling its members to join the army.
Second: Political division exacerbation
Sudan is witnessing a state of deep political polarization. The confrontations between the army and the Rapid Support Forces were just one of their multiple manifestations of such polarization, as the confrontations indicate the scale of political polarization and societal division, in addition to the increase of the conflict between the two parties of the military component. Each party was attempting to weaken the other, especially since each party questions the legitimacy of the other, its right to express the interests of the Sudanese people, and also the issue of protecting the country's security.
Third: Waving deterrent power in the face of opponents
The reaction of the Sudanese army to the RSF movements, and announcing using the excessive force in the face of these movements, is a message of deterrence against the RSF. This was evident as the President of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, issued a decision on April 15 to end the transfer and assignment of the RSF, and attaching all RSF's officers to the Sudanese military, demanding them to immediately communicate with the nearest military units in the capital and the states.
On the other hand, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry announced on April 17 that the President of the Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, issued a decision to dissolve the Rapid Support Forces, declaring it a rebel force. Here, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces announcement can be understood as an intention to hold negotiate or dialogue, before the dissolution of the Rapid Support Forces.
The recent intention of consolidating deterrence force is consistent with the general approach of the military establishment in Sudan, as it counts on showing toughness towards RSF, in order to ensure that the relative power of the army is preserved in the country, and also to ensure that the country is not left to a state of instability.
There are many possible repercussions that could result from the current escalation in Sudan between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, presented as follows:
First: Testing the strength of the Sudanese army
The ability to confront the RSF, and address the possible repercussions of the ongoing clashes, will be a real test of the strength of the Sudanese army, and a test of its ability to hold the joints of the state and protect its domestic and foreign security, especially in light of the RSF's efforts to mobilize all its members to besiege the Sudanese army leaders, whose position was decisive on the need to integrate the RSF in the structures of the official military institution. It will also be a test concerning dismantling and rebuilding all RSF's bodies, in line with the movements and interests of the Sudanese army and its military doctrine. However, there are fears that the confrontations may develop and turn into a civil war, especially since the RSF began to partially rely on unconventional methods of warfare, are based on intermittent strikes in separate places, the matter that may exhaust the Sudanese army and add more costs on it to pay.
Second: The intensity of foreign engagement
In the context of international and regional concern about the deterioration of the security situation in Sudan, and with the continuation of open confrontations between the Sudanese army and the RSF, the regional and international parties, with interest links in Sudan, may seek to strengthen their involvement in Sudan during the coming period, in order to work on restoring calm, by calling to resume the dialogue between the two parties of the military component, and reopening the way for the purpose of completing the implementation of the Framework Agreement terms, including security sector reform.
The current escalation is also expected to push major international powers to enter massively on the crisis line, including both Moscow, which is seeking to establish a logistics center for the Russian navy in Sudan, as well as Washington, which is betting on using Khartoum as a spearhead to restore its influence on the African continent. These expected efforts might be by putting forward practical initiatives on the ground. Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said during a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, on April 18, that the crisis in Sudan is an internal affair, but Egypt can play a role in calming the situation and restoring security and stability between the parties.
Third: Freezing the democratic transition
The Framework Agreement, and the months-long negotiations between the civilian and military components, were a key point of support for stabilizing Sudan. However, the recent military confrontations between the two parties of the military component, which have reached unprecedented levels of threat, have raised several concerns about the future of Sudan's political transition. Despite the failure to sign the final political settlement agreement on April 6 hinders implementing some Framework Agreement provisions, signed in December 2022. The continuation of negotiations, between the various political and military forces in Sudan, has relatively guaranteed a degree of stability during the past period, in addition to that the discussions and rounds of dialogue, despite their tug of war, are a pillar on which to build on any subsequent consensus.
Fourth: The deterioration of the Sudanese economy
The ongoing military confrontations in Sudan are likely to afflict the already dire economic situation, as the tension between the two sides of the military component increases the likelihood of affecting the relative recovery of the economy, after the lifting of sanctions on Sudan. It is noteworthy that Sudan is still suffering from the continued decline in economic indicators, which created an environment to fuel political tensions on the one hand, while being an obstacle to the political transition process in the country.
The structural imbalances that Sudan suffers from are exacerbating the economy situation, with the sharp decline in the value of the Sudanese pound, causing a crisis or deficit in basic goods availability, and a decline in public services. The Sudanese economy is in a crisis over the past two years, especially after the United States froze in October 2021 its financial aid to the Khartoum government.
Fifth: The fade out of the military component' popularity
The military unrest between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, which has resulted in a number of civilian casualties and injuries, is infuriating the Sudanese street. In this context, broad popular sectors view the ongoing conflict as a race between the two sides of the crisis for immediate interests and extended influence. Therefore, this type of confrontation, and popular interpretations of it, could portend rising levels of discontent within Sudanese society towards military elites, regardless their orientations.
Finally, it can be said that the military confrontations in Sudan, between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, seem likely to further escalate. There are a set of other factors that push towards prolonging this conflict, the most important of which is that the Sudanese army, despite its control over part of the Rapid Support Forces headquarters, forcing it to withdraw from strategic military points, but it realizes that it is facing an asymmetric war with the Rapid Support Forces, which have experience in managing street warfare, in addition to the possibility of integrating RSF fighters with the civilian population, besides the RSF's ability to use unconventional battlefields, such as cyber warfare or hit-and-run warfare, all of that could pose a challenge to the Sudanese military. On the other hand, despite the escalation of tensions between the two sides of the crisis, there are some indications that this escalation may not to turn into open war. A detente could occur between the two parties of the military component, amid international and regional pressure and efforts, to push the process of calm forward between the parties to the conflict. However, this scenario remains unlikely at this time, given the insistence of each party on its demands, and the pursuit of its own agenda.
Researcher specializing in political affairs