Making sense of the complicated proxy war in Sudan

Hermedti (l) and Burhan

Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says the two main Sudanese generals are most to blame for war in the nation, but the picture is complicated by the vested interests of the U.S., Israel, Gulf nations, Egypt and Russia.

As the war in Yemen is starting to end, a new war is beginning in Sudan. But what the two conflicts on opposite sides of the Red Sea have in common is that both are in large part proxy wars, in which external intervention (especially from the Gulf) plays a major role.

It was to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken turned to urge greater efforts to restore calm and stop the war that erupted on Saturday between the two arch-allies: General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and his deputy General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti).

The latter attained his exalted rank without attending any military or civilian academy, but due to his leadership of the 100,000-strong Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia – notorious for its record of murder and repression in Darfur and his acquisition of vast amounts of stolen gold.

There have been several indications as to the allegiances of the parties fighting for power in Sudan and the identity of their external backers. In short, it seems Egypt is backing Burhan and the UAE and Russia are backing Hemedti. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabis’s position remains unclear.

I say this for the following reasons:

First, the attack by RSF forces on Egyptian personnel stationed at Merowe military base, many of whom were detained, implies Egypt is backing Burhan and the regular army he commands.

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Secondly, there are strong ties between Hemedti, who controls Sudan’s gold trade and mines, and the Russian Wagner Group. The U.S. has been pressing Burhan to expel the group on the grounds that it is a partner in the extraction and sale of this gold and uses the proceeds to fund Russia’s war in Ukraine; and that it is a spearhead of Russian influence in Africa and is setting the stage for the establishment of a Russian military base in Sudan.

Third, the UAE has become the biggest outside investor in Sudan. Just days ago it bought $1.5 billion worth of Sudanese gold, which Hemedti controls, as well as millions of hectares of agricultural land. The two sides are evidently very close. Hemedti’s RSF fought alongside the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, sending thousands of its fighters there.

Fourth, the Saudi position remains unclear and wavering between the two sides. A complicating factor is that Saudi Arabia’s ties are strained with both Egypt and the UAE, the principal backers of the rival warring sides.

The UAE sent a presidential advisor, rather than its foreign minister, to the recent Jeddah ministerial conference on Syria called for by Saudi Crown Prince Muhmmad Bin Salman. Relations with Egypt are not in great shape either. President Abdelfattah al-Sisi failed in his brief Ramadan visit to Jeddah to secure the quick package of financial aid he was seeking.

Demonstrating its outward neutrality, for now, Saudi Arabia urged Hemedti and Burhan to meet in Riyadh and negotiate an end to their war.

On paper, Sudan’s regular army ranks as the 75th most powerful in the world, with 205,000 personnel, 191 (ageing) warplanes, and 170 tanks. In theory that means it has the upper hand and is more likely to defeat Hemedti’s rebel forces. But that is far from assured amid the growing external intervention.

This war can only end by one side beating and crushing the other, not through mediation or eloquent appeals for an immediate halt. All the signs indicate that it may be prolonged, and could develop into a civil or inter-regional war that brings armed anarchy to the country.

If the Yemen war (which was supposed to be settled in three months) lasted eight years, and the Lebanese civil war dragged on for 15, how long might a Sudanese civil war continue if ignited?

That would be an awful prospect. Around 200 people have already been killed and hundreds in injured in the fighting, many of them civilians. It is to be hoped that a cease-fire is quickly agreed. But alarm and pessimism are warranted by the meddling of the external players that conspired to trigger this war and continue to pour fuel on the fires, and by the worsening quarrels between them.

The only positive among the conflicting reports about the course of the war is that the good people of Sudan do not support either side. They hold both responsible for the economic collapse, the breakdown in security, the growing hunger (a third of Sudanese are below the hunger line according to the World Food Programme), and above all aborting the agreement to transfer power to the civilian groups that carried out the revolution against the military regime and its serial coups.

Sudan is the victim of a major conspiracy that could lead to any outcome, including partition or civil war. The military establishment is unquestionably responsible for playing the biggest role in causing this calamity. The power-struggles between its generals and commanders are driven by purely selfish motives, with no regard for the country’s territorial unity or the interests and well-being of its people.

This is what comes of normalisation with Israel, and the big American con-trick that promised the Sudanese people prosperity and bounty if Burhan shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hemedti goes grovelling to Tel Aviv and turns to it as a friendly state that will solve all Sudan’s problems.

This article first appeared in Raialyoum.

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