The ongoing conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is a pivotal event in the modern history of Sudan. With hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians killed in the conflict, there has been a deep sense of horror particularly in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, resulting in 2.5 million residents of the city fleeing to nearby regions of Sudan, or neighboring countries Chad and Egypt.
For those remaining in Khartoum, fear and anxiety are constant, as gunfire, heavy artillery, and smoke rise above the city, fighter jets fly at low altitude over residential areas. The current war will have a devastating mental health impact, in addition to its many fatalities and physical injuries. Children in particular are more likely to suffer severe depression, flashback and post-traumatic events as a result of exposure to the horrific violence and abuses.
Exacerbating these anxieties is the use by both the SAF and RSF of psychological warfare. Through social media, both sides have shared graphic content from the battlefield, intended to intimidate their opponents and influence public opinion in their favor. Much of this content has been impossible to verify independently. The SAF has struggled to gain legitimacy with the public, discredited for being part of the former regime of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s long-time former dictator. The SAF leadership claims to be fighting for stability in Sudan, despite allowing the proliferation of former regime-backed militias since the ousting of Bashir in 2019.
Meanwhile, the RSF leadership has used media outlets to claim they are fighting against the SAF for being part of the former regime. Their stated intention is to restart the process of handing power from the military to civilian politicians in the framework agreement signed with the Forces of Freedom and Change, which came to an end with the military takeover in October, 2021. However, the RSF’s claim is grossly misleading, as the RSF has been accused of committing genocide in Darfur since 2003.
In both cases, the message is clear. Each side wishes to give the perception that it is winning the war on the ground. But, neither has been strong enough to achieve outright control of Khartoum. Hence, they merely seek to mislead people who are not residents of the city.
The current war in Sudan arguably represents a long power struggle between the RSF, currently led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo or “Hemedti,” and remnants of the Bashir regime that dominate the SAF, headed by Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan. Since the Bashir regime was toppled, its supporters have used the transition period to organize.
The SAF has targeted activists, members of resistance committees and politicians with arbitrary arrests and accusing them of backing the RSF. Over the last four years, they have waged a war against Sudan’s demand for democracy. Effectively blocking all political efforts to ensure a smooth post-2019 transition, they have sought to prevent the outcome of a credible civilian democratic government. They have instigated violence, attacked civilians, and portrayed the revolution as a project planned in the West to divide Sudan.
Furthermore, the SAF’s leadership has made use of Sudan’s lucrative black market to sabotage any economic progress. They have done so through raising the foreign currency rate against the Sudanese pound and creating shortages in the country, prompting the Sudanese people to feel economic pressure and protest against the civilians in power, providing justification for the military counterparts to launch their takeover. The emergence of numerous militias was encouraged, and the security forces that once maintained the Bashir regime’s security turned a blind eye to crimes such as robbery, burglary, and aggravated bodily harm.
Historically, the SAF is the oldest security institution of the state, and civilian political parties have used it to capture power in 1958, 1969 and 1989. After al-Bashir’s coup in 1989, the Sudanese Islamists Movement, precursor of the National Congress Party (NCP), stacked senior officer positions in the SAF with their supporters.
Simultaneously, the regime created various security institutions and militias to counterbalance the threat of a further coup, and to crush rebellions in outlying areas of Sudan. One of these security forces was the RSF, which originated in the early 2000s as the Janjaweed, Arab militiamen used by Bashir to defeat insurgencies in Darfur. Most Janjaweed fighters were of the Rizigat tribe, which includes the Mahria branch of which Hemedti is a member. In 2017, Sudan’s parliament passed the Rapid Support Forces Act legitimating the militia. When Bashir felt threatened by his competitors within the NCP, he summoned the RSF to Khartoum to protect him; ultimately, it was the RSF’s desertion of Bashir which sealed his regime’s fate.
After Bashir was toppled in 2019, Burhan became the president of Sudan, appointing Hemedti as his deputy in August 2019. Burhan’s focus was on staying in power and preventing the transition to civilian rule. Burhan feared that out of power, he may be prosecuted for his claimed role in the Darfur genocide alongside Hemedti. To reduce any possibility of being ousted, he empowered Hemedti by abolishing article 5 of the RSF Act, allowing the RSF to act independently of the SAF command structure, while establishing loose ties to Burhan.
Hemedti was able to increase the number of his forces from 20,000 to over 100,000, most being trained in SAF camps in Khartoum. The RSF was tasked with protecting strategic sites in Khartoum, including the presidential palace, general command, Khartoum airport, and the building of Sudan’s Television and Broadcast Corporation. Burhan also retired several SAF generals who had criticized the expansion and new roles of the RSF.
Ironically, Burhan’s focus on staying in power resulted in his clash with Hemedti, who had his own presidential ambitions. Over time, Burhan and Hemedti started to compete with one another, regionally and internationally. Hemedti cemented his ties with Russia through the Wagner Group, a relationship with its origins in Bashir’s request for Russia’s help in protecting his regime in 2017. In 2018, it emerged that Wagner was contracted to train the regime’s security forces, including the RSF, in riot control.
Hemedti’s relationship with Wagner expanded through gold smuggling operations that helped Russia offset the sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine, and the RSF’s support and Hemedti’s influence for Wagner’s extraction of resources in the Central African Republic (CAR). In January 2023, Hemedti used his forces to close the Sudanese-CAR border, to prevent CAR opposition forces from using Sudanese territory. Wagner has supplied the RSF with anti-aircraft missiles that have deterred the SAF from attacking its positions in Khartoum in the current conflict.
The RSF-Wagner relationship has deepened as a result of both paramilitary groups’ relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE is a key destination of Sudan’s mineral resources, for example receiving 40 percent of Sudan’s gold exports. Geopolitically, Wagner, Hemedti and the UAE are all backers of Libya’s Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Hemedti sent 1000 RSF fighters to support Haftar’s attempt to take over Libya’s capital Tripoli in 2019, when Egypt refused to send ground forces to support Haftar despite also being an ally. There are indications that, in return, the UAE has been supporting Hemedti and the RSF in Sudan’s current conflict.
Burhan has also developed close regional alliances. Burhan received military training in Egypt, and the Egyptian Armed Forces today sees the SAF as the only institution that can hold Sudan together, and represent Egypt’s own interests in the country. The Egyptian leadership deeply distrusts Hemedti and the RSF, who they view as a mercenary group with no loyalty to the state. Egypt has accordingly provided the SAF with covert air defence aid in its current conflict with the RSF.
Burhan also uses his position as the president of Sudan, and commander of the SAF, to win the backing of Saudi Arabia. Strategically, Saudi Arabia needs to ensure the security of its Red Sea investments that are part of its Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia has also proven to be interested in investing in and deepening trade relations with Sudan, putting it in competition with the UAE’s influence represented in Hemedti and the RSF.
The current conflict has militarily incapacitated the forces of both Burhan and Hemedti, with Khartoum becoming a graveyard for their soldiers. The fighting has shown that both sides are just interested in cementing their own regimes in a post-conflict scenario. It remains to be seen how civilians will be able to resist whichever party, with its regional backers, emerges victorious from the violence, and continue Sudan’s long journey towards democracy.
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