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Sudan: the longer the conflict lasts, the higher the risk of a regional war

A group of men standing on board a military vessel with a flag hoisted on its mast.
Saudi security officers stand guard off the seaport of Port Sudan in April 2023. Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

The 2019 Sudan uprisings that ousted long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir and installed a military-civilian transitional government gave hope that the northern African country could finally transition to democratic rule. The country has been ruled by the military for most of its independence since 1956.

But Sudan’s bumpy transition to democracy has come to a complete halt. The country now faces the worst conflict in its history as a full-blown civil war – with external entanglements – looms.

The Sudanese armed forces and a paramilitary force known as the Rapid Support Forces have declared war against each other, bringing the country to its knees. The main protagonists are two generals: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the armed forces, and Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) of the Rapid Support Forces.

The hostilities have been most intense in the capital city, Khartoum. But violence has broken out in other provinces and is threatening to revive long-simmering violence in Darfur.

There is also a risk that the conflict could spill over to neighbouring countries and escalate into a regional conflict. Geographically, Sudan borders seven countries: Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Libya. Politically and culturally, it straddles the Middle East, north Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Regional powers and neighbours have lined up behind either of the two generals – or in some cases both. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been backing al-Burhan. For their part, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and General Khalifa Haftar of Libya have supported the Rapid Support Forces. But many other actors remain undecided.

There is a real possibility that regional and international actors will be arming different sides as they pursue their own, often competing interests. This could bring unprecedented shifts in the region’s already uneasy regional equilibrium, and test pre-existing alliances.

Regional and international actors are key in enabling – or preventing – the development of the crisis into a protracted civil war with regional dimensions. The best chance of halting Sudan’s slide into civil war lies in a united front of Western and regional powers, with Sudanese civil society groups putting pressure on the warring generals for a permanent ceasefire. And a return to a civilian-led transition.

But as time goes by, many despair that Sudan will soon reach the point of no return.

Fretful neighbours

Egypt: Egypt had a long history of meddling in Sudan’s affairs. This has included supporting various military governments, as well as containing the Islamist resurgence in the 1990s. In 2019, when al-Bashir was deposed, Egypt supported al-Burhan in the transition. It didn’t want a military regime – and its ally – being replaced by a civilian democratic government. It feared that this would inspire Egyptians to do the same.

Since the outbreak of the recent conflict, Egypt has adopted a cautious approach by working to mediate a permanent ceasefire.

This is because the war brings risks. It is already having to manage a refugee crisis as tens of thousands of Sudanese attempt to get away from the conflict.

In addition, an escalation of the conflict could potentially bring instability to Egypt’s southern borders. This could open up routes for arms smuggling and illegal trade.

Also, Egypt may be goaded to get involved militarily if the fighting continues.

But, Egypt’s greatest fear must be that it will lose its main ally in the ongoing disagreement with Ethiopia over the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), situated on the Blue Nile river near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. The conflict will complicate the management of the dam, as both generals may have different views on the issue. A prolonged conflict in Sudan could have long consequences for Egypt’s food and water security.

Ethiopia: Relations with Sudan have been strained in recent years due to border disputes over land claims and disagreements over the GERD. A protracted conflict in Sudan could have an effect on border disputes. These disputes are connected to tensions over the contested fertile farmland of Al Fashaga and apparent Sudanese support for Tigrayan opponents against the Ethiopian federal government.

The crisis in Sudan may affect the equilibrium on these border issues.

On Sudan’s western frontiers, Libya, Chad and CAR risk spill overs from violence and tensions in the Darfur region. Hemedti is a tribal leader from the Mahariya clan of Darfur’s Rizeigat tribe. He has been a main partner to Haftar of Libya in trading drugs, arms and refugees across borders between Sudan, Libya and Chad.

With tensions rising in Darfur, forces could be split: some will side with Hemedti’s forces. Others will seek to undermine them.

External powers

In civil wars in the Middle East and Africa, such as in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, international actors have intervened by replenishing their allies with weapons, sponsoring diplomacy involving the warring groups, and sometimes taking matters into their own hands by launching military interventions.

Clashes in Sudan could very well turn the region into a playground for external powers to extend their influence.

Under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, US influence waned across Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, America’s competitors took steps to carve out a strategic foothold in the Horn of Africa and the critical maritime route of the Red Sea.

Russia, for example, is reportedly negotiating military and economic deals, allowing it to use Sudan’s ports on the main trading routes to Europe. There have also been accusations that Russia’s Wagner Group is involved in illicit gold mining in Sudan.

For its part China, Sudan’s second-largest trading partner (after Saudi Arabia), has invested heavily in infrastructure and oil extraction, giving it an important stake in the conflict.

Wealthy oil producers – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have an interest in establishing regional dominance. The UAE, aspiring to control maritime routes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, has taken serious interest in ports in Sudan.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has been keen to prevent Iran from establishing a foothold in Sudan. As a result, it has poured money into supporting Sudan’s military.

Both interfered to shape the 2019 transition in Sudan to ensure a friendly regime would end up in power. And both invested in a range of economic and military enterprises.

But they haven’t been supporting the same general: Saudi Arabia has supported al-Burhan while the UAE has been an ardent supporter of Hemedti.

The longer the conflict continues, the greater the odds for a longer, bloody war with regional and international entanglements. This will make it more difficult to contain the conflict or find a resolution that satisfies all parties.

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