Battered by War, Sudan Faces Many Possible Paths — None Good
NAIROBI, Kenya — The fighting that erupted in Sudan’s capital one month ago surprised few, the culmination of soaring tensions between rival military leaders. But what has shocked many is the scale and ferocity of the war engulfing Africa’s third-largest country, a conflict that has killed about 1,000 people and prompted one million more to flee their homes.
It could soon get much worse.
As American-led efforts to broker a cease-fire have floundered in recent days, Sudan experts, including former government officials and Western diplomats, have taken to the drawing board to imagine the conflict’s trajectory and how bad it may become. In interviews, they agreed on one thing: The immediate outlook is bleak.
“We thought through several scenarios,” said one senior European diplomat who, like others working to broker a peaceful solution, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “None of them ends well.”
The immediate challenge is that the warring factions — Sudan’s military, led by Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan — still believe that a military victory is possible, regardless of the cost.
Launching an appeal for $3 billion in emergency aid on Wednesday, the United Nations said that 25 million Sudanese, more than half the population, need help.
But the greater danger, many warn, is that Sudan’s conflict will metastasize into a full-blown civil war that not only shatters the country into pieces, but also draws in foreign powers looking to back a winner.
The gloomiest predictions point to the region’s dismal precedents — a catastrophic state collapse akin to Somalia’s in the 1990s or a chaotic free-for-all driven by meddlesome outsiders like the state of Libya since 2011.
Sudan is a vulnerable giant at the heart of a volatile region. It has 4,200 miles of land borders with seven other African nations, most already grappling with conflict or drought. Although poor by global standards, Sudan has rich reserves of gold, water and oil, and overlooks one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes on the Red Sea, which makes it a coveted geopolitical prize.
Here are some possible directions for Sudan’s war.
The military wins: Return to authoritarian rule.
Until now, the belligerents have seemed evenly matched in military terms. The Sudanese military has, perhaps, twice as many troops, as well as fighter jets, helicopter gunships and tanks. The Rapid Support Forces, or R.S.F., are a more nimble and battle-tested group that can move quickly, using pickups mounted with heavy guns.
Their main battleground is the capital, Khartoum. If the military were to dominate the city, it would likely be cheered by residents infuriated by the plunder and abuses of the R.S.F., whose fighters control much of the city center. But victory would not be easy.
To rout the R.S.F., the army would most likely intensify the airstrikes that have already flattened much of central Khartoum, leaving the victor with a devastated city. And it might need further help from a key backer, Egypt, a former colonial power viewed with deep hostility by many Sudanese.
To win convincingly, the military would have to kill or capture the elusive General Hamdan and his powerful brother, Abdul Rahim Dagalo. Otherwise, a rump R.S.F. could retreat to its stronghold in the western region of Darfur and spark a new insurgency from there.
Both sides claim to want a democratic future for Sudan. In reality, a triumphant military might push the country back to the authoritarian-style rule of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the dictator of three decades who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2019.
A military victory might also facilitate a return of the Islamists — Bashir-era loyalists and religious conservatives who have been angling for a route back to power.
The R.S.F. Wins: A political earthquake.
Once a commander of the feared Janjaweed militias, General Hamdan has in recent years sought to refashion his image as a champion of the dispossessed — ethnic groups from Sudan’s outlying regions that have long suffered discrimination at the hands of what he calls a chauvinistic Khartoum-based elite.
But although the R.S.F. might portray victory as a necessary political revolution, it would struggle to gain widespread support. Wartime abuses by its fighters, including rape, have heightened existing hostility toward the group in Khartoum and northern Sudan. Residual military units, unwilling to accept General Hamdan’s leadership, would most likely fight on, analysts say.
An R.S.F. victory might also draw alarmed neighboring countries deeper into the fray.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has made little secret of his disdain for the R.S.F., which he views as unacceptable rulers of Sudan. To the west, Chad had adopted a more neutral public stance.
But Chad’s leaders also distrust General Hamdan and have privately indicated a willingness to intervene on the side of Sudan’s military if necessary, according to an American official briefed on Chad’s position who spoke anonymously to discuss a private conversation.
An Egyptian intervention in Sudan could further complicate matters if its regional rival, Ethiopia, is lured to the fight. Egypt and Ethiopia have been in dispute for years over a giant hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile River close to its border with Sudan.
The other wild card is Russia, which has cozied up to General Hamdan, hoping to gain naval access for its warships to Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. An R.S.F. victory could also be good news for Wagner, the Kremlin-backed private military company that mines for gold in Sudan and uses Sudanese territory to cross into the Central African Republic, where it fights alongside government forces.
Stalemate: The neighbors jump in.
The most volatile scenario involves a divided country, with both sides controlling different areas, and neither capable of outright victory, several experts said. State institutions would collapse. And foreign powers, hoping to back a winner, might be tempted to intervene.
Some have already tried. American officials say that Wagner offered surface-to-air missiles to General Hamdan in the opening days of the fighting.
As recently as last year, the R.S.F. also received military equipment from the United Arab Emirates, a rich Persian Gulf country with a growing record of shipping weapons to its favored proxies in the region.
The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have invested billions of dollars in Sudan in recent years, seeing it as a potential future food supply base.
African neighbors might also want to defend their interests — not just Egypt and Ethiopia, but also Eritrea, the tiny country east of Sudan, whose dictatorial ruler has a long history of military interference in the region.
A stalemate could also cause Sudan to rip apart from internal pressures.
Decades of civil conflict have left the country with numerous armed groups in the Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions. Though they have stayed out of the war so far, they could easily leap into the melee to settle scores or protect their interests.
Negotiated Peace: A distant hope, for now.
Peace efforts led by American and Saudi mediators in the Saudi port city of Jeddah have yet to produce a cease-fire. But the hope is that they might pave the way for a rapid deployment of peacekeepers to Sudan, most likely from the African Union, which would, in turn, facilitate top-level negotiations to forge a durable settlement.
For now, that is a distant prospect. Any real peace would likely need to involve Sudan’s pro-democracy groups, which have so far been excluded from the talks in Jeddah. Critics say that is an ominous sign, suggesting major powers could strike a deal, in the name of peace, that entrenches the generals who started the war.
Another possible path to stopping the fighting involves coordinated pressure from foreign backers of the rival generals. But those backers have clashing goals for Sudan: While African and Western countries want democracy, Arab powers and Russia would prefer a more pliant autocracy, analysts say.
Whatever Sudan’s fate, experts say, the country is at a major crossroads, perhaps its most wrenching moment since independence in 1956 — a high bar in a country that has endured numerous rebellions, coups and waves of genocidal violence.
“You can’t rule anything out,” Endre Stiansen, Norway’s ambassador to Sudan, said in an interview. “Which is why the two sides needs to come together to stop the fighting.”