There is a long-suffering people in Sudan, they live on a rugged mountain in the middle of Darfur. Theirs is a primitive life but they are relatively free, they have their guns to protect themselves and their orange trees to sustain them. They seem to have been forgotten in today’s war in Sudan, no longer being bombed as they were for years, and one hopes that they are flourishing.
Outside Jebel Marra, the situation is dire indeed in Sudan. The bloody war between two armed factions – the Sudanese Army or SAF and the Rapid Support Forces or RSF – has completed its fifth month. More than five million Sudanese have had to flee their homes. Eighty percent of the country’s hospitals are out of service. More than 20 million people face acute food insecurity. The country’s capital and largest city has been looted, bombed, and devastated. And this is a country that was already poor and suffering, and affected by decades of war, even before this current conflict began on April 15, 2023.
A bloody stalemate has existed for a while, with SAF holding the north and east of the country while the RSF maintained a tenuous, often chaotic hold on most of Khartoum and most of the country’s West in Darfur and Kordofan where much of the RSF’s fighters are drawn. Both sides have foreign sources of support and both have the intention of continuing to fight – despite talk of negotiations. Neither is near defeat quite yet.
But recent steps by SAF leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seem to show a possible way forward for SAF to win. Some observers (I was one of them) have expected a SAF win, or SAF clearly gaining the upper hand, months ago and that has not happened. Both sides still have options but SAF’s most recent way forward seems likelier and better defined. And in such a scenario we are not talking about a better or worthier side winning as both armed factions, longtime partners and rivals in Sudan’s long misery, have committed war crimes and abuses, not just in the past few months but for decades. Talking about anyone “winning” in Sudan, what does that even mean, seems problematic. Sudan’s numerous wars have never ended with outright victory.
Al-Burhan’s departure from the encircled SAF General Command base in Khartoum in late August, while not in and of itself decisive, could garner important benefits that may tilt the conflict decisively in the army’s favor. The SAF General and acting head of state not only has used his newfound freedom to assert himself among his own fighters and supporters inside Sudan but has made visits to Egypt, South Sudan, Qatar, Eritrea, and Turkey. Al-Burhan seeks to shore up diplomatic but also military and financial support for the SAF regime. Accompanying him on these trips have not only been Sudan’s acting foreign minister, but also his head of military intelligence and the Director General of Sudan’s Defense Industries System, Lieutenant Mirghani Idris Suleiman. While much of Sudan’s industry, and military industry facilities in Khartoum, have been wrecked, SAF has a long history of making its own weapons and ammunition.
Aside from Qatar, none of these countries have much money to spare but they can provide military support in kind, guided by the insight of Sudanese intelligence and military procurement chiefs. Particularly important is the maintenance of SAF’s air supremacy which it has used to bomb RSF relentlessly (while also killing many Sudanese civilians in indiscriminate air strikes). None of these countries is likely or able to offer Al-Burhan unlimited support, several may not even muster much enthusiasm for Sudan’s Generals but maybe Al-Burhan can secure just enough to make a difference.
Al-Burhan’s freedom of movement also gives him the opportunity to meet with uncommitted players from Sudan that could provide fresh fighters for the war effort. While the army seeks to mobilize new recruits in the areas it controls (traditionally many of Sudan’s enlisted men came from those areas controlled by RSF), it also seeks to encourage fighters under the command of former Darfur rebel Minni Minawi and South Kordofan SPLM-N commander Abdel Aziz al-Hilu to join the fight against RSF. Minawi’s forces are actually in Darfur, in territory dominated by RSF but have so far maintained a shaky neutrality, seeking only to protect their territories and populations. Al-Hilu has taken advantage of the war to slowly expand his territory at the expense of SAF. SPLM-N has waged decades of war against SAF defending its territories against various regimes from Khartoum.
Both Minawi and Al-Hilu are hardened veterans of Sudan’s political-military kaleidoscope and are under no illusions about the bloody history of the Sudanese Armed Forces and its generals against people from the peripheries. Al-Hilu especially has been insistent on the need for Sudan to have a secular, unified and professional army, very different from what SAF has been for decades. Some news reports said that Al-Burhan met with Al-Hilu in South Sudan and in Eritrea (Minawi was also said to have been in Eritrea for the meeting). That Al-Hilu met Al-Burhan in Asmara was subsequently denied officially by SPLM-N. But attempting to meet makes sense for SAF.
Getting one or both of these forces to commit to actively fighting RSF would be significant because they could challenge Hemedti’s Janjaweed on their own turf in the West. RSF’s control over its own territories often seems to be much more loosely ruled, if one can even use that word, than SAF’s dominions. RSF have been effective fighters to some degree but more often than not, they function more as chaos agents than rulers.
Minawi is already governor of the Darfur Region, a title that surely comes with benefits to him and to his forces even though it seems to have been completely inconsequential to the sufferings of the people of Darfur in recent years. Both he and Al-Hilu would want to maximize whatever gains they can get while avoiding falling into a trap of fighting and dying for the army only to have it turn against them once a bloody “victory” is secured.
What could the SAF regime offer the wily Abdel Aziz al-Hilu? There were peace proposals on the table with former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok (who was overthrown by Al-Burhan two years ago) but those are mere words on paper. Traditionally, relations by Khartoum with the largely ethnic Nuba SPLM-N were tempered by the need to placate the Arab tribes of Kordofan who were allies of the army and rivals of the Nuba, but today many of these tribes, such as sections of the important Misseriyya, are with their Darfur Arab cousins in the RSF. This could give the SAF regime a freedom to maneuver it never had. In addition to assurances about the post-war status quo, al-Burhan could cede South Kordofan state to the SPLM-N (a reversal from 2011 when Khartoum supported Darfur war criminal Ahmed Haroun as governor in rigged elections against Al-Hilu). There are also gold mines in Kordofan to offer that had been part of the RSF economic empire.
Interestingly enough, there was a propaganda campaign in the summer of 2023 by pro-SAF media accounts to say that the “Misseriyya and Hawazmeh” had decided to abandon the ranks of the RSF. But this does not seem to have actually happened, at least not to the extent that army partisans wished it to be true.
Whether or not any of these initiatives by Al-Burhan bear real fruit remains to be seen. SAF supporters have spun rosier scenarios before. But the combination of increased weapons from foreign sources, a levy of fresh cannon fodder for the army from areas it controls, and even the possibility of veteran Minawi and SPLM-N fighters raising havoc in the RSF-dominated West give SAF a logical path forward to, if not total victory, clear dominance. Right now, this is a possible, not assured, outcome.
And while RSF still has considerable resources and foreign patrons, and has shown strength and mobility on the battlefield, it clearly has leadership problems. Hemedti and his brother, who was recently sanctioned by the US, either because of injury, illness, or by design, are rarely seen. They neither seem to lead from the front as Idris Deby once did nor have the ability or the diplomatic openings to conspire in foreign capitals as Al-Burhan is now doing. Beyond their relatively small core constituency of some key Darfur Arab tribes, they need real work to hope to expand or to hold their fractious forces together and that seems to be increasingly missing. This kind of stealth leadership by the Dagalo brothers can work for a while, serving as a type of last-ditch survival tactic, but it is not a way to win. Dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/erdogan-receives-sudans-army-chief-in-ankara, September 13, 2023.  Jstribune.com/fernandez-sudans-forever-warm, June 2023.  Sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2023/08/24/making-sense-of-sudans-war-four-months-on, August 24, 2023.  Ahlmasrnews.com/news/egypt-news/13177240/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%B3%D9%8A-%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%86, August 29, 2023.  Defenceweb.co.za/featured/sudans-military-industry-corporation-pushes-sales-to-africa, February 8, 2023.  Skynewsarabia.com/middle-east/1445538-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%94%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%B2-%D9%86%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B7-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%88-%D9%88%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%94%D9%83%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%B4, June 19, 2021.  Sudantribune.net/article277122, September 11, 2023.  Sudanile.com/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%B9%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B4%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%AA%D9%86-2, September 13, 2023.  See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 268, A Long-Elusive Peace For The Nuba Appears Closer Than Ever, March 30, 2021.  Twitter.com/krisha_tokar/status/1670473125572517889, June 18, 2023.  Aljazeera.net/news/2023/9/7/%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%85-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%B9%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86, September 7, 2023.