Sudan Clashes: Why Is It So Hard For Mediators To End The Fighting?

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As the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, turns from a quiet city into a war zone, Saudi Arabia and the United States have called the warring parties to a meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah as part of efforts to arrange a cease-fire.

But as Sudan expert Alex de Waal says, this is just a short-term emergency step.

There is a dilemma facing the mediators: Whatever decision they make about the form and content of the emergency talks agenda will ultimately determine the course of peacemaking in Sudan.

To silence the guns, American and Saudi diplomats will deal only with the two rival generals, each of whom has sent teams of three to Jeddah to negotiate.

The agenda on the table is a humanitarian ceasefire, a monitoring mechanism and aid corridors. Neither side wants to open any negotiations to reach a political agreement.

As for the civil parties and neighborhood resistance committees, whose peaceful protests toppled the former authoritarian regime led by Omar al-Bashir four years ago, they have become spectators.

It will not be easy to convince the generals of any kind of ceasefire.

The army commander, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, will insist that he represents the legitimate government, insisting on describing Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”, as a rebel.

However, Hamidti, his de facto deputy until the clashes erupt, will demand an equal status for the two parties, keep his position, and let his fighters from the Rapid Support Forces control a large part of Khartoum, and General Burhan will demand a return to the positions that the army controlled for each side before the clashes broke out.

Reaching a compromise requires hard bargaining with the generals.

Mediators need to be trusted by both parties with assurances that they will not be harmed or in any danger if they make concessions.

The downside is that the two warring parties will then claim the dominant role in the political talks and an agenda that suits their interests.

The only thing that Burhan and Hemedti – and the Arab neighbors – agree on is that they do not want a democratic government that was on the table before the fighting began.

The two military men have run the country since Bashir was overthrown in 2019, refusing to hand over power to civilians.

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The real losers are the civilian forces that helped topple al-Bashir in 2019 and are calling for elections and a democratic government.

Another point would be within the terms of any agreement, amnesty for war crimes.

Negotiations controlled by the generals are likely to end in a peace agreement in which they share the spoils, setting back the prospects for democracy for many more years.

But if the fighting does not stop soon, Sudan will face state collapse.

Abdallah Hamdok — the prime minister of the joint military-civilian government that the generals ousted in 2021 — said the new war in the country threatened to be worse than the one in Syria or Yemen, perhaps even worse than Darfur.

front line reinforcements

There are grim predictions about how the civil war in Sudan will unfold.

In the early days of the battles, the military leaders, army generals and rebel commanders, were fighting with determination and ferocity, and each side was trying to deal a fatal blow to the other.

The fighting is fierce and each side concentrates its attacks, and it is easy to determine who is on which side and who remains neutral.

We saw this when the Sudanese civil war broke out in 1983, again in Darfur 20 years later, and in the conflicts in Abyei, Heglig and the Nuba Mountains near the north-south border during the secession of the south from the north in 2011.

The first clashes in the South Sudanese civil war in 2013 were similar to those we are witnessing today.

The RSF has its roots in Darfur, where some of its fighters have allegedly been implicated in what the International Criminal Court considers genocide.

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The RSF has its roots in Darfur, where some of its fighters have allegedly been implicated in what the International Criminal Court considers genocide.

On April 15, when fighting broke out between the army and the RSF, each side vowed to eliminate the other.

They directed their weapons and strength to each other’s strategically important positions in the capital, unconcerned with the massive destruction of the city and the large number of civilian casualties.

The experiences of past wars show that if the fighting does not stop quickly, the battles will intensify.

Each side brings reinforcements to the front line, attempts to win over local armed groups not yet involved in battles, and calls on its foreign backers and friends for help. We are at this point now.

What will happen?

According to our reading of reality, the conflicting parties cannot maintain their cohesion and strength for a long time, their weapons stocks will decline in addition to money and logistical support, and they will be forced to conclude deals to obtain more support and supplies.

Divisions will begin to appear in each side’s ranks, other armed groups will join the fray, indigenous groups will arm themselves for self-defence, and outsiders will join the fight.

All this is already happening, especially in Hemeti’s home country of Darfur, where fierce fighting is going on.

To date, we have not witnessed the systematic targeting of civilians because of their ethnic identity. But this is a great danger, and once fighters from one side commit mass atrocities against an ethnic or tribal group, these conflicts will escalate.

The next stage will be the spread of conflict across the country, and the outbreak of local conflicts.

Armed groups will disintegrate and new alignments will emerge, fighting for control of financially rewarding locations such as roads, airports, gold mines, and aid distribution centers.

Darfur was devastated and left in chaos after the massacres and fierce battles that took place between 2003 and 2004.

The head of the joint African Union-United Nations mission described it as “a war of all against all”.

Darfur was the lawless land in which Hemedti built his power, base and influence using money and violence.

There is a scenario that turns all of Sudan into something similar to what happened in Darfur.

“Failure when needed”

American and Saudi mediators are high-level and impartial. Unlike other Arab neighbours, Egypt supports Burhan, the United Arab Emirates has ties to Hemedti, and neither side is favored by the Saudis.

The United States threatens to impose sanctions. That is unlikely to deter the generals. Sudan has been under US sanctions since 1989, yet military-owned businesses have thrived.

The only thing General Burhan (right) and Hemedti (left) are likely to agree on is the refusal to hand over power to a civilian government.

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The only thing General Burhan (right) and Hemedti (left) are likely to agree on is the refusal to hand over power to a civilian government.

Effective lobbying needs international consensus. Everyone, including China and Russia, agrees that the fighting is a disaster.

According to the protocol followed in the United Nations, it is the responsibility of the Africans to raise the issue in the Security Council, but they did not move a finger.

The African Union convened its Peace and Security Council the day after the fighting to demand a cease-fire, but it is not involved in the US-Saudi mediation efforts.

There is a grave danger looming on the horizon unless the war ends as soon as possible.

Silencing the guns today is a daunting enough task. It would be much more difficult if there were dozens of rival armed groups, each claiming a seat at the table.

What distinguishes today’s conflict from previous armed conflicts is that the battlefield is in Khartoum.

Civilians are trapped in the quiet neighborhoods as the truce fails

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Civilians are trapped in the quiet neighborhoods as the truce fails

The current conflict is causing a humanitarian crisis very different from the displacement crises that occur in rural areas, and the famines that aid workers in the country have dealt with for decades.

Civilians trapped in residential neighborhoods may benefit from the old food caravans, but they also need utilities such as electricity, water and communications, in addition to their desperate need for money.

With the central bank on fire and local commercial bank branches closed, some people rely on mobile banking apps, and others are completely broke.

With the UN and most foreign aid workers out, the local resistance committees stepped in and filled a void, organizing basic aid and safe passage for civilians to escape.

Many Sudanese feel abandoned by the international community in their moment of need, and ask that these local and civilian efforts become the backbone of relief efforts.

There is a danger that hunger will become a weapon, and that humanitarian aid will become a resource for warlords to manipulate.

Aid agencies will need to find ways to bypass warlords and help civilians directly.

There are no simple solutions to the escalating war in Sudan. The situation may get worse before it gets better.

It is likely that the decisions made in the cease-fire talks, regardless of the identity of the parties represented in them, their terms, and their agenda, will shape the future of the country for years to come.

Short presentational gray line

Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the United States.