Sudan’s forgotten war: A new diplomatic push is needed

After nearly a year of devastating conflict, there is little sign of a ceasefire. Concerted high-level international pressure is needed to change the calculations of the generals and support a democratic transition.

Expert comment
Published 14 March 2024 4 minute READ

On 8 March, the UN Security Council adopted a UK-drafted resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Sudan during the month of Ramadan, a sustainable resolution to the conflict through dialogue, compliance with international humanitarian law and unhindered humanitarian access.

Eleven months into the war, this is the first time that the Council has been able to agree on a resolution. The mandate of the UN Panel of Experts that monitors the sanctions regime in Darfur was also renewed by the Council. Does this signify hope that efforts to end the war might gather momentum? Or is Sudan likely to face a protracted conflict?

The war between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fatah Al Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as ‘Hemedti’) is a competition for power and resources between rival factions of the regular armed forces.

But it is also rooted in Sudan’s long history of internal conflict, marginalization of the peripheries and lack of accountability for atrocity crimes. Both the SAF’s officer corps and the RSF are creations of former President Omer al-Bashir’s regime. 

Each has shown disregard for the lives of Sudanese civilians by waging war in densely populated urban areas. The scale of destruction is unprecedented in Sudan’s modern history.

The conflict has the potential to destabilize already fragile neighbouring countries, create large new migration flows to Europe, and attract extremist groups.

With the world’s attention focused on Gaza and Ukraine, the war receives woefully little high-level political, parliamentary or international media attention, raising serious questions about double standards in dealing with global crises, particularly conflicts in Africa.

A humanitarian catastrophe

Sudan is suffering from a humanitarian disaster, with a looming famine and the world’s biggest displacement crisis: 8 million people are newly displaced inside or outside the country, in addition to over 3 million displaced by previous conflicts.

The head of the World Food Programme has warned that the war risks creating the world’s largest hunger crisis. Yet the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Sudan is only 4 per cent funded.

The conflict has the potential to destabilize already fragile neighbouring countries, create large new migration flows to Europe, and attract extremist groups.

Meanwhile, regional actors are fighting a proxy war in the country, giving military, financial and political support to the warring parties. The involvement of Russia and Iran has given the war a geopolitical dimension linked to Putin’s war in Ukraine – partly funded with Sudanese gold – and competition for influence on the Red Sea coast.

Food as a weapon of war

Both RSF and SAF forces have used hunger as a weapon of war. The RSF has looted humanitarian warehouses and besieged cities. The SAF-controlled Humanitarian Aid Commission has systematically withheld authorization for crossline movement of life-saving aid to RSF-controlled areas.

Donors will also have to step up to address the spiralling food crisis, by reducing the UN funding gap and supporting grassroots first responders in the Emergency Response Rooms.

One limited outcome from recent international pressure has been the partial reversal of the SAF’s ban on cross-border humanitarian access from Chad into Darfur. The de facto SAF authorities in Port Sudan have agreed to open limited border crossings from Chad and South Sudan. However, MSF International have criticized this as a partial solution at best.

The UN will need to monitor implementation to ensure neutrality in the distribution of aid, while intensifying pressure for unhindered cross-border and crossline humanitarian access.

Donors will also have to step up to address the spiralling food crisis, by reducing the UN funding gap and supporting grassroots first responders in the Emergency Response Rooms.

Growing pressure for a cessation of hostilities

The fact that the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council, the African Union, and the League of Arab States joined forces to call for a Ramadan truce, represents a significant increase in pressure on the warring parties.

Nevertheless, Ramadan has started with further fierce fighting. It is unclear how the Security Council expected a truce to take effect without prior diplomatic engagement to agree an implementation and monitoring mechanism. 

Command and control is fragmented on both sides and the warring parties have failed to abide by previous temporary truces negotiated through the Saudi/US-sponsored Jeddah Platform.

Moreover, Sudan’s security state has no history of respecting the month of Ramadan: the current war began during the holy month on 15 April 2023, and peaceful protestors were brutally dispersed in Khartoum on 3 June 2019.

Burhan cautiously commended the Secretary-General’s proposal for a Ramadan truce, but the Islamist-controlled Ministry of Foreign Affairs and SAF’s General Yasir al Atta poured cold water on the idea by announcing a list of preconditions amounting to surrender by the RSF.

This response follows a familiar pattern: any indication by Burhan of readiness to negotiate is immediately negated by Islamist elements of the Bashir regime, who hope to return to power on the back of an SAF victory. 

Ali Karti, the Secretary-General of Sudan’s Islamic Movement, who is widely seen as a mastermind of the war, has now announced that a truce with the RSF will never be accepted.

Both sides still seem determined to gain the upper hand militarily. The SAF, hitherto on the back foot, has launched an offensive to regain lost territory in Omdurman and Gezira state, supported by Iranian drones, Islamist militias, the Special Operations Forces of the Bashir-era Intelligence Service, former Darfuri rebels and armed civilians. 

The RSF, whose human rights violations have alienated much of the population, welcomed the UN’s call for a truce, but are also engaged in recruitment, particularly among Arab tribes in Darfur.

The aim must be to change the calculations of the generals and counter the influence of hard-line Islamists from the Bashir-era who are blocking negotiations.

The longer the war continues, the greater the risk that it will evolve into a full-scale ethnicized civil war, and that the country will be engulfed by famine.

A concerted diplomatic push

Concerted diplomacy at the highest level is therefore urgently needed. The aim must be to change the calculations of the generals and counter the influence of hard-line Islamists from the Bashir-era who are blocking negotiations.

Article 2nd half

This requires pressing for a coordinated mediation process to prevent warring parties’ forum-shopping between mediation initiatives; targeting the financial flows and military supplies fuelling the war; and supporting efforts to unify those Sudanese working for the goal of democratic transition.

Civilians are the main victims of the war and should be involved in each stage of any peace process. They, not the generals, should shape Sudan’s post-war transition. Those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable.  

There has been some recent evolution in regional dynamics. Egypt and the UAE, who have been backing opposite sides, co-facilitated RSF/SAF talks in Manama in January, alongside the US, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

There are also signs of a stronger international commitment to active diplomatic engagement. The AU has created a High-Level Panel on Sudan, while the US has appointed a dedicated Special Envoy. The Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General has been empowered by the Security Council to complement and coordinate regional peace efforts.

But a strong push is now needed to silence the guns and push the warring parties to resume talks under the Jeddah Platform, preferably in an expanded format. More visible, high-level political commitment is badly needed, if the conflict in Sudan is not to remain a forgotten war.

This article was produced with support from the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, funded by UK International Development. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.