Avoiding the ‘Libya Scenario’ in Sudan
After seven months of fighting in Sudan, prospects for a clean end to the conflict and the restoration of a transitional government appear nonexistent. Neither warring side has demonstrated the ability to deliver a knockout blow and, in the process, continues to deliver devastating consequences to civilians. Foreign military support—which is crossing borders from neighboring Chad, Libya, Egypt, and Central African Republic, and originating from allies as far afield as Russia and United Arab Emirates—is proving sufficient to prolong the war but has not been enough to give either side a sufficient upper hand that could force a definitive end to the fighting.
Against a backdrop of growing displacement and death, pressure is high for ceasefire talks to succeed. Stakeholders recently reconvened in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to achieve more than just their previous empty promises and adjourned almost as quickly, having produced little more than platitudes. The United Nations has called for a mediated settlement between the warring sides, while the United States asserts that neither side has the legitimacy to rule. That leaves the options for what governing mechanism might emerge difficult to imagine. U.S. diplomats have urged civilian leaders to be prepared to receive power when and if the parties agree to cease hostilities and have welcomed a recent round of civilian-run talks in Addis Ababa as a way to coalesce seemingly disparate civilian interests. But with entrenched political groups of Sudan’s ruling class seeking to secure their government positions and a diverse set of civil society actors anxious to provide input, but not to hold formal power, a credible civilian alternative to military rule does not yet exist. When it could emerge is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, the war drags on and the situation for the people of Sudan and the risks to the wider region are only worsening. At his address to the UN General Assembly, Sudan’s de facto military ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan warned that the conflict was a direct threat to international peace and security. The numbers do not lie: more than one million refugees have fled to neighboring countries while seven million are internally displaced. As much as 80 percent of the country’s healthcare infrastructure is shuttered, and according to the World Food Program, six million Sudanese “are one step away from famine.” With the United Nation’s humanitarian appeal for Sudan only one-quarter of the way funded, the prospect of a humanitarian calamity is looking more and more like a reality.
On the battlefield, the situation is equally dire. Urban warfare between Sudan’s armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has destroyed large swaths of the capital, Khartoum, where the RSF hides and attacks from the cover of civilian infrastructure, offering little confidence that the millions who have already fled will ever return. As the fighting drags on, the probability increases that the country will be split internally along hard zones of influence, if not broken apart entirely—a worry since the start of the war that now presents as an impending reality.
The recent fall to the RSF of three of five state capitals in the Darfur region sets up the likelihood that the RSF will soon control much of Sudan’s territory west of the Nile, putting a genocidal militia group in charge of nearly two-thirds of the country and giving it unfettered access to neighboring Chad, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, from which it will recruit and resupply its forces. Conversely, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) withdrawals and defeats everywhere from Darfur to Khartoum are causing army leaders to fall back even further to the relative safety of the Red Sea town of Port Sudan, making it in many ways the country’s new de facto capital.
Many have started to refer to this bifurcated reality as a “Libya scenario”—but at nearly 10 times the size of its neighbor to the north, Sudan’s collapse would be cataclysmic, well beyond the extent of Libya’s collapse. One can imagine a scenario where tens of millions of Sudanese flee across the continent and the Red Sea to escape the country’s descent into warlordism and ethnic militia violence. At the same time, Islamic extremist groups currently terrorizing the neighboring Sahel region would be drawn into Sudan’s ungoverned landscape. Russian mercenaries, already active on the margins of the conflict, would likely seek to expand their foothold in the country and pave the way for a long-sought Russian naval base on the Red Sea. While ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have captured the attention of the world, the geopolitical ripple effects of Sudan’s collapse are being woefully underestimated.
Given these dire scenarios, it is perplexing that the international response to Sudan’s crisis has been so anemic and ad hoc. Without a comprehensive strategy yet in place, ceasefire talks in Jeddah involving only armed actors risk cementing the country’s current split for years to come. Fortunately, there is still time to avoid a worst-case scenario in Sudan if concerted international action is quickly taken.
As domestic and international actors contemplate ending the war and anticipating what might come next, there are a few certainties that should underpin strategic decision-making in Sudan and the international approach to its mediation. First, in any outcome, there can no longer be two competing armies in the country. After all the blood spilled and atrocities committed, returning to the notion of simply integrating the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia into the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF)—the trigger for the current conflict—cannot be an option on the table in any cessation of hostilities framework.
While ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have captured the attention of the world, the geopolitical ripple effects of Sudan’s collapse are being woefully underestimated.
Second, the notion that these warring sides can coexist within separate spheres of geographic influence, the current status quo, should also be rejected. Threats by both sides to establish competing wartime governments will only prolong the war and subject those trapped under RSF rule to further atrocities.
Third, as a future, republican Sudan is being contemplated, it will most certainly continue to have a national army—reformed, unitary, and under civilian control—but it cannot have a national militia or any other state-level or ethnically based security services, as it does now.
And finally, the longer the war drags on, the more likely it is that one or both warring sides will begin to fracture, creating new militias and zones of influence opposed to central control, making any kind of mediation much harder to achieve. Sudanese people seek a definitive end to the Omar al-Bashir regime, and the end of the multiheaded security system he put in place that enabled the central government to maintain power for 30 years while keeping the rest of the country divided and under threat.
But locked in an existential battle to retain power, to ensure it escapes accountability, there is no credible scenario where RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) suspends his winning war effort and allows his army to be disbanded—despite his calls for “a new Sudan founded on democracy, diversity, tolerance, and genuine peace.” His battle-hardened mercenaries have no understanding of those concepts and will simply continue to prey on both poor, peripheral communities and urban dwellers around Khartoum. And with his vast gold wealth and ongoing commercial-security relationship with Russia’s Wagner Group, a quiet retirement for Hemedti in Sudan or abroad is not a serious scenario.
With the announcement on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly meeting that the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor was reopening his investigation among the Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad, there is now reason to believe that indictments will follow sometime soon. With Hemedti unlikely to escape international accountability at the Hague, he and his associates are unlikely to be able to travel freely—increasing the likelihood that he will hold whatever community he hides out in hostage to him.
To mitigate these outcomes, Hemedti is gambling on a political way out. His support to the country’s career politicians, coopting of rebel groups, and slick international public relations campaigns are all elements of a charm offensive that belies the true nature of the man or the facts on the ground in areas under his control. One need only recall his track record of genocide in Darfur, his bloody breakup of Sudan’s peaceful civilian protest movement, or his ongoing record of rape, torture, murder, and systemic looting, which exceeds the SAF’s own despicable record, to know that image reform and actual reform are not the same.
Despite a bleak outlook and a dearth of attractive scenarios, there is still one option available, though it will be difficult to swallow. If the international community is serious about saving lives, definitively ending this war, and creating the conditions for civilian rule, then the following option needs to be put on the table. In exchange for a set of firm and binding commitments from the SAF to a coalition of Western and regional states, it may be time to back the army’s definitive victory over the RSF in order to avoid what the UN Secretary General warned was a potentially “catastrophic” outcome for the country and the region.
Many will bristle at the notion. They should. The SAF has its own long history as the architect of violence in Sudan’s troubled, post-independence life. They unleashed the Janjaweed Arab militia on the country two decades ago that brought Hemedti to power; they carried out president al-Bashir’s campaign of terror and repression for even longer. More recently, they helped overthrow the civilian transition prime minister that set the country on its current course. And they have reportedly realigned themselves with many of the country’s former Islamist leaders, who themselves engineered the racist system at the heart of Sudan’s divisions today. The SAF’s résumé of atrocity and repression is lengthy and it should exclude them from being allowed to rule the country ever again.
But since the outset of the conflict with the RSF, the SAF has received only a fraction of the external support that has flowed to the militia, mostly in the form of episodic Egyptian air support. It is robust external support that could now make the difference in ending this war and eliminating the long-term threat to Sudan that a victorious RSF poses.
Advanced weapons and actionable intelligence could well be the difference-maker the SAF needs to retake Khartoum and sever RSF supply lines through Darfur and the Kordofans. Knowing this, army head al-Burhan began a regional diplomatic tour seeking some of that military, if not political, support.
But many will argue that a victorious SAF is unlikely to be dislodged and could entrench a new Islamist-backed military junta. That may certainly be if the SAF was capable of mounting a victory march on its own, but the recent loss of key strategic locations to the RSF is signaling that is not the case. But enabled by the countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar—and endorsed by Washington—support can be predicated on specific tradeoffs.
First, that the SAF immediately allow for the creation of a parallel civilian transitional administration—even while the war continues—to take charge of all humanitarian access and aid deliveries to those areas where it is possible. The army should no longer hold hostage aid deliveries and aid worker visas on the grounds of the conflict. The international community’s endorsement of this government would also help to forestall Hemedti’s threat of establishing a competing government if countries signaled in advance that it would not get the international backing it would need to establish itself as a credible rival.
Second, SAF needs to immediately cease harassment and detention of leaders from within civil society and resistance committees—a behavior that well predates the current conflict and does nothing to demonstrate that they are serious about changing their ways. Moreover, in the conduct of the war and in the context of receiving military support from the international community, the SAF should further refrain from forming any new militia groups to aid in their victory. It is that history of using militias like the Popular Defense Forces in South Sudan and the Janjaweed, the precursor to their RSF opponent, in Darfur, that is in part responsible for the country’s current conflict.
The SAF should also disavow its ties to Islamist leaders from the former regime, removing them from current government posts and not undermining civilian efforts to ban their participation in politics and elections going forward. The recent U.S. sanctions against former foreign minister Ali Karti is a good first step at signaling that former regime officials have no place in a future Sudan, but more sanctions against his co-conspirators as well as against their former ruling National Congress Party are all necessary next steps. An even more powerful show of good faith would be for army officials to turn over ICC indictees Ahmed Haroun and former president Bashir to the ICC.
Third, at the conclusion of a cessation of hostilities agreement, the international community should (1) ensure that the SAF lives up to its previous commitments to surrender full control to civilian leaders, (2) have the SAF submit to an internationally monitored reform process of the entire security sector, and (3) allow for the divestment of military companies and the publication of a transparent military budget or else face the reimposition of the kind of comprehensive sanctions regime that previously saw more than 160 army-owned companies under U.S. sanctions. Questions of accountability cannot be taken off the table either, but they should not be negotiated by international partners, either. The country’s civilian leaders ultimately need to wrestle with addressing the military’s many violations in the conduct of the current war and throughout its history.
Lastly, Washington and its allies should lead a parallel effort to help coordinate and train Sudan’s diverse community of activists, politicians, and civil society leaders to stand as a credible and effective alternative to military rule. This requires real programmatic efforts to assemble and sustain these groups, mediate between them when necessary, and support them in creating a governing framework that will lead the country out of its present conflict.
This kind of sustained and strategic approach has been tried before in Sudan. It is what enabled the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s devastating North-South civil war, saving countless lives. Only this time, the consequences of inaction are not just a moral failure. They are a strategic defeat.
But helping to shape an outcome to this war that helps eliminate a long-term existential threat to the country and the region and gives international actors greater leverage over terms of the military’s ultimate withdrawal from political life is a risk worth taking. The alternatives of standing by as Sudan continues to unravel or forcing a political process that could allow the warring sides to resuscitate their futures are options the people of Sudan and the wider region cannot afford.
Cameron Hudson is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.