Looking Ahead after a Year of Conflict in Sudan

After a year of fighting, the situation inside Sudan is desperate. More than 8 million people, half of whom are children, are currently displaced across the country and the wider region. Half the population—25 million people—is experiencing food insecurity. The productive capacity of the country, from farms to factories, has been destroyed, leaving the economy in tatters. By the United Nations’ assessment, Sudan is both the largest displacement crisis and the biggest food crisis in the world today. But even by those grim measures, the situation for Sudan’s people and the wider region is poised to get far worse as fighting extends into a second year.

Anniversaries are typically a time for looking back. But if there is to be any hope to end the bloodshed and needless suffering after a year of war in Sudan, now is the time to look forward with clear eyes about what is at stake in the country and for the region—and perhaps most importantly, what the the international community can and must do before Sudan reaches “a point of no return.”

With much of Sudan’s agricultural land destroyed or fallow as farming communities remain displaced by fighting, this year’s harvest will be Sudan’s worst in a generation. At the same time, both Sudan’s army and its rival, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, continue to block and destroy international humanitarian assistance, respectively, that might have staved off a worst-case scenario. Save the Children, the global response charity, warns that “230,000 children, pregnant women and new mothers could die in the coming months due to hunger,” far eclipsing battlefield deaths in the conflict.

Regional Impact

The impact on the region from Sudan’s prolonged conflict is no less stark. A recent U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessment previewed the risks if Sudan is left on its current course, noting that “Prolonged conflict heightens the risks of conflict spreading beyond Sudan’s borders, external actors joining the fray, and civilians facing death and displacement,” which could lead Sudan to “once again become an ideal environment for terrorist and criminal networks.”

As jihadism rapidly metastasizes across the vast Sahelian region, leading to an influx of foreign fighters joining the RSF in search of a steady paycheck—a situation that is compounded by a virtual collapse of state authority to track the movement of weapons and fighters—the risks are high that Sudan could again fall prey to the country’s shadowy militant Islamist factions that once offered Osama bin Laden refuge and provided financial support to Hamas and Hezbollah.

As a function of this spiraling outlook, a geopolitical race to gain influence inside the country has broken out. Actors such as Russia and Iran are eyeing Sudan’s nearly 500 miles of Red Sea coastline and are publicly and unapologetically hoping to establish a naval foothold. Meanwhile, regional states from Egypt and Turkey to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—all with a history of meddling in Sudan’s internal affairs—share a keen, though competing, interest in the outcome of the conflict. Whether hoping to protect a strategic investment, aiming to guarantee access to critical commodities, or taking sides in Sudan’s perennial struggle around the role of the country’s Islamist forces, these outside influences are felt differently.

But importantly for the warring parties, this great and middle power competition offers them new opportunities for advancing their own parochial objectives and prolonging the war. Playing these forces off each other, Sudan’s belligerents have succeeded in ensuring the steady flow of weapons, intelligence, and political support necessary to keep them both in the fight and, as a result, keep civilians under threat.

To be sure, those who suffer the most from this “great game” are the Sudanese people—whether through the army’s indirect aerial bombardment or the RSF’s intentional atrocity crimes. But whereas before the population might have been able to turn to a powerful coalition of Western and African states to intervene both politically and militarily to help stop the bloodshed, that is no longer the case. Indeed, this diplomatic free-for-all has only served to accelerate and accentuate the declining influence of Sudan’s traditional emergency responders: the troika of the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway, joined more recently by the European Union; and regional African states like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. In previous times of crisis in Sudan, these coalitions deployed peacekeepers, forced open humanitarian corridors, and pressured warring sides into peace processes that they convened. Today, none of that is happening, and the results are catastrophic.

Worsening War

Many outside observers have termed the conflict a “stalemate” with neither side able to deliver a knockout blow to claim “total victory.” But such assessments gloss over the dynamism of the conflict and its political ramifications. After a months-long campaign last year that saw the RSF extend its control from the western reaches of Darfur to a near total occupation of the capital, the RSF began a new campaign threatening areas south and east of Khartoum along the Nile. Its easy capture last December of Wad Madani, a cultural and agricultural capital, as well as territories along the Nile, sent shockwaves through Sudan’s military leadership, which was humiliated by the loss. Similarly, panic set in among civilians living in military-controlled areas who began to doubt the army’s ability, and even interest, in protecting them. Thousands of civilians joined hastily organized popular defense militias to fend off further RSF assaults.

Since that time, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) has used this crisis of confidence to mobilize an effort to begin clawing back its lost territory—and reputation—and seize the momentum spurred by the threat of an outright RSF victory. Weapons deliveries, including Mohajer-6 armed drones from Iran, have helped the SAF overcome its operational deficiencies at just the right time. The army’s recapture of the city of Omdurman last month and mounting efforts to retake Gezira State have seemingly swung the battlefield momentum, if not the upper hand, back to the military—for now.

But the war is far from over and is in fact likely to get worse as the operational tempo yet again increases and new fighters are introduced. Impending battles over Wad Madani and the Darfuri capital of El Fasher are likely to unleash substantial new civilian casualties and displacements—perhaps the worst of the war so far. The arrival of new foreign fighters swelling the RSF ranks, as well as the recent announcements from Darfuri armed groups, such as the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, that they were joining the fight on the side of the SAF, are likely to ignite the war in even more places.

Anticipating a worsening situation for civilians, Washington is again advocating for a return to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to reconvene ceasefire talks later this month. It is also warning the two sides against expanding the war into new areas. Despite the recent naming of an active new U.S. special envoy for Sudan, after a year of uncoordinated and ad hoc diplomatic efforts, Washington is coming late to the influence game and its exhortations are seemingly falling on deaf ears.

In the absence of a coordinated diplomatic approach, or the threat of any real consequences for the civilian harm they are causing, the parties are now dictating their own terms for what eventual outcome they might accept. The SAF’s deputy commander, Yasser al-Atta, last month refused to ever again share power with civilian leaders like under the previous transitional government, agreeing only to relinquish control to an elected government—an outcome at best years in the making. The army’s maximalist position comes in response to what military officials view as collusion between the RSF and a coalition of political and civil society actors, including the former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, to paint them as simply an extension of the former Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir.

However, brimming with new, and perhaps misplaced, confidence that it has the necessary external support and now the battlefield momentum to win the war, the SAF appears increasingly unwilling to concede anything to its opponents—or the international community. A proposed Ramadan ceasefire last month, the only time the UN Security Council has been able to muster a coordinated response since the conflict began, was quickly dismissed by the belligerents. Meanwhile, a barrage of new aerial bombardments by both sides has begun, marking perhaps a stepped-up phase of the war, but still not one that will deliver the “total victory” that either side is hoping for.

Most likely, and perhaps most worrisome, one could imagine that if Sudan’s army was successful in taking back control over Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, along with several other strategic and politically significant cities, like the breadbasket of Wad Madani and the transport hub of El-Obeid, it might be content to reassert its authority over a rump Sudan and simply leave the “less desirable” periphery in Darfur to the tribal rule of the RSF militia.

Such a scenario already exists to the north in Libya but is by no means ideal. With gold revenue from Darfur and cross-border alliances in neighboring Chad, the Central African Republic, and Libya, even a weakened RSF with control of Darfur would retain the wealth and supply networks to remain a threat to the people of Sudan and the region for years to come.

The Road Ahead

This grim outlook of a Sudan that is physically and politically divided, economically devastated, and a net exporter of instability and migrants only grows more likely as the fighting is sustained. Now, the Biden administration recognizes this scenario is not just merely a threat to vital U.S. interests but also to “those that have been supporting one side or the other [who] are realizing they've made a mistake—that, in fact, they've really created a situation where nobody is going to win from a failed state, ” according to the U.S. special envoy. The question is whether these greater and middle countries can find the common cause required to get the belligerents to understand this as well.

On the one-year anniversary of fighting, the prospects for a speedy resolution to the conflict look bleak. Bleaker still is the humanitarian toll the underfunded international response and expanding conflict is having on civilians. Urgent action is required to arrest the country’s freefall and avoid a skyrocketing death count from the dual threat of famine and fighting.

A French-EU humanitarian summit for donor nations to sound the alarm around the disastrous conditions for Sudanese civilians is a late, but necessary step to raising something more than the paltry 5 percent of funds that have been raised to meet the United Nations’ appeal for Sudan. But even if substantial new funds are raised for the humanitarian response, it will count for nothing if that assistance is stuck at Sudan’s ports and border crossings because of fighting that continues to engulf the country.

For that reason, a similar summit must also be convened to address the state of the conflict and its external drivers. Importantly, such diplomatic talks must include those many great and middle powers: friends, neighbors, and opponents alike, whose interests are affected by the result of the war and who are already taking actions, directly and indirectly, to shape an outcome to their liking. A shared understanding that the likely outcome of a failed or divided state in the heart of the Horn of Africa, sitting astride the Red Sea, is in no one’s long-term interest must first be established even before seeking to engage the parties. 

While Washington’s leverage may have waned, its sanctions faltered, and its high-level interest become distracted, it still has the power to convene and convince. Now is the moment to use that influence to assemble a diplomatic coalition to help freeze the conflict where it is—cutting off new inflows of weapons and sending a message that the only way forward is through talks. Neither party is likely to respond to outside pressure initially, and each could well ignore it entirely if dedicated efforts are not taken to shut off the spigot from the most malign actors like Russia and Iran, who operate most often outside the international system. But at this stage, the conflict cannot be sustained at its current level without steady resupply.

The road out of Sudan’s conflict is going to be long, and prospects for things like civilian rule and democratic elections are today more of a distraction than a serious aspiration. Regrettably, on the one-year anniversary of the conflict, goals must be substantially more modest: slowing the pace of war, choking off weapons supplies, raising humanitarian resources, accessing desperate populations, saving lives, and avoiding a worst-case scenario for Sudan. However, achieving these objectives creates the time and the space for the harder conversations to be broached around ending the war, establishing new transitional rule, and rebuilding. The international community must believe that it can begin that conversation before another year has passed.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.