Preventing Another Darfur Genocide

In the midst of more than one year of widespread fighting in Sudan, El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, has been spared a direct hit. Until now. As the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) has aggressively moved to retake new and lost territory in recent weeks, its opponent, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, has sought to open new fronts while also using its traditional stronghold in Darfur to recruit and resupply. Today, El Fasher is in the RSF’s crosshairs—cut off by newly recruited RSF fighters who are preparing an imminent assault on the last Darfur city not under their control.

An informal truce between both warring sides and Darfur rebel groups that had kept the city safe was recently abandoned as the Sudan Liberation Movement, under Darfur governor Minni Minawi, and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), under Finance Minister Gibril Ibrahim, pledged to join the fight on the side of the SAF. Already, human rights organizations have documented a dozen villages around El Fasher that have been destroyed by the RSF as they encroach on the city. If emergency steps are not quickly taken to avoid a frontal assault, the fight for El Fasher could well push the already strained humanitarian response past its breaking point and unleash genocidal forces that will spiral Sudan’s conflict out of control.

Q1: What is at risk in El Fasher?

A1: Since fighting started last year, around 500,000 Sudanese civilians from around the region have sought refuge in El Fasher, mostly concentrated in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps. While the city of two million has been spared from most fighting, civilians and IDPs living there are suffering from the same famine conditions and lack of healthcare as other Sudanese cities, making this already vulnerable population unable to further cope with the effects of a direct assault on them.

Importantly, the upcoming fight for El Fasher promises to unleash a new tribal element to the conflict, pitting the Arab-dominated RSF forces against the mainly the Fur and Zaghawa tribes in the city who are aligned with the SAF. The threat of the city falling is already beginning to draw in militia and tribal fighters from around the region. This influx of fighters will likely make this the largest and bloodiest battle of the war to date and could well transform this conventional conflict into a more factionalized, tribal-based war with immediate ripple effects well beyond Sudan’s borders.

Q2: What is the significance of El Fasher falling?

A2: Beyond the obvious catastrophic loss of life and mass displacement which is likely to result, the battle for El Fasher would likely draw in elements of neighboring Chad’s army, the leadership of which is made up of the country’s ruling Zaghawa who are beginning to align with the SAF. This would, in turn, further divide Chadian leader Mahamat Déby’s fraying hold on power, since he has himself been supporting the RSF through a partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). New threats to his rule, only two weeks before presidential elections, seem likely.

Assuming the taking of El Fasher by the RSF, that victory would complete the militia’s takeover of all five of Darfur’s states, giving it total control of nearly one-third of the country, including Sudan’s international borders with Libya, Chad, and Central African Republic. From this position, the RSF could levy taxes and customs duties, control the majority of Sudan’s trade in gold and other minerals, and facilitate human, drug, and arms smuggling across a vast territory. These revenue streams and territorial control would further cement the RSF as a rival to any central authority, making a negotiated political settlement that much harder to achieve. In the meantime, millions of civilians living under RSF control would be put at grave risk given the militia’s well documented history of atrocity crimes. 

Q3: What can the United States and the international community do to prevent the violence?

A3: The Department of State this week issued a statement calling on the RSF to “immediately cease attacks” on El Fasher, but much more sustained and high-level diplomacy must be employed to amplify warning about the threats to civilians, coordinate a wider international response, and impose new costs on the RSF for its renewed attacks.

First, the United States should organize an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council and seek a resolution threatening multilateral sanctions on the RSF and the RSF’s arms suppliers and financiers, namely the UAE. Second, Washington should activate its own atrocity early warning mechanism, task interagency participants with developing response options, and elevate public warnings to the level of the president, who has not addressed the conflict in Sudan since it started last year. Third, Washington should stop hesitating and impose its own targeted sanctions against RSF leader General Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, along with the entire RSF militia, for these and previous crimes.

Last year, Secretary of State Tony Blinken termed the RSF’s acts as “war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing”; soon, they could amount to genocide. Additionally, Washington should convene like-minded African states to begin serious discussions around the deployment of a specially mandated intervention or monitoring force—the only way to truly protect civilians. This formed the heart of the international response to the genocide there two decades ago but has been noticeably absent from policy debates this time. Not only can this monitoring force be mandated to deter assaults and protect vulnerable communities, but they should also be charged with documenting atrocity crimes for use in future International Criminal Court investigations and prosecutions.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.