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Meet Sudan's web of warlords, foreign backers and their tangled alignments

A look at the various players in the fighting that has exploded in Sudan paints a much richer picture than what some call a proxy war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Sudan’s paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo also known as Hemedti in Khartoum, Sudan in February 2023.

It has been a week since the armed conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), under commander Abdelfattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under commander Mohammed Dagalo, began all over Sudan. 

The conflict, which blew up on April 15, has many underlying factors including mounting pressure on the paramilitary RSF into integrating within the SAF too quickly for the latter’s liking. This pressure radically shifted the conversation on Sudan’s democratic transition from civilian rule, blocked by the military, to preventing another long and destructive Sudanese civil war.

So far, a number of competing narratives have tried to simplify the conflict as a regional proxy war between a historically broke Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, on which Egypt depends for its financial survival for the third time in nine years. Even if Egypt wanted to be, it is not in the financial or physical shape to be a proxy power in an active conflict.

More importantly, referring to the conflict as a regional proxy war is reductive when discussing a country as complex as Sudan. Every war in Sudan thus far has been a multi-level conflict. Here is an attempt to map out all the players and on which side of the conflict they stand: 

Main players

Lt. Gen. Mohammed "Hemedti" Dagalo: the infamous leader of the RSF, Hemedti rose from its ranks back when it was the Janjaweed militia (which is accused of genocide in the Drafur region of Sudan) to eventually take over its leadership as it became an official part of the Sudanese state security apparatus under Bashir. Its status as a paramilitary group ended with Sudan’s parliament passing the Rapid Support Forces Act in early 2017, putting them under the office of the president. 

Under Hemedti, the RSF grew into a large and well-trained urban fighting force, and his control over Sudan’s western borders has allowed him to create direct ties with a number of regional and international players as well as given him control over the region’s gold mines (which produce some 40% of Sudan’s gold exports, annually in billions of dollars) as well as African migration and human trafficking through Libya. Hemedti’s unconventional rise to military power has irked the Islamist-leaning Khartoum-based SAF military brass as much as his ethnic and tribal background (the historically marginalized Darfurian Arab tribes), but that didn’t stop them from sending troops to aid Saudi Arabia in Yemen, conspiring to remove Bashir from power or launching the 2021 coup against the Sudanese civilian-led transitional government, the last of which he recently publicly disavowed and regretted.

Since the start of this conflict, Hemedti has tried to frame his actions as an attempt to salvage the democratic transition, accusing Burhan of being an anti-democratic radical Islamist who is using foreign forces to kill Sudanese civilians.

Lt. Gen. Abdelfattah Al Burhan: Sudan’s minister of defense and the leader of the SAF, Burhan came into his position in April 2019, when the former leader Ahmed Ibn Ouf resigned during the uprising, ending in Burhan’s promotion from military attache in China to army inspector general to the minister of defense in three months. His other claim to fame was overseeing Sudan’s military deployment to Yemen, where his and Hemedti’s forces cooperated. 

As the highest-ranking figure in the SAF, Burhan is believed to be either a member of or influenced by the Kizan, a clan of Islamist Bashir supporters with Muslim Brotherhood roots. Those Muslim Brotherhood ties have always made Egypt and the UAE view him with suspicion, but given Burhan’s institutional legitimacy as head of the military, they have cooperated with him and supported him on multiple occasions. The SAF is twice the size of the RSF and has an air force and heavy weaponry, but it is not as well trained or suited for urban warfare as the RSF. 

Burhan has attempted to consolidate his position by maintaining formal relationships with old regional allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Chad as well as forming a new one with Israel to ensure his place in the future of Sudan. His unclear loyalties and mercurial positioning kept him from securing the backing of Abu Dhabi in 2022, and his ordered release of some Islamist prisoners has also not endeared them to him. Since the conflict started, he has called the RSF a dangerous militia and refused all calls for dialogue, which some Sudanese voices say was due to pressure from the Kizan, which wishes to eradicate the RSF and bring the deposed regime back to power.

Other Sudanese forces of note

The Framework Agreement Signatory Coalition: More than 40 civilian parties and groups signed the Framework Agreement to get the democratic transition going. The coalition represents the civilian population but has no real militia of its own. It has publicly blamed the defunct regime and political coalition, the National Congress Party, for precipitating the current conflict as an attempt to retake power. It's on the side of the civilian protesters.

The National Congress Party: The defunct regime’s Islamist political coalition has nationwide organization and tribal and financial backing. While many claim it still has influence over the SAF, it's allegedly also behind the Sudan Shield Forces, which formed last December in the Butana region of central Sudan by retired Lt Col Abu Aqelah Mohamed Kikal but are now nationwide, as well as the Patriotic Entity forces. Both forces claim that they are not rebel groups against the SAF, but rather formed to protect their areas and regions, which now include the Kordofan, White Nile, Red Sea and Khartoum states, among others. The SAF’s silence over their formation has fueled speculation that they have Burhan’s tacit approval, if not outright support. Forces loyal to former dictator Omar Al-Bashir who was overthrown in 2019 are leaning SAF.

The Justice and Equality Movement: This non-Arab western Darfur rebel group led by Jibril Ibrahim took up arms against Bashir in 2003. It's a formidable fighting force that was backed by Chad and sent fighters to Libya on the side of the Turkey-backed Tripoli’s Government of National Accord. Its ranks may have dwindled in recent years in comparison to other Darfur-based groups and its affiliation is unclear.

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-North: This force was formed when the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North splintered in 2017 and its leader Abdelaziz al-Hilu took most of the fighters with him. Based in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state, it's the biggest rebel faction in his region and its aim is to turn Sudan into a secular state. Al-Hilu disliked both the Islamists and the Arabic-speaking elites in Khartoum for attempting to impose an Arab identity on Sudan, which means he does not support SAF, RSF nor forces loyal to Bashir. It leans toward Sudan’s civilian population.

Sudan Liberation Movement's Minnawi faction: Led by the Darfuri rebel leader Minni Minnawi, this faction is reportedly based and operating in Libya as part of Gen. Khalifa Hifter's foreign mercenary fighters. It leans RSF.

Sudan Liberation Movement's Al-Nur faction: Led by Abdul-Wahid al-Nur from self-imposed exile in France, it is the last remaining significant armed group in Darfur, with groups in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions. The group’s membership reportedly fractured due to his prolonged absence, but his fighters have reportedly also fought in Libya on Hifter’s side. Its affiliation is unclear, though it potentially leans RSF.

Immediate borders of Sudan

Egypt: Given its long relationship with the Sudanese military, Egypt is standing firmly behind Burhan, but cannot financially afford to support him and the SAF in any other way at the moment. Its anti-Hemedti position was dealt a blow on the first day of the conflict, when the RSF captured Egyptian soldiers and called them foreign invasion forces supporting Burhan. Thanks to Emirati intervention and Hemedti's assurances, the captured soldiers were returned to Egypt safely, allowing the state to save face after three days of public humiliation. Cairo is unlikely to continue to be a factor on either side of this conflict, opting to work on the cease-fire and dialogue side.

Libya: While the Government of National Accord is unlikely to take a position on the conflict, rebel Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter has many Darfuri fighters in his forces. He received 1,200 RSF fighters from Hemedti in May 2020 to support his forces in the war in southern Tripoli. It's pro-RSF, but publicly denies any support or involvement.

Ethiopia: SAF-affiliated news outlets accused Ethiopia yesterday of using the current infighting to attempt an invasion of the disputed territory of Al Fashaga that the SAF allegedly thwarted, and Ethiopia officially vehemently denies the charge. Al Fashaga, a fertile agricultural land, has been the site of over 33 years of intense cross-border tensions. The claim of an Ethiopian invasion is ironic, as Ethiopia accused the SAF of taking advantage of its Tigray conflict in 2020 to invade Ethiopian lands. It's officially unaffiliated, but it is definitely not pro-SAF. Most likely it leans behind former Bashir loyalists,  or even RSF.

Chad: Hemedti’s Arab tribe straddles the border between Chad and Sudan and has ancestral links there that would allow him to call in fighters and support from eastern Chad if he needs it. Hemedti also maintains ties with armed groups in the Central African Republic, many of whom are linked to the Russian Wagner Group. Chad supports the RSF.

Regional powers

Saudi Arabia: Though a player in the transition since the start, Saudi Arabia has remained neutral thus far despite having one of its planes burned in Sudan. The Saudis don’t necessarily trust Burhan but don’t wish to see the SAF and the state of Sudan destroyed in a pointless war. Additionally, both the RSF and SAF have fought on its side in Yemen, so the Saudis are thankfully on neither side for now since their financial support would definitely cause exponential escalation in violence. Riyadh is neutral and will hopefully stay that way.

The United Arab Emirates: According to multiple scholarly reports on the conflict and leaks in the Wall Street Journal this week, the United Arab Emirates is accused of backing Hemedti in a proxy war, which it officially denies. What the Emirates doesn’t deny is its history of hiring Hemedti’s forces to fight in previous conflicts, which is different from using them to launch a civil war in their home country where billions in UAE investments in agricultural farmland projects are at stake. The Emirates signed a contract with Burhan to build a new Red Sea port it has long wanted to control the supply chain for its food security.

Given the size and nature of those investments, antagonizing the state institutions would not be strategic for Abu Dhabi, so it makes little sense for the Emirates to push for an armed conflict that could end with the SAF winning. The Emirates is always on the side of old and established institutions and believes instability is bad for business. That being said, Abu Dhabi is deathly allergic to anything that even smells like the Muslim Brotherhood, and if it is forced to make a choice between Burhan or Hemedti, it will choose Hemedti, who it knows and trusts and isn’t the Brotherhood. It's officially neutral but leans RSF.

International powers 

China: China has a history of investments in Sudan and knows Burhan personally from his time in Beijing serving as Sudan’s military attache. It is, however, pro-stability and sees fighting as bad for investment. Officially it supports the state, but Beijing will not get involved in financially backing the SAF in this conflict, so remains neutral.

Russia: There are many reports that claim cooperation between the RSF and the infamous Russian Wagner Group in the Central African Republic, as well as Sudanese gold being sold by Hemedti and smuggled to Russia. If that's true, then Russia is firmly on team Hemedti, but given its state of geopolitical toxicity and its own quagmire of a war in Ukraine, Moscow will not likely be willing or able to realistically offer Hemedti any type of practical support since it would definitely lead the Western nations to back Burhan and the SAF. Moscow is officially neutral for now.

The United States: More than any other country, the US administration's lack of a proactive approach has fueled the conflict. When Burhan and Hemedti staged the 2021 military coup against the civilian-led transitional government, it was widely expected that the United States would sanction both the generals for their acts against democracy. However, the US government did not seriously consider sanctions on the individuals in the military who conducted the coup. If anything, it led to a clash in the Biden administration between Jeffrey Feltman, the US envoy who favors sanctioning Khartoum’s generals, and Molly Phee, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, as Foreign Policy reported last year. The US has shied away from such sanctions. 

Sudan is not a priority for the Biden administration, whose entire foreign policy strategy is focused on the war in Ukraine and countering China. 

The United Kingdom and European Union: Like the United States, they refused to sanction the generals for their 2021 coup and thought that pushing an agreement that mainly protects the generals from any criminal accountability would be an important step in supporting Sudan's civilian transition. 

The situation in Sudan is still very fluid. It could be a calculated skirmish that utilizes the threat of further escalation to change the conversation from democratic transition to stability. Or it could become an existential war between the two arms of the Sudanese security apparatus, which could unleash unimaginable suffering and escalate into a conflict that makes Syria look like a picnic.

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