Hidden hands of foreign players as Sudan generals battle

Wednesday April 19 2023

A pickup truck mounted with turret belonging to Sudan paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) stationed outside the offices of Dar al-Mushaf (African Holy Koran Publishing House) in Khartoum on April 17, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Sudan has degenerated into a battleground for two rival generals, but they are backed by complex webs of international alliances with conflicting interests that could imperil the country's future, analysts say.

Missiles, air strikes and gunfire have been ceaseless in Khartoum since Saturday as army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan wages war with his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who leads the powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group.

Read: Gunfire shatters Sudan 'armistice'

More than 180 people have been killed and 1,800 injured, according to the UN, in the fighting between the one-time partners and authors of a 2021 coup.

With a long history of coups, the North African nation enjoys a strategic location and has long been courted for its natural resources.

Russia and the United Arab Emirates -- in addition to earmarking billions for new Red Sea ports -- are both involved in RSF-controlled Sudanese gold mining, according to experts.


The country's sizeable gold deposits have made Daglo -- commonly known as Hemedti -- rich, and in the process lined the pockets of Russia's Wagner Group mercenary force, according to the US, as well as the UAE, Sudan's main gold market.

Also read: Sudan: US mounts pressure for ceasefire

Gulf states to 'pick winning side'

Abu Dhabi's approach to the current conflict is best described as "pragmatism, pushed to the level of cynical indifference", a specialist told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"If the war drags out, it's not necessarily a bad thing from either a Russian or an Emirati perspective. It lets the UAE keep its influence, which it couldn't do with a conventional power structure," he added.

As opposed to the "classical, traditional" approach of Egypt -- which favours the military -- "the UAE has been much closer to Russia in its tactics", funnelling "shady trades" through Dubai.

Read: Inside the Russian mercenary machine in Africa

But like its fellow Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia, the UAE is unlikely to antagonise either general, both of whom have served Gulf interests in the past.

"Both Burhan and Hemedti fought the Huthis" as part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in 2015, and Riyadh offers "no real advantage for either" general, said Eric Reeves, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.

"Gulf states... will pick a winning side, but wait until victory is clear," he added.

Also read: Hidden hand of Gulf states in Sudan crisis

European support?

Hemedti's RSF emerged from the Janjaweed militia unleashed by former dictator Omar al-Bashir against non-Arab minorities in the western Darfur region starting 2003, drawing accusations of war crimes.

The camel-herder-turned-commander's power is the strongest in Sudan's west, which served as a rear base to send RSF troops to fight in the conflict in neighbouring Libya, according to experts.

In a TV interview a year after the 2021 coup, Hemedti thanked Italy for its "continued technical training" but denied receiving European support to stymie irregular migration by cutting off passage to Libya.

Sudan's west, where the RSF also holds positions on the Chadian border, is still "awash in weapons", according to Reeves, and is critical for Hemedti, who will try "to use his connection to Chad and his power in Darfur to secure a supply line".

Also read: Hemedti: Khartoum general’s change of heart

Egypt's vested interest

On the formal diplomatic front, Burhan -- as de facto head of state -- is credited as the architect of the normalisation of relations with Israel.

The general also looks to Sudan's northern neighbour Egypt for support. He attended the same Egyptian military college as Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Cairo has a vested interest in Sudan's stability.

The two countries have strong trade links, share a 1,200-kilometre-long (745-mile) border, and have "mutual security concerns", said Mirette Mabrouk, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

"There have already been ramifications for Egypt," Mabrouk said, referring to the RSF capture of a group of Egyptian soldiers in Merowe, where they had been for joint training exercises and whose release has yet to be negotiated.

According to Clement Deshayes, a Sudan specialist at Paris's Sorbonne University, "the presence of Egyptian soldiers in Merowe seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back" for the RSF.

"Hemedti felt threatened by Egypt," which just a few weeks ago hosted pro-army Sudanese politicians for a dialogue.

Cairo might have been "sabotaging the democratic transition" in Khartoum, Deshayes said, where the UN, African Union, Western nations and Gulf allies were pushing for an agreement to bring civilians back to power.

Ethiopia's position

Today, the international community -- which had already cut critical aid to Sudan in response to 2021's coup -- seems to have little leverage compared with African and Arab players.

Upstream of the Nile River, Ethiopia, which hosts the African Union headquarters and shares a border with Sudan, is likely to bide its time.

Already at loggerheads with Cairo over its ambitious Nile dam project, "the last thing they (Addis Ababa) want to do is piss off the generals" who will be part of the final negotiations, Reeves told AFP.

Read: Egypt says Addis 'buying time' to fill Nile dam

Ethiopa like "most major regional and global stakeholders," according to New York-based think-tank the Soufan Center, has "built ties with all groups in Sudan to position themselves to benefit from any outcome".