The SAF and RSF: Masks off

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 27 Apr 2023

The cooperation between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces was always based on a temporary convergence of interests, as the present conflict demonstrates.

The SAF and RSF: Masks off


The armed conflict currently raging in Sudan is the natural outcome of a derailed political transition process and the failure to agree on a military integration project.

As a result, the country may be on course to rounding out a cycle of conflict not unlike others we have seen in this region: the stakeholders reach a peak of political consensus, signing peace agreements and setting into motion political roadmaps, only for it all to unravel leading to a return to arms.

The Political Agreement the Libyan factions signed in Skhirat in December 2015 was not the end of the Civil War in that country, for example. It was just the hiatus between the first two waves of civil warfare and the third.

Likewise, in Sudan, the political and military stakeholders had been looking forward to 6 April to sign a final agreement that would usher in a new transitional political process based on an internationally sponsored civilian-military power-sharing arrangement, only for that day to come and go and for armed clashes to erupt just over a week later.

If the confrontation between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) tells us anything, it is that even though they worked in the framework of the Transitional Sovereignty Government (TSC) theirs was an alliance of convenience based on a temporary convergence of interests.

The closest parallel in the region is the alliance between former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh with the Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement in Yemen. Saleh, by virtue of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) post-revolutionary transitional plan, had retained a loyal military force from the national army, while the Houthis rallied to their side a contingent from the former army. The two forged an unofficial alliance that facilitated the Houthi takeover of Yemen in 2014 and a power-sharing arrangement. In 2016, they formalised their alliance to fight the Saudi-led Coalition.

In the end, however, the Houthis assassinated Saleh and other members of the old regime affiliated with him.

In Sudan, the masks came off on the eve of the signing of the final political agreement. The Commander of the SAF Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, and the Commander of the RSF Lieutenant-General Mohamed Hamdan Dalago (Hemedti), were supposed to iron out differences over security reforms including the integration of the RSF into the army.

Instead, they ended up severing the alliance they had forged upon the overthrow of the Omar Al-Bashir regime in 2019 and that led to a power-sharing arrangement in the framework of the Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC) that effectively had two heads: Al-Burhan as president and Hemedti as vice-president.

According to analysts of Sudan, the RSF commander is fickle in his alliances. His ascent up the ladder in Khartoum and his powerful influence as the head of the RSF was the product of an earlier alliance with former President Al-Bashir, who used Hemedti as the regime’s military agent during the conflict in Darfur.

Hemedti was well positioned to serve in that capacity as he had been a commander in the notorious Janjaweed from which the RSF evolved. One historian described his career trajectory as the “rise of an opportunistic pirate.”   

In the timeline leading up to the rupture, 15 March is the first crucial date, as it occasioned the draft agreement between the SAF and RSF on the “principles and foundations of security and military reform.”

This document called for a graduated integration process to take place over ten years, so as to accommodate various technical considerations related to disbanding the militias and assimilating them into a standing army. The process, which was to be overseen by the Security and Defence Council, covered not just the incorporation into the army of the RSF but all the other militia factions that signed the Framework Agreement in December last year.

The draft agreement also called for purging the armed forces of all affiliates of the former regime, the dismantlement of the former regime’s partisan militias, the elimination of all political ideology from the army’s training curricula, and the adoption of a national professional military creed using the slogan “one army, one people.”

The next important juncture was the security and defence workshop at the end of March. The RSF had presumed the draft agreement would form the framework for that workshop. However, the SAF presented a number of proposals, one of which was to accelerate the integration to two years instead of ten.   

The proposals also stated that the RSF would cease any new recruitment and called for an agreement to be reached within the first months of a unified command. The law governing the RSF would be amended to place the RSF under the command of the SAF. The workshop concluded without final recommendations.

There are conflicting rumours over what happened in the interval between 15 March and 26 March, when the workshop convened, and who was responsible for its failure. It is noteworthy that neither Al-Burhan nor Hemedti attended the workshop in a sign of the seething undercurrent that would erupt in violence a couple of weeks later.

On the surface, the draft agreement seems ideal, but the devil is in the details. For example, the SAF had delegates in the RSF camps who understood the nature of the RSF’s military structure. According to them, it would be a huge challenge to integrate a militia into a proper standing army from training and organisational discipline, to chain-of-command and organisational structures, and even militia versus military culture.

Another problem lay in the political agendas of the two sides. Even at the foreign-policy level it appears that they diverged. Hemedti had a force in Libya, and he had contributed a force to the Arab Coalition in Yemen.

Funding is another area where the two sides diverge. Whereas the SAF is financed by the state, the RSF relies on revenues from its military contracts abroad and on its alliance with the gold-mining lords in Darfur. So, it would be mistaken to reduce the problems between the two sides to differences over command structures and hierarchy or the accelerated timeframe and schedule for the integration.

There is a point in the 15 March draft agreement that may have been at the root of at least some of the tensions. Hemedti has justified his position on the grounds of this point calling for the depoliticisation of the army. He has argued that the SAF is unable to free itself of the Islamist power centres that had taken control over the army during Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood rule in the Al-Bashir period.

Some commentators believe that this was the grenade that detonated on 15 April. The army has responded that the depoliticisation process is a two-way street. Just as Islamism should be eliminated from the ranks of the army, so too should partisan ideology be eliminated from the ranks of the RSF.

As things stand, each side is bent on acting out its role. The RSF will go on behaving like a militia, and the army will speak of its responsibility to put the militia down. Between the two of them, Sudan and the Sudanese will pay the price as the country careens toward chaos.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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