The battle for Al-Fasher

Asmaa Al-Husseini , Tuesday 21 May 2024

The outcome of the critical battle over Al-Fasher may chart the future of Sudan, reports Asmaa Al-Husseini

The battle for Al-Fasher


Fighting has recently intensified between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to control Al-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State in western Sudan. Al-Fasher is the last major city in Darfur outside RSF control.

The RSF have taken over key cities in the region, including Geneina, Nyala, Zalingei, and Daein. Al-Fasher holds strategic, historical, political and symbolic significance, being the capital of Darfur, and is rich in natural and human resources. Control of Al-Fasher grants access to substantial military and negotiation advantages.

Al-Fasher has a vital geographic location, bordered by Chad to the west and Libya to the north, and close to South Sudan and Central Africa to the south. It also borders the Northern State and Kordofan to the east.

Fierce fighting in and around Al-Fasher has involved heavy weaponry, worsening the humanitarian crisis and causing numerous deaths as well as threatening the lives of 800,000 to 1.5 million people. The population includes the city’s residents and those displaced from other regions in Darfur due to the ongoing conflict, which erupted on 15 April 2023, as well as the prolonged war that broke out during the era of ousted Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir in 2003.

Four possible scenarios for Al-Fasher impact the broader conflict in Sudan in different ways.

First, if the SAF gains control of Al-Fasher, it would mark a critical victory in its war against the RSF. This would enable the army, along with its allied forces and mobilised popular resistance, to launch efforts to reclaim other cities in Darfur from the RSF. Additionally, securing Al-Fasher would bolster the army’s ability to protect the Northern and Nile states, as well as the capital, Khartoum. It would also disrupt RSF supply lines to these states and others where the RSF is attempting to expand.

Secondly, if the RSF captures Al-Fasher, it would solidify their control over the entire Darfur region, placing them in a stronger position. This dominance would enable the RSF to reinforce their forces across other Sudanese states with fighters and weapons, extending their influence in the Kordofan and Northern states. Controlling Al-Fasher could also prompt the RSF to declare their own government, potentially leading to a separatist scenario similar to Libya’s division into eastern and western governments.

The third scenario is continuous attrition. Several factors suggest the possibility of the battle being prolonged, considering the vast areas in which the two sides are fighting. The Sudanese army’s ability to mobilise various armed movements and popular resistance in the city, along with the Air Force’s bombings targeting the RSF, contributes to this ongoing conflict. The army has been dropping weapons and supplies to its fighters inside the city besieged by the RSF, while the RSF continues to mobilise for the battle.

Armed movements have also played a role in prolonging the Battle of Al-Fasher. Some movements have sided with the army, such as the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Arko Minawi, governor of the Darfur region, and the Justice and Equality Movement led by Jibril Ibrahim, minister of finance.

Other movements have refused to resume the battle altogether. Leaders like Al-Hadi Idriss, Al-Taher Hajar, and Suleiman Sandal have sought a humanitarian truce to rescue civilians trapped in Al-Fasher who are suffering from artillery and aircraft bombings and shortages in food, potable water, medicine, health services, and other necessities.

The fourth scenario is that international, regional, and Sudanese efforts and pressures will manage to resolve the current crisis. A truce between the SAF and RSF in Al-Fasher could defuse the bloody conflict and allow the exit of those trapped in the city and the entry of humanitarian aid.

The hope is that such calm in Al-Fasher would be part of a comprehensive agreement emerging from the upcoming Jeddah negotiations, which will involve Cairo and other regional parties. However, the specifics of this agreement are still unclear, and the positions of the fighting parties do not appear positive regarding these negotiations, as they seem intent on resolving the battle militarily.

Whatever the outcome of the Battle of Al-Fasher, which is pivotal in the expanding Sudan war, no unilateral decision can be final or decisive. Sudan, including Al-Fasher, is characterised by enormous diversity and complexity, making governance from a single vantage point difficult.  A comprehensive national political solution that can be agreed upon is therefore necessary.

The tribal, ethnic, regional, and political dimensions cannot be overlooked in shaping the course of the war threatening Sudan’s unity and peace. These dimensions have played a major role in forming post-war alliances that have affected all Sudanese entities, including political parties, military factions, tribes, religious groups, and cultural organisations.

International and regional factors have a significant presence in this war, with various actors seeking opportunistic interests in resource-rich Sudan. If the powers in Sudan don’t work together, the country will become a battleground for international and regional interests.

The Russian envoy’s visit to Port Sudan and Iran’s involvement in the conflict have ignited a fierce confrontation with the US-Europe camp, which used the Paris Conference to call on both parties to end the conflict.

The presence of Islamist forces alongside the SAF has influenced the course of the war and shaped internal and external positions on the conflict. Many international, regional, and Sudanese parties have determined their stance based on their views of the Islamists who ruled Sudan for 30 years. Despite their pragmatism when in power, the Islamists garnered substantial opposition, with many parties now united in their resolve to prevent their return to power.

The division between civil and military forces remains a dominant factor, with the war’s continuation for more than a year failing to push those forces into a consensus on halting hostilities and saving the country. Instead, the forces at war continue to seek tactical alliances to defeat their opponents. The absence of unity and agreement on even the most basic measures to stop the war puts Sudan at risk of further loss, fragmentation, and destruction.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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