Zero-sum game

Hamdy Abdel-Rahman , Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

As the conflict in Sudan threatens to drive the country towards civil war, there is an urgent need to find a mediator to put the country back on the path towards democratic transition, writes Hamdy Abdel-Rahman

Zero-sum game
photo: AFP


Given Sudan’s strategic position near the Horn of Africa and overlooking the Red Sea, it is not surprising that the battle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Khartoum is of great concern to regional and international powers.

Fears that the conflict could escalate into another proxy war in the Middle East have led regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to urgently call for peace. Sudan’s international partners, from the EU to the UK and US, have condemned the violence and called for the resumption of negotiations.

However, these powers lack the necessary leverage to restrain the two sides, which appear to be of equal strength, increasing the risk of a protracted civil war that would prevent the transition to civilian rule and aggravate the humanitarian plight of the Sudanese people.   

Unfortunately, mediating efforts on the part of Sudan’s international partners have thus far showed little progress towards restoring calm. The present conflict in Sudan threatens to drive the country towards becoming another Libya. There is an urgent need to find a mediator capable of resolving the conflict and putting Sudan back on the path to democratic transition and peace.

The fighting raging today in Khartoum and other parts of Sudan is the latest round of armed clashes that have gripped the country for years. It began following the military coup in October 2021, which ousted prime minister Abdallah Hamdok, head of the civilian component of the Transitional Government that has ruled Sudan since the overthrow of the regime led by former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir in 2019.

The principals are easy to identify: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Lieutenant-General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). These are the two main faces of the military component of the Transitional Government, and they are locked in a rivalry over power, one that has taken on an alarming escalatory dynamic because each is now resolved to eliminate the other.

The battle has already taken a large human and material toll. There has been no shortage of Arab, African and international peacemaking initiatives, but none have gained traction. If the two sides continue down the path of a zero-sum game, the conflict could escalate, developing new and increasingly complex configurations of alliances until it eventually descends into a Hobbesian state of a “war of all against all.”

The clashes between the SAF and the RSF that erupted on 15 April have focused on a number of strategic locations in Khartoum, such as the Republican Palace, the SAF General Command building, the Radio and Television building and the main airports, including the Khartoum International Airport and the Merowe International Airport.

These are key to securing control over the capital and, because of their symbolic value, to projecting control and legitimacy over the rest of the country. However, the power struggle has begun to escalate into a contest to control resources and other sources of wealth as well, as the belligerents scramble to cut off the adversary’s supply lines and material sources of support or to safeguard and accumulate their own resources.

While the SAF has been fighting to seize control of the Jebel Amer gold mines in North Darfur and to cut off the RSF’s smuggling routes, the RSF has been attacking the SAF’s main transportation and supply routes, including the highway from Port Sudan to Khartoum.

The two sides have also intensified their propaganda wars, ratcheting up mutual recriminations and accusations. In this regard, it is noteworthy that some 900 Twitter accounts have been dedicated to attempts to rebrand the RSF, or the Janjaweed as it was formerly called.

Nevertheless, the avenues to negotiations are still open, and it is to be hoped that the two sides can be encouraged to resume dialogue before the situation spirals out of control. One is reminded of the Civil War in Ethiopia between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Addis Ababa, which ended with a settlement brokered by Pretoria, but only after the hostilities had dragged on for two years by which time the combatants had exhausted themselves and realised that their dispute could not be settled militarily.


LIBYAN SCENARIO: The material and organisational resources the combatants need to sustain intensive hostilities will probably run out quickly in the light of Sudan’s deteriorating economic circumstances and the refusal of the regional and international powers to meddle directly or indirectly in the fighting thus far.

If the belligerents remain intransigent, the current phase in the fighting could last some months, at which point the conflict would become less intensive. At the same time, however, there is the risk of it spreading and diversifying as more players and military actors get involved and compete to seize positions and gain an edge over their rivals.

In the process, many might switch sides or behave in other opportunistic ways, as occurred in Libya in the period after the fall of the former Qaddafi regime in 2011.

Darfur, which appears on the brink of a major flareup, may serve as a gauge of the direction of things to come. The region is historically associated with the RSF, which evolved from the Arab Bedouin Janjaweed that had emerged as one of the main participants in the war in Darfur in 2003.

Last week, Darfur experienced an outbreak of tribal skirmishes against the backdrop of stepped-up recruitment efforts on the part of both the SAF and the RSF. The geographical expansion of hostilities could pave the way for other militia groups to enter the fighting, which would prolong the conflict even if the fighting in Khartoum subsides. The humanitarian impacts would be severe, especially in the light of recent droughts and water shortages.

A halt in the fighting at present would be unlikely to save the new framework agreement for the transition to a civilian government, but ongoing hostilities between the SAF and RSF would put a return to negotiations over power-sharing and the reform of the security agencies increasingly out of reach.

As the fighting continues, the ethnic/tribal variable will assume greater weight as polarisation intensifies around ethnic/tribal divides, more militias groups get drawn into the war, and the conflict spreads and becomes increasingly complex. The humanitarian costs will be extremely high due to forced displacement and, perhaps, ethnic/tribal massacres.

Should alliances develop along ethnic/tribal/regional lines, this would raise the spectre of another partition scenario taking place similar to that which eventually led to the secession of South Sudan. In such a fraught environment, the task of mediation will become increasingly arduous and complex due to the multiplicity of diverse and conflicting motives, interests, aims and volatility factors that the mediators will need to address.


SEARCH FOR A MEDIATOR: The more the crisis in Sudan escalates, the more external players will attempt to meddle in the pursuit of their particular interests in Sudan or the region.

Egypt is the regional power with the most at stake in Sudan in the light of the two countries’ shared interests as neighbouring riparian nations on the Nile and the millennia-long civilisational and cultural bonds between the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples.

Such connections make Sudan as much of an Egyptian national security concern as Egypt is a Sudanese national security concern. It is only natural, therefore, that the Egyptian leadership has hastened to offer a peacemaking initiative in coordination with South Sudan.

It is also likely that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other stakeholders will try to coordinate to end the hostilities and prevent Sudan from sliding into civil war and another partition scenario. A collective Arab solution would be consistent with the current regional efforts to resolve the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen and reduce tensions in the region in general.

African agencies such as the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) may also try to help, but their political influence would be relatively limited. It was not the AU or the IGAD, but the international quartet made up of the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UN, that was instrumental in brokering this Political Agreement in Sudan of 2019.

The relatively weak influence of African actors on developments in post-Al-Bashir Sudan underscores the need for more concerted efforts to empower African institutions and African-led initiatives.

Other countries in the region, such as Eritrea and Ethiopia, also have interests in the conflict. Eritrea has been accused of supporting Hemedti, who visited Asmara only days before the fighting erupted. Ethiopia is closer to Al-Burhan. But Addis’ calculations are informed by a number of factors such as the Ethiopian Amhara region and the longstanding tensions over the neighbouring Fashqa region in Sudan. Also crucial is the question of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its impacts on Sudan and Egypt.

The US, since the administration of former president Donald Trump, has delegated the question of Sudan to regional powers. But that could change as the fighting intensifies. At all events, the more outside parties are involved, the greater are the challenges to mediation efforts. For one thing, they will need to spend much more time trying to coordinate their positions and formulating a common approach.   

While that is in progress, the crisis could easily intensify and grow more intractable, all the more so if the countries involved get sidetracked in the pursuit of their own interests, to the detriment of the collaboration in the interests of peace and the welfare of the Sudanese people.  Ultimately, a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Sudan requires sustained and collective efforts by all the concerned parties.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo and Zayed universities. The article is published in coordination with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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

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