Sudan: A new territory of instability and… Opportunity

Sudan: A new territory of instability and… Opportunity

Large-scale clashes between government forces and rebels from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have continued for three weeks in Sudan. More than 500 people have been killed and nearly 5,000 wounded (lightly and seriously), according to the country’s Ministry of Health.

Türkiye has completed the evacuation of its citizens from Sudan who have expressed a desire to leave the African country. A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement says 1,700 Turks and 300 foreigners from 22 countries have been evacuated from Sudan. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a message of thanks to all countries that contributed in evacuations carried out by Ankara, especially Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

Other countries also helped their people to leave the hotspot.

Who’s who: the causes of the conflict

The key characters in the Sudanese internal conflict are the official commander of the Sudanese army, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and rebel leader Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), who is under the control of the RSF. Both have been in positions of power since 2019, when former Sudanese president Omar Bashir was ousted.

The main controversy has been over hierarchy and power issues, as well as the timing and progress of the formation of Sudan’s unified armed forces. In addition, al-Burhan and Hemedti could not peacefully agree on who should lead the army: a professional military or an elected president from a civilian background. Hemedti has also described Burhan as a “radical Islamist”, speaking out against the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

There have been opinions that the rebels in Sudan are part of the Wagner group, but the press office of Russian PMC founder Yevgeny Prigozhin refuted these claims, noting that they have not been present in the African country for more than two years. Moreover, Prigozhin offered his mediation services to the parties to the conflict, urging both for peace.

Experts note that the Sudanese unrest is thus a consequence of accumulated internal contradictions. However, from a broader, geopolitical point of view, the situation is complicated by foreign policy as well: al-Burhan is linked to the leaders of Egypt (he also received his military education there), while Hemedti is linked to Saudi Arabia. Given that al-Burhan planned to consolidate his power, including through support from Egypt and the United States, by eliminating Hemedti’s center of power, while Hemedti showed revolutionary ambitions to fight the regime (blaming religious radicalism in particular), the conflict has spilled over into intense clashes and there are no signs of an end to the conflict so far.

Hemedti may have felt his interests were threatened by Egypt’s strengthening and promotion of US initiatives on “dialogue” and the establishment of a “civilian government” in Sudan. Al-Burhan, for his part, intended to consolidate his position of power through a protracted negotiation process – paying lip service to US and Egyptian initiatives, but only to cement his leadership position under the guise of “transition to democracy”. Previously, Hemedti, despite his active involvement, has shown no interest in assuming the position of head of state in Sudan. It is therefore likely that his intervention was provoked by some action by al-Burhan and his allies, which Hemedti perceived as a threat.

The beginning of the conflict and chronology

The first clashes between the army and rebels began on April 15, near the military base in Merowe and in Khartoum. Already in the first days of the conflict, several hundred people were killed, many wounded or trapped in the streets (including foreigners) because of the instability.

On the same day, insurgents seized the presidential palace, the international airport and the strategically important Merowe airbase, which is convenient for military transport. The fiercest fighting is still taking place outside the palace, in industrial zones and in northern Khartoum. In the unfolding conflict, the Sudanese authorities have stepped up reinforcements near the capital, Khartoum, as the rebels have made it clear that the capture of the city is a priority for them. The government has activated an artillery attack against the rebels and also deployed air power. Their opponents have retaliated by hitting the air force and, in particular, shooting down helicopters.

Prospects and fears

Turkish officials, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been in constant contact with their counterparts in Sudan and nearby countries, calling for a ceasefire. Türkiye’s Foreign Ministry has confirmed that it has implemented a number of initiatives to resolve the issue peacefully. Ankara’s position is clear: to apply, first and foremost, diplomatic methods to prevent further casualties and destruction.

Türkiye tries to keep a balanced and pragmatic approach to the issue, as it is in no hurry to spoil relations with the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are interested in the outcome of the conflict. It also tries to wait for a pause before taking sides in Sudan.

Sudan is one of the country’s areas of strategic interest, particularly on the Red Sea: in recent years, for example, one of the biggest deals has been the lease of Suakin Island to Türkiye, as well as plans for economic cooperation (such as the $1.1 billion contract allocated by Ankara for the construction of a new airport in Khartoum). Bashir’s ouster came as an unpleasant surprise to Türkiye, given the uncertainties in the implementation of the agreements, but new deals (such as the lease of hectares of arable land to Türkiye) gave hope for optimism. Now, however, the military conflict is again putting plans in jeopardy: Ankara fears, among other things, that the rebels will strengthen their position and start cooperating with other revolutionary forces on the continent.

Other countries are also monitoring the conflict and are not yet keen to take sides, notably Russia, which also pushed for a military base on the Red Sea and finally got approval from Sudan in February. Moscow may show more sympathy for Hemedti’s side in the long run, and it opens up more opportunities for the Russians to expand their influence in the African country.

Naturally, the U.S., represented by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, has not been spared by calling for a truce (though peace was only kept for 24 hours).

It cannot be ruled out that the victory of Al-Burhan could strengthen the American position. However, the U.S. has already done everything to separate the southern part of the Sudan from it, and it may go down the road of encouraging further disintegration of the country. A prolonged conflict in Sudan would not negatively affect US interests. On the contrary, it will create problems, primarily for Russia (by restricting access to the CAR via Merowe air base, eliminating plans for a base on the Red Sea), Türkiye (also by derailing plans to develop Suakin Island), and China – through destabilizing East Africa, part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Destabilization of Sudan could lead to extremely negative consequences for all of East Africa and the Sahel, as well as North Africa, from Libya and the Republic of Chad to Kenya. It is also in the interests of the U.S. to use the conflict in Sudan to undermine relations between Russia and Egypt, under the pretext that Moscow allegedly supports Hemedti.

The conflict is therefore an opportunity for many countries to reshape international arrangements in Sudan and strengthen their ties with one leader or the other, or to maintain a balanced approach until the conflict is resolved or one side is outnumbered. However, the situation in Sudan requires extreme restraint on the part of all; the conflict in this African country is far from over and now threatens to escalate into a full-scale civil war. It is in the interest of Türkiye, Egypt and Russia to stop this conflict, act together, and bring the parties to the negotiating table.

United World International

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September 2023