The war in Sudan is likely to escalate, but is there a window for peace?

Protesters burn tires as they protest against framework agreement signed between the military and civilians/CREDIT: Mahmoud Hjaj-Anadolu Agency.
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The situation in Sudan has become increasingly dire. USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently warned that civil war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is pushing Sudan toward “state collapse.” While there have been many conflicts during Sudan’s long and troubled history, this war is set to be one of the most destructive and regionally destabilizing.

Historical trends suggest that this will likely to be a prolonged war. Yet there are signs that the international community may have a narrow window of opportunity to begin the peacebuilding process. Seizing this opportunity will require building a strong civilian front and halting foreign interference. However, without a negotiated pause to the fighting in the short term, a major escalation is likely.

Data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) shows that there have been at least thirty-two new high intensity intrastate conflicts on the African continent since 1989, lasting more than five years on average. Multiple studies suggest the likelihood of a prolonged war is heightened by high intensity conflict, low per capita income, multiparty involvement, and the lack of legitimate political avenues for non-state conflict parties. With its low GDP per capita; 13,000 conflict fatalities in 2023 alone; at least 16 armed actors involved in the conflict; and few legitimate outlets for political resolution, Sudan’s prospects are grim.

Multiparty involvement in conflict is one of the defining characteristics of the war in Sudan. While the RSF has allied with a range of “tribal” militias in the west, the SAF has been increasingly mobilizing and arming civilians in response to battlefield losses. International actors are also heavily involved, with Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and now Iran providing arms and support to the SAF, while the RSF receives backing from the UAE, Chad, Kenya, the Libyan National Army, Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, and Ethiopia.

A lack of legitimate avenues for non-state conflict parties to engage remains a major obstacle to conflict de-escalation. While the RSF has agreed in principle to participate in dialogue, the SAF has so far rebuffed such overtures. Avenues for civilian participation in dialogue are even more uncertain. The SAF appears to be ruling out any negotiated end to the conflict, vowing to continue fighting until the RSF is “completely defeated.” Yet civilian participation is critical to securing long-term stability in Sudan. Indeed, the failure to establish a civilian-led transition since the Sudanese revolution in 2019 is seen as a direct cause of the 2021 coup and the subsequent 2023 war.

The war is likely to escalate

Analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project suggests the following patterns are present in many recent African civil wars (including in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Libya, Cameroon, Mozambique, and Mali): An initial surge of violence occurs as the conflict breaks out, territory is seized, forces are mobilized, and fronts lines are established. After this initial surge of fighting, there is a decline in intensity, as one side or both sides re-groups and re-arms, new alliances are struck, and (often futile) attempts at dialogue are made.

Then, the conflict escalates dramatically as combatants, re-armed and re-equipped, supported by new alliances, and frustrated by the lack of concessions from the other side, seek decisive battlefield gains with a new level of savagery. This second surge in violence tends to occur roughly 10 to 12 months after the first surge and often eclipses the first in severity.

Given this context, the decline in conflict intensity seen in Sudan in December, January, and February (according to ACLED, conflict fatalities dropped from 1,655 in November 2023 to 778 in February 2024), and the fitful attempts at dialogue, occurring some eleven months after the start of the war, may well prove temporary, and could give way to even greater levels of violence, internal displacement, and regional destabilization. As this occurs, warlords and tribal militias will benefit from the further breakdown of government authority, and arms and human trafficking will proliferate.

Regional powers will be increasingly tempted to intervene, and jihadist groups may exploit the situation to establish a new base of operations in East Africa. The Red Sea, already under serious strain from relentless Houthi attacks on international shipping, could become a new frontline in Sudan’s war, with serious consequences for the global economy.   

How will it all end?

Conflict termination data from UCDP indicates that of major conflicts in Africa that do end, approximately 38% of these wars end in ceasefire or peace agreements – though often on very shaky ground; 27% end when one side ceases to offer significant resistance yet is neither defeated nor surrenders (de-facto state victory); and 23% conclude with the successful overthrow of the government by non-state actors. If the international community wishes to maximize the chance of a peaceful conclusion to the conflict, it must act urgently to exploit the space for dialogue that is rapidly closing.  

Reducing the intensity of the conflict is critical. The RSF’s stated willingness to accept a ceasefire in January, cynical though it may be, presents an opportunity that should be seized, and additional pressure should be brought to bear on SAF to do the same. Recently announced sanctions by the United States and other members of the to sanction entities associated with both the RSF and SAF are welcome developments, and this kind of pressure should be fully exerted to encourage the ceasefire process and support peacebuilding. While sanctions alone are unlikely to force the parties to the negotiating table, they can help to better align incentives with desired outcomes.

Additionally, imposing an arms embargo on all actors could greatly reduce the severity of the conflict. Increased pressure on the conflict’s chief external sponsors – Egypt and the UAE – could reduce incentives for supporting their proxy forces. Egypt is backing the SAF, which they see as the best way to contain the conflict from spreading regionally, protect their own borders, and maintain an alliance with Sudan against Ethiopia on contentious issues such as the disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The UAE is supporting the RSF for a range of reasons, including to combat Islamism in the region (which the SAF has embraced to some extent); as part of a broader proxy war of influence between UAE on one side and Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other; and to ensure a steady flow from Sudan’s profitable gold mines. Additional sources of pressure could include the threat of reduced foreign assistance and foreign military sales from the United States, which could amount to a loss of billions of dollars in support.

It is also vital to open avenues of meaningful political participation for non-state actors as part of these negotiations, and a pathway to political transition must be created. This means that RSF, SAF, and allied forces must all have a seat at the table. While negotiations between SAF and RSF have occurred, they have been focused on a potential ceasefire rather than on political arrangements. Many observers rightly note that RSF and SAF lack democratic legitimacy, and that both sides have committed war crimes –  yet history shows the likelihood of peace is greatly increased when combatants can address their grievances at the negotiating table.

The importance of civil society

Empowering the new civilian Taqaddum coalition, a broad cross-section of political parties and civil society organizations led by former Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, is critically important. Taqaddum is the largest and broadest civilian coalition organized to date with the intention of ending the war and bringing civilian rule to Sudan. Taqaddum’s Founding Convention is planned for April 2024 and international NGOs are currently working to increase the capacity and cohesion of Taqaddum as it prepares for eventual negotiations – but funding for these efforts has been woefully lacking.  

While the recent appointment of a special envoy for Sudan signals increased U.S. diplomatic interest, a commensurate surge in funding has failed to materialize. Increased funding for supporting Taqaddum, as well as political parties and other civil society groups, is essential for the creation of a civilian front with the strength and legitimacy to counterbalance the RSF and SAF at the negotiating table.

Within the civilian coalition, the Resistance and Change Committees (RCCs) are important players. These committees were informal neighborhood networks that began organizing against al-Bashir’s government in 2013 and were a significant force, along with other civil society organizations, in overthrowing the dictatorship in 2019. Although many of the RCCs are now scattered around the region, they embody the voices of ordinary Sudanese who have not given up hope that the promise of Sudan’s 2019 revolution will ultimately be fulfilled and have provided critically important community services throughout the course of the war, including through Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs).  

Administrator Power has acknowledged the importance of these groups, and recently noted that “It took USAID far too long to get aid flowing to these groups and networks.” Prioritizing this support is vital to ensure Sudan’s civilian coalition can effect real change on the ground.

An effective civilian front will not only require support and capacity building – it will require the assistance of strong international pressure from the United States and its allies. This includes pressure to ensure the war’s main combatants agree to a ceasefire, to ensure democratic civilian voices are included at the negotiation table, to compel regional spoilers to desist from fuelling the conflict, and to make it clear to all sides that the only acceptable outcome is a transition which is truly civilian-led. History tells us the war in Sudan is unlikely to end anytime soon – and in fact will likely worsen in coming months – but supporting Sudan’s civilian actors and increasing international involvement can re-align incentives of key stakeholders and maximize the potential for peace and democracy.         

Santiago Stocker is Resident Program Director for Sudan at the International Republican Institute (IRI). He previously served as Resident Program Director for Nigeria and as a Director in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.  The thoughts expressed in this piece are his own.

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