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Understanding the Conflict in Sudan: A Look at the Forces Fighting for Control

The conflict in Sudan between forces loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and rival fighters of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has intensified over the past week, resulting in more than 400 recorded deaths and thousands wounded. Witnesses on the ground describe corpses lying on the streets as the fighting continues. In this article, we will take a closer look at the two main forces fighting in this worsening conflict and their military objectives, political goals, and international allegiances.

The Military Balance+ by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimates that the army has 100,000 troops, compared with the RSF’s 40,000 fighters. However, experts have put forward the figure of 100,000 RSF troops while giving numerical superiority to the army or Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

On the ground, neither side seems to have seized the advantage in nearly a week of bitter fighting. Alex de Waal, an academic with a longtime focus on Sudan, said the two forces have a “comparable size and combat capacity.” There are no exact figures as to sizes of the two forces since the conflict exploded precisely because of the dispute between the two generals on the methods of integrating the RSF into the regular army.

Burhan wanted to do this within two years by imposing the army’s recruitment criteria on the paramilitaries, while Daglo, also known as Hemeti, wanted a 10-year window and also ranks equivalent to those awarded in 2013 to RSF fighters who led the war in Darfur for autocrat Omar al-Bashir, before his ouster in 2019.

The RSF wants to prolong the conflict, while the army aims to use its warplanes to weaken the paramilitary force as quickly as possible. “Hemeti… has an interest in stretching out the conflict” since the main difference “in capacity between the SAF and the RSF is air power,” said Aly Verjee of the Rift Valley Institute.

“Neither SAF nor the RSF has much incentive to back down,” he added. The two forces normally fight together against rebel groups in far-flung provinces, but this time they are in a race against time as they fight each other on unfamiliar terrain: Khartoum.

In terms of political goals, Jehanne Henry, a US human rights lawyer who has monitored Sudan for years, says “doomsday scenarios run the gamut.” If the army wins, “Burhan and his colleagues will re-install old regime Islamists” and ignore international pressure, as they did during decades of international embargo under Bashir’s rule.

“At best, they could make a flimsy pretence of appointing some allied civilians,” Henry said. The other possibility is that the RSF win, but that scenario is seen as less likely. In such a case, “they won’t go down easily and could draw out the conflict, allying with other armed groups in peripheral areas.”

In terms of international allegiances, in the north, “Egypt, seen as a would-be coloniser, supports the SAF and has an interest in Sudan’s Nile water and agricultural land,” said Henry. To the south, Ethiopia “has its own interests, including to counter Egypt,” she said.

In the east, “the United Arab Emirates, which supported Hemeti, has benefited from the RSF’s participation in the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and may have sold weapons to the RSF,” she added. As for Chad and Libya, which border Daglo’s stronghold in Darfur, these desert countries are possible channels for ammunition and reinforcements.

The possibility of the conflict spilling over and directly impacting ethnic groups whose homelands straddle their borders with Sudan has been raised as a concern by the International Crisis Group think tank.

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