Fighting in Sudan between forces loyal to two top generals has put Africa’s third-largest country at risk of collapse and could have consequences far beyond its borders.
Both sides have tens of thousands of fighters, foreign backers, mineral riches and other resources that could insulate them from sanctions. It’s a recipe for the kind of prolonged conflict that has devastated other countries in the Middle East and Africa, from Lebanon and Syria to Libya and Ethiopia.
The fighting, which began as Sudan attempted to transition to democracy, already has killed hundreds of people and left millions trapped in urban areas, sheltering from gunfire, explosions and looters.
A look at what is happening and the impact it could have outside Sudan.
Who is fighting?
Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, head of the armed forces, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces that grew out of Darfur’s notorious Janjaweed militias, are each seeking to seize control of Sudan. It comes two years after they jointly carried out a military coup and derailed a transition to democracy that had begun after protesters in 2019 helped force the ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir. In recent months, negotiations were underway for a return to the democratic transition.
The victor of the latest fighting is likely to be Sudan’s next president, with the loser facing exile, arrest or death. A long-running civil war or partition of the country into rival fiefdoms are also possible.
Alex De Waal, a Sudan expert at Tufts University, wrote in a memo to colleagues this week that the conflict should be seen as “the first round of a civil war.”
“Unless it is swiftly ended, the conflict will become a multi-level game with regional and some international actors pursuing their interests, using money, arms supplies and possibly their own troops or proxies,” he wrote.
What does the fighting mean for Sudan’s neighbors?
Sudan, an Arab and African country, straddles the Nile River and uneasily shares its waters with regional heavyweights Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt relies on the Nile to support its population of over 100 million, and Ethiopia is working on a massive upstream dam that has alarmed both Cairo and Khartoum.
Egypt has close ties to Sudan’s military, which it sees as an ally against Ethiopia. Cairo has reached out to both sides in Sudan to press for a cease-fire but is unlikely to stand by if the military faces defeat.
Sudan borders five additional countries: Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, Eritrea and South Sudan, which seceded in 2011 and took 75% of Khartoum’s oil resources with it. Nearly all are mired in their own internal conflicts, with various rebel groups operating along the porous borders.
“What happens in Sudan will not stay in Sudan,” said Alan Boswell of the International Crisis Group. “Chad and South Sudan look most immediately at risk of potential spillover. But the longer (the fighting) drags on the more likely it is we see major external intervention.”
What external powers are interested in Sudan?
Arab Gulf countries have looked to the Horn of Africa in recent years as they have sought to project power across the region.
The United Arab Emirates, a rising military power that has expanded its presence across the Middle East and East Africa, has close ties to the Rapid Support Forces, which sent thousands of fighters to aid the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Russia, meanwhile, has long harbored plans to build a naval base capable of hosting up to 300 troops and four ships in Port Sudan, on a crucial Red Sea trading route for energy shipments to Europe.
The Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit with close ties to the Kremlin, has made inroads across Africa in recent years and has been operating in Sudan since 2017. The United State and the European Union have imposed sanctions on two Wagner-linked gold mining firms in Sudan accused of smuggling.
What role do western countries play?
Sudan became an international pariah when it hosted Osama bin Laden and other militants in the 1990s, when al-Bashir had empowered a hard-line Islamist government.
Its isolation deepened over the conflict in the western Darfur region in the 2000s, when Sudanese forces and the Janjaweed were accused of carrying out atrocities while suppressing a local rebellion. The International Criminal Court eventually charged al-Bashir with genocide.
The U.S. removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism after the government in Khartoum agreed to forge ties with Israel in 2020.
But billions of dollars in loans and aid were put on hold after the 2021 military coup. That, along with the war in Ukraine and global inflation, sent the economy into free-fall.
Can external powers do anything to stop the fighting?
Sudan’s economic woes would seem to provide an opening for Western nations to use economic sanctions to pressure both sides to stand down.
But in Sudan, as in other resource-rich African nations, armed groups have long enriched themselves through the shadowy trade in rare minerals and other natural resources.
Dagalo, a one-time camel herder from Darfur, has vast livestock holdings and gold mining operations. He’s also believed to have been well-paid by Gulf countries for the RSF’s service in Yemen battling Iran-aligned rebels.
The military controls much of the economy, and can also count on businessmen in Khartoum and along the banks of the Nile who grew rich during al-Bashir’s long rule and who view the RSF as crude warriors from the hinterlands.
“Control over political funds will be no less decisive than the battlefield,” De Waal said. “(The military) will want to take control of gold mines and smuggling routes. The RSF will want to interrupt major transport arteries including the road from Port Sudan to Khartoum.”
Meanwhile, the sheer number of would-be mediators — including the U.S., the U.N., the European Union, Egypt, Gulf countries, the African Union and the eight-nation eastern Africa bloc known as IGAD — could render any peace efforts more complicated than the war itself.
“The external mediators risk becoming a traffic jam with no policeman,” De Waal said.
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