Ending Sudan’s civil war may require help of countries currently helping inflame it, observers say


The suffering Sudan’s devastating conflict has inflicted on millions of people made a slight dent in global indifference last week as the one-year anniversary of its start came and went.

It nudged its way into the headlines with the help of an international donors conference hosted by France that raised $2 billion US worth of pledges in humanitarian aid — half of what the United Nations says is needed.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the gathering a “duty to make it clear that we are not forgetting what is happening in Sudan.”

Yet critics say that is exactly what’s happening in the absence of a more concerted effort by the international community to get the warring sides to a negotiating table.

“The more generous view is that there are lots of other things going on. You’ve got Gaza, you’ve got Ukraine, and so the international attention is elsewhere,” said Yassmin Abdel-Majied, a Sudanese writer and activist based in London.

WATCH | Sudan pushed to famine by civil war, lack of aid: 

Sudan pushed to famine by civil war, lack of aid

After nearly a year of civil war, the UN says the humanitarian crisis in Sudan has become one of the worst in recent history. More than 10 million people have been displaced, famine is looming and there is inadequate international aid.

“But I think, unfortunately, some of this is also the fact that people see Sudan as an African country and think, oh, this is just another part of the story of, you know, these post-colonial nations that have warring generals, and so on.”

“What people don’t understand is that this is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world,” Abdel-Majied said. “It will have an effect beyond the borders of Sudan.”

Players beyond the borders of Sudan — from its African neighbours to the Gulf States and beyond — are influencing the course of the conflict for their own purposes and increasing the chances of it metastasizing, analysts say.

Their involvement is seen both as a complicating factor and a potential key to resolving the conflict.  

A tale of 2 generals

Sudan descended into war last April when the two generals who staged a joint coup in 2021 to overthrow a government transitioning to civilian rule turned on each other.

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), have been locked in a brutal war ever since.

A woman with glasses.
Yassmin Abdel-Majied, a Sudanese writer and activist based in London, U.K., said the current conflict in Sudan will have an effect beyond its borders. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Eight million people have been displaced by fighting and 18 million people are suffering acute food insecurity, according to the UN. Both sides have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including systemic rape.

“We have a famine warning on top of all the protection issues around human rights abuses,” said Justin Brady, who heads the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“The other problem we’re facing is an access problem, with both parties to the conflict creating some obstacles for us to be able to reach those in dire need right now,” he said in a Zoom interview from Port Sudan.  

That means aid agencies and engaged diplomats have no option but to deal directly with parties accused of human rights abuses.

Echoes of 2003-2004

Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias accused of genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region in 2003 and 2004.

Twenty years later, the RSF and Arab militias stand accused of repeating the past, targeting members of the Masalit community and other non-Arab groups, setting villages across Darfur on fire and slaughtering people as they flee.

“Every bit of talking and cajoling these actors, in an attempt to get humanitarian access or to advance the peace talks, tends to give them more political credibility and just legitimacy in the eyes of the Sudanese,” said Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University.  

“That’s a very, very severe price to pay.”

People line up to receive food rations.
Civilians fleeing war-torn Sudan receive food rations at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees transit centre in Renk, near the border crossing point in Renk County of Upper Nile State, South Sudan, on May 1, 2023. (Jok Solomun/Reuters)

Last Friday, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary Anne DiCarlo, told the UN Security Council that weapons from “external actors” were fuelling the war.

“This is illegal, it is immoral and it must stop,” she said.  

She didn’t name names, but Sudan shares borders with seven countries, and its plentiful gold reserves and strategic position along the Red Sea make it an attractive prospect for neighbouring countries and those seeking to expand their influence in the region.

Outside interests

For example, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) has long been accused of sending weapons to Chad for transit across its border to Darfur, where the RSF militias are mostly in control. 

The U.A.E. has insisted regular flights to a remote border crossing between Chad and Darfur are humanitarian in nature.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both said to be supporting the other side — al Burhan and the SAF. And Iran has allegedly been providing the SAF with drones credited with assisting the army’s advances in Omdurman, the country’s second-most populous city before the war.

Ahmed Soliman, a regional specialist with Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, says Iran’s apparent interest in a potential foothold in Sudan could well be a catalyst for stronger engagement from Washington.

“In order to get the U.S. to get the regional states who are involved in the conflict to act with the level of seniority and high-level diplomacy required, it seems that it has to be connected in some way to these greater global shifts and threats, particularly to the West,” said Soliman.

A man with a beard.
Ahmed Soliman, a regional specialist with Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, says Iran’s apparent interest in Sudan could be a catalyst for stronger engagement from the U.S. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

The U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Tom Perriello, told Reuters fear of greater influence for Iran or Islamic extremist elements in Sudan was one reason the U.S. believed there was momentum for a peace deal.

Yassmin Abdel-Majied says she’s beyond caring why the international community might engage more. She just wants the needle to move. 

“Both [generals] have enough backing from outside to continue the conflict, right? It’s like it’s not just who can get them to the table, but it’s who can turn the faucets off,” she said.

Grassroots movement sidelined

It raises the question of whether or not peace talks can progress when some of the countries offering to facilitate negotiations are those so intrinsically engaged with one side or the other.

“The mediation, on the one hand … is ill-served by the likes of U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Egypt being around the table, because it compromises neutrality and impartiality,” said Srinivasan. “On the other hand, there is no resolution to this conflict without those actors in the room.”

Absent from that room, say critics, have been the democracy advocates and civil society actors whose massive street protests and campaign of civil disobedience beginning in 2019 signalled the fall of former president Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power.

WATCH | Canada opens immigration pathway for Sudanese fleeing war:

Canada opens immigration pathway for Sudanese fleeing war

The federal government is opening a new immigration pathway for people caught in the conflict in Sudan who have extended family who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Abdel-Majied worries they will be left out of any peace negotiations when — or if — they come in earnest. 

“The people that have the real power from the ground – the resistance committees, the emergency response rooms, true civilian leaders — they are actually still on the ground,” she said.  

She says that grassroots movement inspired the world with its courage five years ago, only to be forgotten.  

Srinivasan sees the international community’s failure to pay more attention to protecting those hard-fought changes in Sudan as the greatest moment of neglect. 

“In the years afterwards, when that precious chance was there, it wasn’t met with tremendous energy and effort from the part of international actors who, in some senses, had been waiting for this moment for decades,” said Srinivasan.

“Partly [it was] driven by the pandemic, partly driven by the war in Ukraine. But certainly it was a period of a squandered opportunity. And that’s really regretful when we see what’s happening in Sudan,” he said. 

“But the resilience and courage of the Sudanese has not been extinguished.” 

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