Conflict between Generals Al-Burhan and Hemedti too High a Price to Pay for Sudan 

  • Lack of trust between the two parties reforming Sudan’s security sector resulted in military escalation.
  • Both generals’ main objective is to monopolise power, excluding a peaceful resolution.
  • The conflict will drag Sudan deeper into a humanitarian crisis and escalate existing tensions between Arab and non-Arab communities.

Why is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (SAF) in conflict with General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (RSF)?

Answer: The conflict escalated due to negotiations failure between the SAF and the RSF on reforming Sudan’s security sector under the Political Framework Agreement of December 2022.

On April 15th, 2023, in Khartoum, Sudan, the ongoing power dispute between rival generals escalated to the extent of a violent conflict. As of July 2023, the war forced 2.2 million people to leave their homes, while 25 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The exact data on the death toll is unavailable, however, according to the estimates, it has surpassed 4.000 deaths with more than 12.000  people injured. 

The conflict is rooted in the negotiations failure between the de facto leader of Sudan General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF); and General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The SAF and RSF did not reach an agreement on reforming Sudan’s security and military sectors

The SAF is the most dominant institution in the country, which has a long history of being at the centre of Sudanese politics, while the RSF is a successor force of Janjaweed Arab militia forces, which were organised by the ousted President Omar al-Bashir to conduct his scorched-earth policies in Darfur in the early 2000s. After the massacre, Al-Bashir made the RSF a formal part of the Sudanese security forces with the aim to use them as the counterweight to the SAF in case of a coup d’etat attempt. 

However, in 2019, both al-Burhan and Hemedti turned against al-Bashir following the pro-democratic protests and successfully removed him from office. During that time both generals received support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia (SA) and Egypt. The RSF continued operating as an independent force while competing with the SAF for state resources and legitimacy. After jointly overthrowing Sudan’s civil administration in 2021, the two forces continued their competition for power. 

On December 5th, 2022, the two parties signed a Political Framework Agreement, the main objective of which was to end the political crisis after the October 25th, 2021 coup d’etat and put Sudan on a track of democratic transition. 

The Framework also suggested the formation of a singular army by merging the SAF and RSF and the delegation of power from the military to civilian leaders, which would eventually lead to elections. It was agreed upon mostly under international pressure. Besides that, al-Burhan wanted to merge the RSF under the SAF as soon as possible which would allow him to control Hemedti’s growing power, while the RSF backed the Framework in hopes to finally legitimise their presence in Sudan’s political landscape.

The lack of trust between the SAF and the RSF on how to manage the process of power delegation under the Framework and the non-desire of either of the forces to work under the common command resulted in the military escalation. 

What does General Hemedti (RSF) want?

Answer: The main objective of Hemedti is to monopolise power and remain an independent force in the Sudanese political and military landscape.

After the escalation, Hemedti claimed that the fighting was initiated in the name of Sudan’s transition to democracy. In February of 2023, he stated that he would not allow al-Bashir’s loyalists to stand between the SAF and the RSF and expressed his commitment to the Framework. However, he never agreed on a specific timeline to integrate the RSF into the SAF, delaying the signing of the final agreement. Accordingly, the RSF wants to operate under civilian leadership, not merging with the SAF. 

Hemedti’s military and political career shows a traceable pattern of actions  with a drive to monopolise power and a willingness to cooperate with anyone to strengthen his ambitions. For instance, he quickly changed his alliance from al-Bashir and joined the military in the 2019 coup d’etat. After this, Hemedti was appointed as a deputy of a Transitional Sovereignty Council, the head of which was General al-Burhan.  

Since the creation of the RSF, Hemedti has managed to grow the force’s operational capacity. Besides keeping control over gold mining, he invested in developing the RSF’s commercial activity and established foreign relations

Hemedti provided SA and the UAE with additional forces during their intervention in Yemen. For years he also presented himself as a strong weight against Islamist-leading fractions, which eventually allowed him to form close relations with the UAE. Abu Dhabi provides Hemedti with a platform to operate the RSF cash flow as well as indirectly supplies arms for assistance with pursuing Emirati’s regional ambitions in Yemen. 

What does General al-Burhan (SAF) want?

Answer: Al-Burhan wants to keep the military’s dominance in Sudan and prevent Hemedti from consolidating power. 

Despite the fact that al-Burhan did not come close to power until 2019, he has had an active role in the Sudanese military since the early 2000s. Al-Burhan has distanced himself from the atrocities committed by the RSF in Darfur, rose to be a regional commander and visited Jordan and Egypt for military training, eventually growing closer to Cairo. In 2018 he was appointed as a Chief of Army Staff. 

Egypt, which also has a history of military rule, sees al-Burhan and the army in particular as a guarantor of its regional interests. Cairo resents the extending influence of the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the Red Sea shores, which makes al-Burhan a favourable ally considering Hemedti’s ties with Abu Dhabi. However, Cairo is in a great need of Emirati cash and investments, which prevents it from launching a full-scale campaign in support of al-Burhan. 

On the grand scale, General al-Burhan perceives the RSF’s actions as a rebellion against the state. Al-Burhan wants to integrate the RSF into a regular army within 2 years and, similar to Hemedti, preserve kleptocratic networks from al-Bashir’s regime. The SAF considers Hemedti’s ambitions as a threat to the military’s long-time economic and political dominance in Sudan. 

What is General al-Burhan (SAF) doing?

Answer: Al-Burhan has distanced himself from negotiations with the RSF and started exploring options for military cooperation with his long-time allies. 

Despite numerous attempts from the international actors to negotiate a truce in Jeddah in early May, the SAF eventually removed themselves from participation in the talks accusing the RSF of disrespect to its ceasefire commitments. 

On July 13th, the leaders from seven of Sudan’s neighbouring states met in Cairo to discuss the conflict mediation. Led by the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the officials agreed upon the necessity to initiate a lasting ceasefire, establish safe humanitarian corridors and build a negotiation framework which would include all Sudanese parties. The plan was backed by all participants with the exception of Ethiopia, and, most importantly, supported by the SAF and the RSF. 

Considering the fact that since the escalation the generals have agreed to 10 cease-fires that ultimately failed, the process is not expected to launch in the short-term perspective. Moreover, Egypt has a long history of partnership with al-Burhan, which has all chances to undermine the credibility of the proposal from the RSF’s perspective. 

The tendency of negotiation failure is amplified by the SAF’s response to the July 10th talks held by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development with the main proposal to deploy troops to Sudan. Once again, the SAF refused to attend the panel and accused Kenya’s President William Ruto of having alleged ties with the RSF commanders.

On August 27th, Hemedti published a peace proposal calling for negotiations with the SAF and proposing a creation of a merged apolitical army under civilian oversight. In response, besides denouncing the RSF as traitors, al-Burhan went on a tour of army-controlled bases. Moreover, for the first time since the conflict erupted, al-Burhan visited Cairo together with the heads of Intelligence and Defence, which suggests the upcoming talks on military cooperation between the long-time allies. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: The conflict will further drag Sudan into a humanitarian crisis, while the SAF and the RSF will continue competing for power causing infrastructure failure, food shortage and a spike in civilian death toll. 

Since the 2021 coup d’etat Sudan has been without a civilian government while ongoing clashes have the full potential to transform into a full-scale civil war. 

Despite the mediation attempts initiated by regional and international actors, the conflict shows little to no sight of ending, which will further undermine the already crumbling economy and drag Sudan deeper into a humanitarian crisis. Considering al-Burhan’s international legitimacy, Hemedti lacks the authority to overthrow the SAF from a political perspective. However, with the close ties between the two military resources, there is a possibility that the two will establish rival spheres of control thus creating a fragmented war-torn state. 

As of August 2023, the RSF have dominated Khartoum since the escalation. The current short-term military objective of the RSF is to take over the SAF headquarters where al-Burhan and his key lieutenants are sheltering. The RSF were successful in cutting out the SAF supply lines by sieging the location, which would further exhaust al-Burhan’s resources and make the SAF more open to negotiations. Even if the headquarters fall, the SAF still controls the larger part of Sudan which eliminates the possibility of short or mid-term conflict resolution. 

From a geopolitical perspective, the conflict between the SAF and the RSF is much more than a domestic struggle. The two main Gulf actors – Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete against each other over the strategically located Sudan by backing the rival generals. Riyadh is focused on pursuing Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030, the integral part of which is Red Sea security and investments in the region. Similarly, the primary goal of Abu Dhabi is to control the Red Sea ports and expand Emirati influence over Central and West Africa. 

Numerous cases of conflict-related sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and ethnic violence were reported to the UN agencies. Moreover, on July 13th, a mass grave with up to 100 bodies was discovered in West Darfur. The victims were allegedly killed by the RSF forces and affiliated militants. The RSF and the SAF have also mobilised tribal militias, which fuels a long-lasting conflict between Arab and non-Arab communities. Overall, the conflict is nowhere near resolution, which will further destroy the remaining infrastructure and increase refugee flows to the neighbouring states.

Ksenia Kumanina