The Sudan: The Forgotten Massacre and the Great Game on the Red Sea

While all the world’s attention is concentrated in various hotspots, starting from Ukraine to Gaza and the Middle East, there are other tragedies and power games (and inherent butcheries) that pass more or less unnoticed in the silence of the international media and the instrumental attention (or intentional dis-attention) of diplomatic chancelleries. One of these, tragic in terms of the number of victims and of great importance for the strategic consequences it could have, is the ongoing civil war in the Sudan and the power games that are gathering around it.

Before analyzing, it would be useful summarize the recent conflict, but as well all the turbulences which have stormed the country since it gained independence, in 1956, from a fictional Anglo-Egyptian condominium (fictional in the sense that the Egyptian share of this condominium was less than zero and all the power was in the hands of London; further, the present South Sudan was administered by the British colonial administration of Uganda [!]). Sadly, the history of independent Sudan was marked by an endless series of authoritarian governments, civil wars, 15 military coups, all characterized by excessive and senseless violence against civilians and minorities. As stated by several analysts, Sudan is a dual country, crisscrossed by several fractures: north against south, rural populations against urban ones, farmers against herders, Arabs against black Africans, Muslims against pagans/animist and Christians, pagans/animist against Christians and Muslims, tribe against tribe. All, in a country that has important energy (oil) and mineral resources (gold and uranium), and above all, an enviable strategic position, between Arab and the sub-Sahraian world, with coastal access to the Red Sea, one of the most sensitive transit area for trade in the world, between the Suez Canal and Bab-El-Mandeb straits (the relevance of this area is witness to the impact of a low key armed threat by the, allegedly, pro-Iranian local militia, the Houti, who with few weapons have bee able to disrupt the Asia-Europe maritime trade, while stretching the limited US, UK and EU/NATO naval resources).

All these elements have kept Sudan in a condition of semipermanent crisis, with heavy intrusions from external powers. The present civil war, for its violence and the geographical spread seems the worst one of all the previous ones (even excluding the bloodiest civil wars of the past, which led to the separation of the Sud Sudan in 2011 and run from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005). The civil war of 2023 has its roots in the toppling of the civilian government which had led the country after the protests which ousted the long dictatorship (1989-2019) of the general-president Omar El Bashir, marked by a nationwide wave of protests.

Following the resignation of Omar El Bashir on April 11, 2019, and the establishment of a temporary government with transitional executive purposes, which appointed a civilian prime minister during the transition phase. Under the latter’s leadership, during 2020, female genital mutilation became illegal, the death penalty for homosexuality and apostasy was abolished and the ban on consuming alcohol was cancelled (although only for non-Muslims). The compulsory veil for women and public flogging were also removed. The two real powers of the country, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), under General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the “Janjaweed” leader (the institutionalized, but still wild, Islamist militia who spread terror in the Darfur region under the leadership of El Bashir) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a. ‘Hemedti’), watched with growing (and mutual) hostility the new situation.

In September 2021, a first coup attempt attributed to supporters of the former dictator El Bashir was foiled, following a series of demonstrations by various factions; on 25 October 2021 a new coup d’état by the SAF led to the dissolution of civilian government and to the establishment of a full military government and the sharing of power between SAF and RSF was a major issue. In April 2023, another coup attempt was carried out by RSF on April 15: after weeks of internal tensions, clashes between the two factions exploded with blind violence during Ramadan and has run tirelessly. Fighting has been concentrated around the capital city of Khartoum and the Darfur region with some hotspots elsewhere. The two sides appear as of now in a substantial parity and the two leaders, despite several attempts to establish at least humanitarian truce, are determined to shatter the other side and take full control of the country.

Peace prospects are dim. The most recognised effort to achieve peace can be seen in the Jeddah platform: multiple rounds of talks organised by the US and Saudi Arabia, which began shortly after the war broke out. However, the SAF and RSF have consistently failed to honour the commitments set out in the May 2023 declaration to ensure civilians are protected and international humanitarian law is respected. Nor have they honoured several agreements for ceasefire, for the facilitation of the delivery of humanitarian assistance, or for confidence-building measures, such as vacating civilian houses occupied by RSF combatants.

Due to the growing instability, there have been many calls from the international community, and especially from the UN, US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, to achieve peace as soon as possible but without results till now. This, while several countries and organizations (UN, GCC) evacuated their citizens from the country with massive air and maritime bridges when the war exploded.

The strategic position and potentialities of Sudan have put the country at the center of attention of external actors, old and new, and the renewed international scene has increased rivalries and actions. As example of the relevance of Sudan in the past, the country for years was under the pressure of the US and other Western states due to the hospitality and political space given to Omar El Tourabi, one of the most relevant thinkers of Islamist terrorism. The persistent turmoil of the country lit up the interests of the partners; for example, thanks to Saudi financial aid Sudan dispatched up to 40.000 SAF and RSF troops in the Riyadh-led coalition against the Houti in Yemen, Khartoum avoided an economic collapse.

The evolution of the international scene and the emerging of new actors is perfectly observable in the Sudan.

The UAE is, among the foreign players involved in the crisis, one of the ones which have invested most in the war. In fact, without its direct and all-around support, the RSF would not have been able to wage war to the same extent.

Upon the outbreak of war, it reportedly established logistical operations to send weapons to the RSF through its networks in Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda and the Haftar and Wagner militias. It has reportedly disguised armament and supplies as humanitarian aid. In addition, RSF business, finance, logistics and lobbying operations are carried out from the UAE. Injured fighters are reportedly airlifted to be treated in Abu Dhabi military hospitals and the leaders of RSF visit regularly African states on board of Emirati plane.

A UN report in January found the accusations of UAE military support to RSF credible. The UAE has denied this support, but many US lawmakers have publicly called it out. This while Western officials have been more cautious, tending to focus on the “negative roles” of external actors or partners that support the RSF, worried to lose the endless lucrative purchase contracts from the Emirates.

Meanwhile, famine, diseases and fighting are closing in on civilians. Furthermore, the international community has done little to stop it all, with only 12 percent of the $2.7bn aid sought for Sudan having been raised in the Paris-based conferences. The pattern of targeting civilians, torching villages, and committing mass murders and sexual violence has been witnessed in all the areas that came under the control of RSF, which is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing (SAF as well).

The Sudan is key to the UAE’s strategy in Africa and the Middle East, aimed at achieving political and economic hegemony, sustaining a double face rivalry/friendship with Saudi Arabia (which support SAF) while curbing democratic aspirations. Since 2015, it has sourced fighters from both factions to join its conflict in Yemen. It is the primary importer of Sudan’s gold and has multibillion-dollar plans to develop ports along Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

In this framework, because is part of wider strategy of set up (and/or reset) a network of friendly states, it is useful analyze the moves of another new/old (or old/new) actor in the African policies, namely, Russia. The penetration of Moscow in countries like Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Central Africa Republic are well known, as well the concern for possible intrusions in Chad, Guinea, Senegal, São Tomé & Príncipe; all and each under the see and vigilance of diplomacies, armed forces, intelligence and scholars, especially from the Euroatlantic security architectures; all focused in to preview, contrast and block further steps. The concern is proper because there are more and more visible signs of the attempt of expansion of Russian influence in the area, which if it achieves its objectives, would set up a line of client states almost cutting in two the continent, from the Red Sea to the Guinea Gulf, with heavy consequences from many points of view, like influence on the maritime trade, exploitation and transport of hydrocarbons and other raw materials.

Given the relevance of the potential expansion of its area of influence, and in consideration of the fact the RSF, on which Russia appeared to initially bet, are not in condition to take control of the full country, Moscow has initiated a shift in its involvement in the Sudanese conflict, with the Kremlin now providing Al Burhan’s Islamist-aligned SAF its “uncapped” military support. In return, Moscow is hoping the Sudanese leader will honour a deal struck in 2020 to allow Russia to establish a naval base in Port Sudan, a move that would enable the Russian navy to threaten directly Western trade routes passing through the Red Sea (it should be remembered that the agreement saw the co-participation of “Hemedti”).

Russia had already initiated attempts before the hostilities erupted to establish a foothold in the Sudan, dispatching the “private military company,” the Wagner Group.

The legacy of Wagner in Sudan is not recent and some elements were sent already during the dictatorship of El Bashir in 2017, in order to protect gold, uranium and diamond mines.

Following the coup against Omar El Bashir on April 11, 2019, Russia continued to support the Sovereign Council that was established to govern the country, as it agreed to uphold Russia’s contracts and enlarged them to include the training of military personnel, and via a local subsidiary wing was involved in the operational and logistical support against the spread of COVID-19, while increasing the cooperation with RSF in April 2020.

Following the 2021 coup, Russian support for the military administration set up in the Sudan became more open and Wagner’s activities expanded after the beginning of the Russian military operation in the Ukraine in 2022 and, similarly to Mali, thus obtaining lucrative mining concessions and using western Sudan’s Darfur region as a staging point for operations in other neighbouring countries, the Central African Republic (where they provide the protection to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra), SE Libya and Western Chad.

Wagner mercenaries initially worked predominantly with the RSF, which benefited greatly from the support it received from Moscow; Wagner was reported to have supplied large quantities of weapons and equipment to the Sudan. In return, Russia was given access to the east African country’s gold richesses, enabling Moscow to circumvent Western sanctions to fund its war effort against Ukraine. However, the most recent sign of Moscow’s shift is the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s visit to the Sudan at the end of April, signalling the growing support for the SAF and the abandoning of support for RSF. Bogdanov, along with a special representative for the Middle East and Africa, met SAF leader General Al Burhan in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, a base for the army and government officials since the RSF took over large parts of the capital, Khartoum, early in the conflict. Bogdanov, an excellent Arabic speaker and in-depth expert of MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) region, said his visit could lead to increased cooperation and expressed support for “the existing legitimacy in the country represented by the Sovereign Council.” according to a statement from the body, which is headed by Al Burhan himself.

And Russia since April began deliveries of diesel to the Sudan earlier this month. There is now uncertainty around Russia’s ties with RSF, whose commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” visited Moscow on the eve of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine in 2022. The same year, Western diplomats in Khartoum said that Wagner was involved in illicit gold mining in the Sudan and was spreading disinformation. Wagner officially stated last year that it was no longer operating in the Sudan (now Wagner is embedded in the regular Russian Armed Forces).

While Europe’s influence in Africa may have waned in recent decades, a new breed of foreign interlopers is today vying to consolidate their hold over key African states, with civil war-ravaged Sudan emerging as among the primary targets for Moscow in primis, Bejing and Teheran in secundis. This with a paraphernalia of military and economic tools as BRICS and BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). For many years prior to the conflict, China had been one of Sudan’s most significant investment partners, with Beijing investing an estimated $6 billion in the country’s energy, agriculture and transport sectors since 2005.

China has also taken a close interest in Sudanese maritime assets such as Port Sudan, which it hopes will one day become a vital cog in its BRI. While China has tried to maintain a degree of neutrality in the Sudanese conflict, Russia’s deepening support for Al Burhan and the Islamist-aligned SAF has laid the foundations for the re-entry in the country of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Given the vital support Iran has provided to Russia for its war effort in Ukraine, it was perhaps inevitable that Russia’s involvement in the Sudan would ultimately pave the way for Iranian military hardware to be deployed on the Sudanese battlefield. According to recent media reports, the tide of the war is beginning to turn in favour of the SAF, after it began using Iranian-made drones earlier this year. The newly acquired UAVs have been used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting during recent SAF victories in Omdurman, across the Nile from the country’s capital, Khartoum. Iranian officials confirmed to media sources that the SAF have begun using the drones in its war against the RSF. The arrival of the Iranian drones in Sudan followed last year’s visit to Tehran by Ali Sadeq, the Sudan’s acting foreign minister, during which he met with senior Iranian security officials.

Iran has a long history of cooperation with Khartoum, with IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) regularly using Sudan as a base to ship weapons to terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah during Bashir’s dictatorship. Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation was also based in Sudan for a time in the 1990s under the support of El Tourabi. The deployment of Iranian-built UAVs in Sudan, together with Russia’s deepening involvement in the Sudanese conflict, should certainly be a cause for concern for Western policymakers, given the country’s geographical significance in the Red Sea. If, as now seems likely, that after Russia, Iran, together with China, succeed in deepening their foothold in Sudan, as well as gaining access to key maritime bases such as Port Sudan, they will be in a strong position to challenge the West’s ability to protect key shipping routes in the Red Sea. Iran’s presence in the Sudan, would complete Tehran’s strategic encirclement of Tel Aviv and demolish another brick of the “Abraham Accord,” to which Khartoum, with the surprise of several observers adhered in June 2021 (as part of the agreement, the US removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and gave it a US$1.2 billion loan to help the Sudanese government clear the country’s debts to the World Bank. Sudan agreed to pay US$335 million in compensation to US victims of terror, but denied any wrongdoing). The Western powers appear to be reacting slowly to keep this pivotal African state from falling under the influence of Russia, China and Iran, which seek to use the Sudan as a base from which to keep their pressure against the West and its key (few remaining) allies in the region.

The concern of Western diplomats for the open shift of the Sudan under influence of Russia with further expansion of Moscow activities is corroborated by the recente developments in the Sahel region. In April, Mauritania accused the Malian forces and its Russian elements of carrying out incursion on the border area. Since their independence (gained for both in 1960), the relations between the two countries are mainly friendly, but with similar security complexity along the border which covers 2,237 km. Mauritania has the largest number of male refugees in the Sahel region, with more than 91,263 males living in the camps of the frontal region in the South-East, according to the global food programme.

In the face of large-scale kidnappings, the Malians continue to be subject to the general violence of the Touareg separatists, Islamist militants, the regular forces and their Russian “advisors.” The new regime in Mali (as well for Burkina Faso) changed the relations with Mauritania and pushed Nouakchott to adhere to the new regional group of Sahel Alliance (which include for now Mali, Burkina Faso e Niger), which till now has been unsuccessful, and to abandon ECOWAS (Economic Community of Western Africa States). In mid-April Mauritania summoned the Malian ambassador to again protest against the repeated attacks. A meeting between the Mauritanian Minister of Defense and the head of the government of Mali Assimi Goïta followed and a large military manouver was carried out in order to improve the preparedness (very low) of the forces of Mauritania. At the beginning of May, the Ministers of Defense and the Ministers of the Interior of Mauritania are reunited with the inhabitants of larger villages on the foreign border. The two officials promised to strengthen the presence of the security forces in the region and to declare that the Malian authorities have previously assured that they have already adopted plans to prevent all further intrusions into the Mauritian territories.

A modern-day “Scramble for Africa” is taking place in war-torn Sudan. Back in the late 19th century, the original “Scramble for Africa” was the term coined to describe the efforts of European colonial powers such as Great Britain, France and Germany (with minor role and presence of Belgium, Portugal, Italy and Spain) to expand their influence throughout the African continent.

As mentioned above, the civil war between SAF and RSF has proved disastrous for the long-suffering Sudanese population, with the UN estimating that at least 15,000 people have been killed during the violence of the past year, although aid agencies believe the figure is significantly higher. In addition, more than 6.8 million people are internally displaced persons, 2 million fleeing the country have been forced from their homes as refugees, while 25 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, (almost half the population) with the Sudan achieving the unenviable record of having the largest population of displaced children in the world. The Western powers clearly work to keep this pivotal African state from falling into the hands of hostile autocratic regimes, such as Russia, China and Iran, which seek to use the Sudan as a base from which to maintain their assault on the West and its key allies in the region. As usua, in these cases, the US used sanctions to control the violence and promote a “friendly” state. Two commanders of the Sudan’s RSF force were recently sanctioned, vowing pressure to stop the unit from an offensive on the Darfur city El Fasher.

The region was engulef from 2003 to 2020 by a vicious war between local population and the Khartoum-backed militias “Janjaweed” and now is again a hotspot of the war between SAF and RSF. El Fahser is surrounded and besieged by the RSF; aid convoys have not been able to get in and SAF’s troops have had to drop supplies in via parachute. The city is a main hub for getting aid into the North Darfur region, which is already on the brink of famine. El-Fasher has three major camps for IDPs (Internally Displaced People) near it, housing half a million people; thirty percent children, in the camps are acutely malnourished. Nowhere in the area is safe. As the situation continues to darken and evidence emerges that the RSF and its allied Arab militias are once again targeting non-Arab groups. Over the last year of war in Sudan, the RSF has targeted non-Arab groups across Darfur.

It is strategically vital to the RSF because it sits on its supply routes—the UAE (and initially the Wagner Group) helped facilitate these through neighbouring Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic—and to the SAF it is the last city it holds in Darfur. The SAF’s forces there have been joined by rebel fighters from different factions of the SLM (Sudanese Liberation Movement, a rebel group active since 2002, founded as the Darfur Liberation Front by members of three indigenous ethnic groups in Darfur: Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit), and by thousands of men of private militia, led by former Janjaweed leaders and now deadly enemies of RSF. The SAF is also supported by armed elements of JEM (Justice and Equality Movement, an opposition group established in 2007 and allegedly with a strength of 35.000 troops, operating in Darfur and all Eastern Sudan states), while other smaller groups, have also been formed to fight the RSF, which is declared to be already allied with many Arab militias; and there are claims that some fighters from the rebel groups have deserted and joined them. The RSF and the Sudan’s armed forces are seen as both wanting to secure a battleground victory, and each side has received support from outside players.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.