Conflict Among Military Factions in Sudan

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Policy Brief Program

May 2023

10 Cents

Q: Why did fighting break out in Sudan?

A: On Saturday, April 15, fighting broke out between two major military factions in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Since then, the conflict has escalated and spread across the country, killing over 700 people, including almost 500 civilians. The nature of the conflict has ignited fears of a civil war, and the UN warned that over 800,000 people could flee Sudan as a result.


Q: Which military factions are at odds in the conflict?

A: The Sudanese army, led by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as Hemedti), are locked in an armed struggle. Both Burhan and Hemedti were members of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which had governed the country of Sudan since the military seized power in 2019.


Q: What are the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF)?

A: The RSF is a paramilitary group that emerged in 2013 from the Janjaweed militias, a collection of Arab militias that were used by former President Omar al-Bashir to suppress the 2003 rebellion in the Darfur region. In 2017, the RSF was legally designated as an “independent security force” and was frequently deployed by al-Bashir, but has been accused of repeatedly violating human rights. The RSF is believed to have over 100,000 members.


Q: Have these parties always been adversaries?

A: Until recently, the army and the RSF cooperated. In 2019, a popular uprising supported by both factions led to the ousting of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir, and the implementation of a military-civilian alliance that intended to lead a democratic transition. 

However, in 2021, the army and RSF collaborated in performing a military coup. Burhan became the head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council and the de facto leader of Sudan, while Hemedti served as his deputy.


Q: What is the cause of the conflict between the army and the RSF?

A: In recent months, pressure has mounted from the international community for Sudan to pursue some sort of democratic reform. Last December, the army and the RSF signed a framework deal. However, negotiations to finalize and implement the agreement have caused tensions between Burhan and Hemedti. The biggest points of contention are the RSF’s role, or lack thereof, in Sudan’s armed forces, and if Burhan or Hemedti would ultimately have control.


Q: Is Sudan still planning to implement a civilian government?

A: In the midst of the conflict, negotiations over implementing a civilian government have broken down. However, Hemedti has publicly expressed support for democratic rule: “The fight that we are waging now is the price of democracy. We did not attack anyone… We are fighting for the people of Sudan to ensure the democratic progress, for which they have so long yearned.”

Because the RSF has been accused of violent anti-democratic actions in the past, including when it killed over 100 protestors outside the Ministry of Defense in 2019, many experts question the legitimacy of these intentions. 


Q: Are there regional ties to Hemedti and Burhan?

A: Each Hemedti and the RSF have had long-standing relationships with several Gulf states. In 2015, the RSF began supporting Emirati and Saudi forces in Yemen. In addition, Hemedti had coordinated large exports of gold to Dubai. Because of this, the UAE and Saudi Arabia supported the 2019 coup against al-Bashir and pledged $3 billion to the military regime. While Saudi Arabia has so far remained neutral, the UAE has been accused of backing Hemedti.

Meanwhile, Egypt has backed Burhan and the army because “Arab national armies, not non-state actors, are the entities that Egypt must support.” Analysts warn that the conflict has the potential to escalate as the Arab world chooses sides. 


Q: Have there been any ceasefires in the conflict?

A: Several ceasefires have been announced since April 15, but none have had lasting success. Occasional breaks in the violence have allowed for the evacuation of thousands of foreign nationals, including U.S. government employees. 


Q: Why did the military and the RSF meet in Saudi Arabia?

A: On Saturday, May 6, Saudi Arabia hosted the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) for preliminary talks in Jeddah. The meeting, scheduled in light of U.S.- and Saudi-led peace initiatives, aimed to end violence by returning to negotiations. Each Sudanese faction sent a three-person negotiating team. 

While “neither side wants to open negotiations towards a political agreement,” the conversation will explore steps towards a humanitarian ceasefire. The two parties continue to disagree on political authority; army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan asserts leadership of the legitimate government, and RSF General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti”) desires equality among the two military factions.


Q: How long is the conflict projected to last?

A: Despite attempted ceasefires, most experts agree that peace is not likely in the immediate future. A report from Reuters stated that “two weeks of fighting shows neither [side] can easily win, raising the specter of a drawn-out war between an agile paramilitary force and the better-equipped army that could destabilize a fragile region.”

Top U.S. intelligence officials have identified a likelihood that the conflict will be protracted


Q: What impact does the conflict have on broader regional security?

A: If the violence continues, the effects are anticipated to be felt far beyond Sudan’s borders. A civil war could have a “potentially destabilizing impact in neighboring Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan, which are all already scarred by conflict to varying degrees.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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