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THREAT ASSESSMENT: DARFUR CITIZENS BE ON ALERT FOR RSF VIOLENCE AND POSSIBLE ETHNIC CLEANSING


Sebastien Chapel, Flavie Curinier, Ignacio Minuesa, Victoria Valová

Mia Sadler, Editor, Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

November 11, 2023


Emblem of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)[1]


Summary

Since early November 2023, the Sudanese civil war has escalated as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are gaining major ground in the western and southern parts of Sudan, especially in the region of Darfur where the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have lost critical military bases and infrastructures.[2] The United Nations accused the Arab-led RSF of ethnic cleansing and human rights violations against the local population.[3] Several Darfur rebels, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) joined the SAF in their fights against the RSF.[4] This comes following the continuous attacks on civilians, predominantly the ethnic African-Masalit tribe.[5] Chad, which has been used by the UAE as an intermediary to transfer weapons and military supplies to the RSF, has been urged by SAF to end its support for the RSF.[6] The US, Saudi Arabia, and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), which is participating on behalf of the African Union (AU), have recalled negotiations between the two parties, requesting that external actors do not fuel the situation.[7] As Sudan is a critical bridge between Africa and the Middle East for its strategic trade routes, this conflict is seeing Saudi Arabia and UAE as an opportunity to likely advance their national interests and solidify their position on the international stage.[8] The expansion of the conflict in Darfur, the presence of other rebel militias, and the influence of international actors like Chad, Russia, the UAE, the US, and Saudi Arabia will very likely intensify the civil war between the SDF and the RSF. This will likely worsen the security situation in Sudan, likely destabilize neighboring countries with influx of refugees in Chad or South Sudan, and very likely undermine civilian safety and deteriorate Sudan's humanitarian situation. Allegations of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity are developing toward UN and US sanctions against the RSF leaders, likely making the UAE reassess its role in this conflict, leading to a decrease of RSF military control and a shifting of power dynamics in the civil war.[9]


Map of Darfur, Sudan[10]

Historical Overview

Since 2003, Sudan has faced military and ethnic conflict in the region of Darfur. The conflict stemmed from various factors, including disputes between nomadic Arab herders and African farming communities, aggravated by governmental instability. On February 26, 2003, it escalated into a conflict marked by ethnic violence, displacement, and alleged war crimes. The Bashir government, a military-ruled government established in 1989 during a coup d’état by Omar al-Bashir, created a militia drawn from Arab tribes, called the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed targeted non-Arab ethnic groups and tackled the rebellion by the SLM and JEM, leading to a campaign of violence by the Sudanese government allegedly killing 300,000 civilians and displacing an estimated two million between 2003 and 2005.[11] This conflict resulted in a humanitarian crisis, leading to international sanctions against the regime and against al-Bashir for crimes against humanity. The former US Secretary of State Colin Powel called it a genocide because it specifically targeted the African ethnic minorities of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit. While the conflict officially ended with the 2010 ceasefire agreement, the region continues to experience violence and instability due to ethnic and political differences. In 2013, the militia was rebranded as the RSF and was regularized as a paramilitary force whose mandates overlapped with the SAF.[12] Amidst a deepening economic crisis in 2019, internal unrest and political tension in Sudan culminated in the ousting of Omar al-Bashir After months of mass protests against his three-decade authoritarian rule, Omar al-Bashir, former Sudanese head of state, was deposed in a coup d'état forced by the SAF. After two years of the transitional civilian government, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, helped by RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, guided another military coup in October 2021 that dissolved the military-civilian Sovereign Council, leading to the dismissal of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok which elicited protests throughout the country.[13] On April 15, 2023, the political instability and military rivalry escalated into a civil war between the SAF and the RSF. The current political and military tensions overlap with a humanitarian crisis in Sudan, resulting in the displacement of over 3.3 million people.[14] The international community responded to the conflict with calls for an immediate ceasefire and diplomatic efforts to facilitate negotiations between the factions.[15]


Assessments

The RSF’s recent advances in the southern and western regions, specifically Darfur, where the RSF controls military headquarters in three state capitals of Nyala, Zalingei, and El Geneina, will very likely cause violence to continue to spread into areas outside of Khartoum. RSF will very likely use this momentum to intensify fighting in Darfur, likely to gain more territory. RSF will almost certainly focus its efforts on gaining control of Port Sudan, very likely to control large territory to “declare unilateral victory.”[16] Other armed groups affected by the conflict will almost certainly choose sides, and will very likely join the SAF in its attempt to stop the RSF from carrying out heinous crimes against civilians.[17] Internal conflicts are very likely to increase, as extremist groups are likely to exploit the instability fueled by the civil war. They will very likely use the conflict to their advantage, likely by recruiting civilians, very likely offering protection and financial stability for those affected by the conflict.


The involvement of other rebels and militia armed groups to the conflict will almost certainly continue due to the exactions committed by the RSF in West Darfur. Since the 2003 Darfur conflict, the region has been home to various groups promoting peace, defending human rights, and protecting the stability of African and Arab minorities. The extension of the conflict outside of Khartoum will very likely prompt those groups to fight against the paramilitary forces and join the SAF, very likely fueling the civil war. The RSF will likely perceive their adhesions as a threat and cancel all previous agreements made during the 2023 Jeddah peace talks brokered by Saudi Arabia, the US, and the IGAD to facilitate increased humanitarian assistance. The RSF and allied Arab militias will likely continue their expansion into Darfur, which will very likely see continuous ethnic violence and genocidal massacres against African minorities, almost certainly increasing the chance of a renewal of the roots of violence between Arab and African communities that brought the 2003 Darfur conflict. Such escalation will almost certainly lead to a mass exodus of African ethnic minorities, food shortages, humanitarian consequences, and the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, likely causing instability in neighboring countries such as Chad and South Sudan.


The implication of international actors as proxies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia will likely exacerbate the conflict and raise concerns for future peace talks between the RSF and SAF. Both countries will likely continue to play a role in the internal politics and military situation as the UAE supports the RSF and at the same time, Saudi Arabia is known to be an SAF backer. Using Chad as a backdoor to transport military capabilities, the UAE is very likely keen to assist the RSF and assert long-standing relationships with the paramilitary forces. It is almost certain that the RSF's expansion and victories would not have been possible without the help of Abu Dhabi. Due to Sudan's geographic situation, the UAE is likely hoping to have direct access to the Red Sea as Saudi Arabia bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman and Aden. Riyad is likely seeking to help Sudan by branding itself as a peacemaker and humanitarian based on its sponsored peace talk with the US. Moreover, as Sudan is considered an access point to the African continent and market, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaders wish to diverge their economy from oil production, are very likely seeking to control the country's resources, energy, and logistics gateways by aligning with different parties. This dispute, among others, is very likely perceived to show hegemony in the Gulf region and is linked to perceived reputation, prestige, and status in the international area.


The continuous US sanctions against RSF leaders will likely change the course of the civil war but have a roughly even chance of highlighting a decrease in influence and help from the UAE and increased support from the Wagner group. Abu Dhabi will likely stop sending direct military aid and capabilities to a group sanctioned by the US for alleged crimes against humanity. However, the UAE has a roughly even chance to continue sending resources via a third country like Chad and very likely denies responsibility for such actions. A potential decrease in RSF's military capabilities will likely prompt them to focus on smaller parts of the country and stop their expansions, which will very likely change the civil war dynamic and allow the SAF to regain and control lost territories. It is likely that if the UAE stops assisting RSF altogether, actors who are already present like Wagner, Russia’s paramilitary group, will likely increase support from their bases in Libya and the Central African Republic as well as their presence in Sudan.


Future Implications

The security situation in Sudan will likely continue to deteriorate due to an increasingly fragmented state with more than one center of power that will very likely be shared between the RSF and SAF. The conflict between the SDF and RSF will likely expand beyond the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and affect the rest of the country, likely increasing the cycle of violence and subsequently creating a vacuum of power in some areas. Sudan will likely become a failed state with ill-defined borders and continuous ethnic violence between armed groups. This power vacuum will likely drive more rebel militias or extremist groups to take advantage of the situation and join the conflict, which will very likely decrease the chance of future peace talks and the likelihood of the country's stability. The increasing threat of extremist groups from neighboring countries such as Chad, Egypt, and Libya have a roughly even chance to expand in Sudan, radicalize its impoverished population, and use the country as a base to launch attacks and further destabilize the region along with already fragile border countries like Chad and South Sudan.


As hostilities and ethnic violence spread, the entire country is very likely threatened by humanitarian crises. Malnutrition, diseases, lack of medicines, vaccinations, as well as food and water, will very likely continue to affect millions of people with no signs of rectification due to continuous fighting. With an estimated 19 million children out of schools and victims of the conflict, Sudan will likely suffer from an educational crisis, with a very likely risk of economic deterioration and a labor market vacuum. Future economic deterioration can lead to a labor market vacuum, a situation very likely utilized by extremist groups as a recruitment tool by offering financial incentives to fight for them. Alongside the internal situation, more than 1 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries like the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, whose governments already have difficulties maintaining security and stability for their own populations. The influx of refugees entering these countries likely creates the potential to destabilize them by exacerbating tensions between IDPs, the local population, and local governments.

 

[2] Advances give Sudanese paramilitary force momentum in seven-month war, Reuters, November 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/advances-give-sudanese-paramilitary-force-momentum-seven-month-war-2023-11-15/

[3] Ibid

[4] Key Darfur groups join Sudanese army in its war against RSF paramilitary forces, Sudan Tribune, November 2023, https://sudantribune.com/article279446/

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] The United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, together with the African Union, Relaunch Humanitarian and Ceasefire Talks Between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, The US Department of State, October 2023, https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-the-kingdom-of-saudi-arabia-and-the-intergovernmental-authority-on-development-together-with-the-african-union-relaunch-humanitarian-and-ceasefire-talks-between-the-sudanese-arme/

[8] How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War, Foreign Policy, July 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/07/12/sudan-conflict-saudi-arabia-uae-gulf-burhan-hemeti-rsf/

[9] Violent Fighting by the RSF continues in Darfur and ADF rebels launch a nighttime attack in DRC, Counter Threat Center, November 2023, https://www-counterthreatcenter-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.counterthreatcenter.com/amp/violent-fighting-by-the-rsf-continues-in-darfur-and-adf-rebels-launch-a-nighttime-attack-in-drc

[11] Ethnic Cleansing Has Returned to Darfur. Is Genocide Next?, UN Dispatch, August 2023, https://undispatch.com/ethnic-cleansing-has-returned-to-darfur-is-genocide-next/

[12] The Hague: Defense of Sudanese war crimes suspect begins, Deutsche Welle, October 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/the-hague-defense-of-sudanese-war-crimes-suspect-begins/a-67136944

[13] Seven killed, 140 hurt in protests against Sudan military coup, Reuters, October 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/military-forces-arrest-senior-civilian-figures-sudan-al-hadath-tv-2021-10-25/

[14] Sudan Crisis Explained, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, July 2023, https://www.unrefugees.org/news/sudan-crisis-explained/

[15] Sudan conflict: Hospital attacks potential war crimes, BBC, May 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-65718968

[16] Advances give Sudanese paramilitary force momentum in seven-month war, Reuters, November 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/advances-give-sudanese-paramilitary-force-momentum-seven-month-war-2023-11-15/

[17] Key Darfur groups join Sudanese army in its war against RSF paramilitary forces, Sudan Tribune, November 2023, https://sudantribune.com/article279446/

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