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'Libya scenario': Is Sudan heading towards partition?

'Libya scenario': Is Sudan heading towards partition?
7 min read
14 December, 2023
Analysis: The war could be entering a critical new phase as the RSF closes in on Darfur, with experts warning Sudan could be split between rival powers.

As the eighth month of Sudan’s war draws to an end, the country’s conflict is becoming more complicated. In the west, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are close to imposing total control over the entire Darfur region.

Amid such dramatic transformations to the balance of power, there is increased speculation about Sudan’s fate, with a new map swiftly being drawn of areas controlled by warring factions.

As a result, many are now wondering whether the country could follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Libya, and become a de facto partitioned state.

RSF is one step away from dominating Darfur

With the RSF seizing the Sudan Army Forces (SAF) headquarters in El Daein on 21 November, the capital of East Darfur state, the only remaining obstacle to expanding its influence over the entire region is El Fasher, the political and administrative capital.

The RSF have seized four of the five states in Darfur since October, along with parts of Khartoum, with attempts to penetrate the Kordofan region located between the two.

Meanwhile, Sudan’s army supervises its operations from the city of Port Sudan in the east and dominates the states in the central and eastern regions, the Nile River State, and the country’s Red Sea ports.

Control over Darfur became a strategic goal for the RSF after its inability to capture the capital Khartoum. In this context, the region is of great importance to the paramilitary group, home to its main ethnic base of fighters and containing gold mines that are the backbone of the economy of these forces.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the Darfur region has borders with eastern Libya, which is governed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the ally of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti, and the region is also bordered by Chad and Central Africa.

Assistant Commander-in-Chief of the SAF, Lieutenant General Yasser Al-Atta, recently accused the United Arab Emirates of supporting the RSF through Chad and Central Africa.

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Battle for the west

The retreat of Sudan’s army in Darfur, and the rush by the RSF to fill the void, have raised many questions about the dramatic power shift in the country’s west.

Dr Mahamat Ali Kalyani, Paris-based Director of the Center for Monitoring Conflicts in the African Sahel, attributes the RSF’s progress to the disintegration of the army’s command-and-control system and “the flight of its leaders” from the battlefields.

“In the absence of military leaders, fighters were unable to manage the battles,” which led to the collapse of Sudanese army garrisons and the surrender of their soldiers to the RSF, he told The New Arab.

The Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or 'Hemedti', have seized four of the five states in Darfur since October. [Getty]

Other analysts, such as Dr Muhammad Khalifa Siddiq, believe that the Sudanese army’s retreat was a “tactical withdrawal within the framework of a military plan to preserve the soldiers, not the land, and therefore no clashes occurred in many locations”.

Al-Siddiq expects the army to regain the lands it lost after consolidating control over Khartoum, “if it happens soon,” adding that this will be based on a clear military plan after a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Darfur, according to which the SAF will decide on its new strategy in the region.

"The tactical withdrawal does not mean that the Sudanese army has left Darfur,” Al-Siddiq said, explaining that the SAF is still stationed in the city of El Fasher and its environs in North Darfur, which has great strategic and symbolic value as it is “the political and historical capital of Darfur."

Other players on the field

After the RSF made clear its intention to storm the city of El Fasher and North Darfur, two of the largest armed movements in the region announced their support for the Sudanese army, just seven months after committing to a policy of neutrality between the two sides.

In a press conference, Jibril Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and Minni Arko Minawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), justified their decision by accusing the RSF of targeting civilians, looting property, and attempting to “break up Sudan in the service of external agenda".

The city of El Fasher constitutes the centre of gravity of these armed movements in the region, and many observers believe that its fall to the RSF would mean the end of the influence of local groups, which explains their reactions to fears of the RSF storming the city.

Al-Siddiq believes this announcement means that "the RSF's battle to seize complete control of Darfur will not be an easy task," adding that the “armed groups represent a broad spectrum of the social fabric of the people of Darfur".

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Other experts, however, downplayed the importance of the announcement, saying it would not be an influencing factor in the course of impending battles.

Minni Arko Minnawi, the leader of the SLM-MM, later stated that his departure from neutrality was not to side with the army, but rather to protect civilians, without declaring that he was retracting his previous decision to confront the RSF.

For more than two decades, the Darfur region has been an arena for bloody war between the Sudanese army, supported by the RSF, on the one hand, and local armed movements, on the other.

The conflict between the latter two parties took on an ethnic dimension, as the armed movements descended from African tribes while RSF fighters belonged to Arab tribes.

With reports of several Darfurian armed movements gathering in El Fasher in preparation to confront the RSF, fears are increasing that this will lead to an escalation of ethnic conflicts within the region.

Sudan's army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, supervises its operations from the city of Port Sudan in the east and dominates the states in the central and eastern regions, the Nile River State, and the country's Red Sea ports. [Getty]

Are we heading towards a 'Libyan scenario'?

The RSF's approach to controlling the entirety of Darfur practically means its domination over western Sudan, and this has raised speculation that Hemedti may follow in the footsteps of his ally Khalifa Haftar.

For years, Libya has been living in a state of division between a western region ruled by the National Unity Government from the capital, Tripoli, while the east of the country is run by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar from the city of Benghazi.

"There will be no Libyan scenario in Sudan," says Dr Mahamat Ali Kalyani.

The course of the war proves that what will happen “is a complete fall of the army, and the indicators show that the joining of army soldiers and officers to the RSF continues to increase,” he added, stressing that “of the army’s 22 military garrisons, only 6 remain in its hands".

For his part, Sudanese political analyst Muhammad Torshin also rules out any repetition of the Libyan scenario in Sudan, but for different reasons.

"The equation in Sudan is complicated,” the researcher in African affairs told TNA.

Torshin links the success of the RSF in this regard to three basic factors, the first of which is its ability to provide “a model of governance based on establishing security and providing services, which is what it is trying hard to do in the areas it governs in Darfur".

In addition, it must agree with the victims of the violations committed by its fighters in the region to reach a radical solution, Torshin says, describing this, however, as “unlikely".

Hemedti could formulate understandings with armed movements in Darfur, but he will not do so "because any alliance of this kind clearly means the end of these movements,” he added.

“It is not easy for Hemedti to copy General Haftar’s model, and the final vision of all parties has not yet been fully crystallised, therefore the war in Sudan will continue for a long time to come.”

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli