(WASHINGTON) — Sudan is on the brink of collapse as forces loyal to two rival generals are battling for control of the resource-rich North African nation.
The ongoing conflict has left hundreds of people dead, thousands more wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced, according to figures from the United Nations. It has also prompted a number of countries, including the United States, to evacuate personnel from Sudan and shutter diplomatic missions there indefinitely.
While an unsteady ceasefire is in place for now, President Joe Biden on Thursday issued an executive order he said would expand the U.S. ability to respond to the violence with “sanctions that hold individuals responsible for threatening the peace, security, and stability of Sudan; undermining Sudan’s democratic transition; using violence against civilians; or committing serious human rights abuses.”
Here’s what we know about the situation and how it unfolded.
Who is fighting and why?
Fighting erupted in Khartoum on April 15 in a culmination of weeks of tensions between Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful Sudanese paramilitary group. The two men were once allies who had jointly orchestrated a military coup in 2021 that dissolved Sudan’s power-sharing government and derailed its short-lived transition to democracy, following the ousting of a long-time dictator in 2019.
Officially formed in 2013, the RSF evolved out of the notorious Janjaweed militias used by the Sudanese government to crush an armed rebellion in the Darfur region in the 2000s. Sudanese forces and the Janjaweed were accused of committing war crimes in Darfur. Ultimately, the International Criminal Court charged Sudan’s former dictatorial ruler Omar al-Bashir al-Bashir with genocide.
After overthrowing al-Bashir and carrying out a coup, Burhan became Sudan’s de facto ruler with Hemedti as his right-hand man. In recent months, military and civilian leaders have been engaged in negotiations to reach a power-sharing deal that would return Sudan to the democratic transition and end the political crisis. But long-simmering tensions between the two generals boiled over amid demands that the RSF be disbanded and integrated into the army.
“Hemedti started to believe he had been deceived by Burhan and that the overthrow of the [transitional] government was primarily aimed at serving old-regime figures given the intertwined interests they share,” Mohamed Abdel Aziz, a Sudan-based writer and political analyst, told ABC News. “The final straw was disagreement over the security and military reform dossier,” which Aziz said is a key aspect of making the transitional period work.
Burhan wants the planned integration of the RSF to take place in two years, while Hemedti insists it should be stretched out over a decade. Now, they are in a vicious power struggle and neither have shown any real indication of backing down.
“The situation now is the worst-case scenario,” Jon Temin, vice president of policy and programs at the Truman Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C., told ABC News. “The two generals seem pretty set on fighting it out and seeing who wins, and an incredible number of people are going to suffer along the way.”
What’s at stake?
The international community has repeatedly called on Sudan’s warring parties to immediately lay down their arms and engage in dialogue. But proposed cease-fires have barely held, if at all.
If fighting persists, it could evolve into another civil war that might drag on for years, spelling disaster for a nation that sits at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, bordering the Red Sea. A number of countries in the region are connected through open borders.
“There are two equally unpleasant courses of action: if any of the two sides wins, this will not achieve democracy in Sudan and will be seen as a bad scenario for civil forces,” Aziz said. “If the conflict continues and division deepens and extends wider, it will turn into a civil war that will have ramifications beyond Sudan.”
“Millions of people will flee to Europe through the Mediterranean.” he added. “Neighboring countries already grappling with economic woes will face more pressure when new people are added to their population.”
Why is the US concerned?
The clashes have spread outside Khartoum, though “the heaviest concentration of fighting” remains centered in the densely populated capital, according to the WHO. Although Sudan is no stranger to conflict, warfare in Khartoum is unprecedented.
The U.S. is concerned that Sudan’s conflict could spread further and has been in contact with the rival sides “every single day … trying to get them to put down their arms, to abide by the cease-fires that they themselves say they want and to return to some sort of civilian authority,” according to John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House.
“We’re doing everything we can to get this fighting stopped,” Kirby told ABC News. “This is a centrally located, very important, very large African country. We are concerned that other partners, other nations will be affected by this — not just in the region, but beyond — so that’s why we’re working so hard to get this violence stopped.”
But it’s questionable how much influence the U.S. or the larger international community has on Sudan’s warring sides.
“We are looking at a civil war with no end line, with no end game — and that’s why you saw all these countries, including the United States, pull out their diplomats and their citizens out of Sudan,” Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., told ABC News. “I don’t think any one of these countries has enough leverage to push any one of the fighting parties to step back or to compromise.”
There’s also a risk that the conflict could create a security vacuum, which Aziz said “will invite militant groups to take Sudan as a haven or a pathway to target other countries in the region and weapons will infiltrate through the borders.”
In 1993, the U.S. designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism for supporting international terrorist groups. Sudan notoriously hosted al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and other militants in the mid-1990s. The U.S. removed Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism list after Khartoum agreed to forge ties with Israel in 2020.
“With nations politically, economically and security fragile like Sudan, the importance of national institutions comes to the forefront,” Mohamed Fayez Farhat, director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told ABC News. “Sudan now is seeing the absence of those institutions. The army is a pillar for stability.”
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