After the collapse of peace talks, Sudan's Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) resumed their hostilities on June 2, 2023. Airstrikes across the country and occupation of strategic urban assets have increased the tension. While the former ceasefire allowed aid to reach approximately two million people, many more are still in desperate need of assistance. The breakdown of talks has led to sanctions imposed by the US on major players in the conflict. Currently, the African Union Peace and Security Council is seeking solutions. For a resolution in the short-term, both factions may need to compromise their positions, but the prognosis for the medium-to-long term remains complex due to the potential influence of external entities.
Resumption of airstrikes by SAF after the collapse of the peace talks.
The occupation of public and sensitive facilities by RSF forces. For instance, the national museum in Khartoum was taken over by RSF forces as reported by Reuters on June 3, 2023.
Posturing of faction allies can signal escalatory intentions. Major military movements by Egypt (a supporter of SAF) towards its southern border with Sudan or supportive actions by Khalifa Haftar of Libya (an ally of Dagalo) could signal an escalation of the conflict.
The imposition of sanctions by the US after the collapse of the talks is seen as a signal of escalation.
The continued delivery of aid to an estimated two million people despite the hostilities.
The commitment of both factions to peace in Sudan, as expressed in various statements.
The African Union's new peace initiative, which likely has the backing of the US and Saudi Arabia, could lead to some deescalation in the medium term. Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt could play important roles in this initiative.
Sudan Situation Update 05 JUN 2023
On Friday, June 2 2023, Sudan's warring parties clashed in several suburbs in Khartoum and other urban centres after talks collapsed. After days of ceasefire and talks that were expected to lead to a possible peace agreement, the Sudanese Armed Forces(SAF) has resumed airstrikes across the country. The Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group fighting the regular army has seen its positions in the city being hit by the Sudanese Air Force.
The ceasefire, despite its collapse, has helped allow aid to reach an estimated two million people in the country. This notwithstanding, millions more are still in dire need of aid. These include both Sudanese nationals and other foreign nationals who could not be evacuated from their home countries or move to neighbouring states.
In response to the breakdown of talks, the White House has imposed sanctions on some of the major players in the conflagration. While this may not have an immediate effect on the ground and the dynamics of the conflict, it could prove consequential in the medium to long term. The US is frustrated by the intransigence of the factions as a major broker in the conflict. While Saudi Arabia--another major broker--may have adequate connections with the two factions, it appears that is not playing out well in bringing peace to Sudan. Currently, the African Union Peace and Security Council is working on finding solutions to the conflict.
While General Al-Burhan has a convincing control of the skies, the RSF on the other hand has used a combination of guerilla tactics and the occupation of strategic assets in urban centres to entrench its positions in the ongoing urban warfare. This has meant that the Sudanese army is significantly limited in terms of what it considers as air advantage in the multiple weeks of clashes. Any indiscriminate air and artillery strikes could therefore destroy vital infrastructure and make the regular forces unpopular. More critically, facilities like hospitals that have civilians in them, if hit, could increase the death toll in the conflict. This dilemma could have contributed to the frustration expressed by General Al-Burhan in his recent outburst that signalled the collapse of talks.
While the two sides blame each other for the deadlock in the negotiation, they have expressed their commitment to peace in Sudan. In the meant time, refugees keep fleeing to neighbouring states that are already volatile in respect of stability and security.
Conflict Outlook: Duration and Impact
In the short term, it would be difficult to return Sudan to its pre-conflict state eight weeks ago. Each faction has a better alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA). This explains why the commitment to the recent talks has not been strong enough. With regards to the Sudanese Armed Forces, its better alternative is to ensure that the RSF forces are not physically entrenched in the urban centres, especially Khartoum and Omdurman. It believes that its air advantage could dislodge the para-military group over time. The resumption of air and artillery strikes corroborates this thinking of Al-Burhan and his commanders. General Dagalo on the other hand sees the continued occupation of sensitive and strategic facilities as a better alternative to any agreement in the short term. For as long as Dagalo could not trust the aftermath of any compromise, he would prefer to rely on the gains he has made in the past weeks. In the short term, therefore, it would be arduous to reach any tangible peace.
In the medium to long term, some agreement could be reached albeit with difficult compromises from both sides. One possible outcome which has been mentioned by some security analysts is what could be "geographical withdrawal" and subsequent negotiations for lasting peace. This suggests that the RSF forces withdraw from the east to its strongholds in the west. This must be reciprocated with a withdrawal from the West by the SAF. Afterward, negotiations about the future of Sudan could start. While this option may seem rational, it is still difficult to reach in the long term. Firstly, both sides have sacrificed so much in either geography to surrender the gains they have made. In the case of the RSF forces, this could be a morale breaker for the forces that have used inferior weapons to make gains in the East. Secondly, the East seems to have relatively heavy prizes in the conflagration. This could make compromises difficult. For example, it would be difficult for Dagalo to accept a geographical withdrawal that includes Khartoum and Omdurman. He is likely to propose that these urban centres are given special treatment. The third difficulty with this proposal is the possibility that external supporters of the factions may not find it favourable. With regional and international entities having varied interests in happenings in Sudan, each would have its own desired outcomes. This means that factions cannot make independent decisions in respect of any peace agreement. These external powers some of who are arms suppliers and beneficiaries of Sudan's resources could make peace even more difficult to reach in the long term.
There is also the possibility of clashes coming to a halt while factions control different parts of cities. This would mean that roadblocks and barriers could be mounted across cities and the movement of citizens restricted. With the lack of compromise on both sides, this outcome is highly probable.
Impact to International Businesses and NGOs in Sudan
The current situation in Sudan is hostile to commercial activities and operations of Non-Governmental Organizations. Many foreigners running businesses have already left the country through Khartoum's airport and Port Sudan. Local ventures in the capital and other major cities where clashes are ongoing have closed down as the looting of shops continues. Airstrikes have made business centres potential targets. With the SAF bombing health facilities that are used as shields by the RSF, business centres have a high risk of getting hit. Also, criminal groups are taking advantage of the chaos to break into closed businesses. Currently, therefore, Sudan is a high-risk country for commercial activities at the moment.
If a reliable peace agreement can be reached in the short term, businesses and organizations would still need a couple of months to monitor and assess how the security situation may impact operations. The volatility and mistrust that have emerged from the conflict suggest that entities willing to operate after the ceasefire must be prudent enough to wait and see how the factions keep their word. The current breakdown of talks is a very current case in point.
The situation, while very adverse for commercial businesses, is relatively better for charity and aid organizations. No, the staff of aid organizations and non-profit organizations are not safe; however, they have not been typically targeted by fighters like in other areas in West Africa where jihadists have targeted aid workers and staff of NGOs for kidnapping and ransom-seeking. The SAF and RSF have refused to incur the wrath of external actors by doing so. For the former, that will be unthinkable. The RSF, despite being a militia, appear at the moment to comprehend the basic conventions of conflicts and is generally adhering to them; with the exception of using hospitals and other sensitive facilities as cover. This notwithstanding, aid workers are still at risk of getting hit by the sometimes-indiscriminate bombings that have characterized the conflict.
Potential Triggers: Escalation and De-escalation Events
With the collapse of talks, it would be prudent to monitor the intensity of clashes before and after the talks. This could help forecast the potential of escalation or de-escalation in the short term. If the modus operandi of both parties gets more discriminatory in respect of combat, it could be a positive sign towards peace. However, no marked difference has been observed since the resumption of hostilities.
Again, the posturing of the allies of each faction could signal the intentions and mindset of the factions towards the conflict. For example, if Egypt, a major supporter of the SAF and Al-Burhan, makes any major military moves closer to its southern border with Sudan, that could signal an escalation or preparation for a long haul. So far, Egypt has declared its support for peace and stability in Sudan. Also, actions by Dagalo allies including Khalifa Haftar of Libya could signal an escalation or otherwise of the conflagration. The Libyan renegade General has been accused of supporting the RSF with arms and buffer space across the border. While he keeps denying this, the two strong men are known allies. Haftar's actions could mean a lot for the conflict in Sudan.
Also, actions by the major mediators of the talks towards the factions could be good signals to forecast the short-term and long-term dynamics of the conflict. The current sanctions by the US against the factions signal intransigence at the negotiation table. While these sanction has been in the offing for some time, their activation just after the collapse of talks signals an escalation.
Furthermore, if RSF forces seize or occupy more public and sensitive facilities across the country, especially in Khartoum, the conflict is sure to escalate. This would mean the group do not see any tangible agreement in the short term. Reuters reported on Saturday, June 3 2023 that RSF forces have taken over the national museum in Khartoum.
In the medium term, the African Union's new peace initiative which would most likely have the backing of the United States and Saudi Arabia could produce some results. While this remains arduous, the organization has had some success with other conflicts in the past. In recent times Uhuru Kenyattta of Kenya and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria had brokered some peace deal between warring parties in Ethiopia. Currently, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt could be instrumental in building confidence between the factions. Again, this may require the backing of global and regional players, which remains lacking.
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