Context and Recent History

On 15 April 2023, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a Sudanese paramilitary organisation initiated a coup d’état to remove General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) (and de-facto leader of Sudan) from power. Sudan has a long history of Military-led governments, coups and civil war. This recent conflict for the most part is borne out of a refusal by the leader of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as ‘Hemetti’, to allow his RSF to be integrated into the SAF. Whilst civilians have not been specifically targeted within this conflict, they have, inevitably, been caught in the crossfire and the collateral damage caused by small arms fire, through to artillery and airstrikes. The damage caused to hospitals, critical national infrastructure (CNI), and disruption to aid programmes has caused a significant humanitarian crisis, complicated by lawlessness and criminality. However, for the purposes of this article, the focus will remain on the current security situation, threat to life and assessment for the short-medium term (one to six months).

Recent history leading up to this instance of the conflict is provided for further context:

  • 2019 – Gen. Al-Burhan, leader of the SAF, ousts President Al-Bashir who had been in power since 1989 through a coup (previously Colonel Bashir – declares himself president in 1993) and assumes power in a coup d’état after weeks of civilian protests. A joint Civilian/Military Sovereign Council is established under the promise that the Sovereign Council will work towards democratic elections.
  • 2021 – Gen. Al-Burhan removes civilian government ministers in another coup d’état; however, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdook is reinstated after further civilian protests.
  • 2022 – Gen. Al-Burhan removes Prime Minister Hamdook and has since ruled the country with RSF leader, Hemetti, effectively operating as Gen. Al-Burhan’s second in command.
  • 2023 – After continued disagreements between Gen. Al-Burhan and Hametti regarding the vision of civilian rule for Sudan, and a failure to agree on the integration of the RSF into the SAF, the RSF stages an unsuccessful coup d’état on 15 April 2023 which leads to the current conflict.

The RSF was formed in 2013 and has its origins in the Janjaweed Militia, which was associated with war crimes in the Darfur and eastern Chad region. Widely reported to have operated in Libya under eastern leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and in Yemen as part of Saudi Arabian efforts to counter Houthi rebels; the RSF have reportedly received training by Russian Private Military Company (PMC), Wagner Group. Some Western media outlets report mutual support between the two regarding the mining and purchasing of gold. Its leader, Hametti, having unified separate yet mutually supporting militias into the RSF has built a capable force, however, it lacks the air power which the SAF possesses.

Conversely, the SAF has its history steeped in British Colonial rule, with its structure resembling that of the British Armed Forces. Gen. Al-Burhan is unpopular domestically and oversaw war crimes of ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region as Ground Commander in the early 2000s. More recently, he empowered the RSF to quell protests violently (leading to the deaths of 120 protesters during the coup of 2019). Much of the equipment used by the SAF was purchased from the Soviet Union between 1969 and 1971, therefore much of their equipment, including their fighter jets are outdated and difficult to maintain. The SAF has a historic and continuing military relationship with Egypt, and to a lesser extent, Russia, with Gen. Al-Burhan and President Putin meeting in Moscow in recent years.

A bus station in Khartoum which had been destroyed by SAF and RSF fighting. Source: @Sudan_tweet

Conflict

In the 48hrs preceding the attempted coup, RSF were reported to have been mobilised to areas deemed High Value Targets (HVTs) throughout Sudan. Although conflict has broken out across various regions across Sudan, it has centred predominately in urban areas, government and Military locations, and facilities of strategic importance (oil refineries and other CNI). Khartoum has been reported on heavily by news outlets and social media channels, highly likely due to the destructive airstrikes conducted by the SAF Air Force, however the Darfur Regions, North and South Kordofan, and Blue Nile regions have also been significantly affected by the conflict.

Significant kinetic events in the conflict so far have included:

  • Khartoum International Airport. Reportedly the initial staging ground of the attempted coup by the RSF. Heavy clashes have continued intermittently since 15 April 2023. Currently not in service, it is reported to still be contested with both SAF and RSF in control of different parts.
  • Presidential Palace and SAF Headquarters. Located within central Khartoum city, there have been near constant clashes including artillery from both sides causing serious civilian casualties in the neighbouring residential areas due to collateral damage and inaccurate targeting.
  • Garri Oil Refinery. The sole oil refinery in Sudan located 70km north of Khartoum, targeted and occupied by the RSF on 26 April 2023.
  • Jabal Awliya SAF Air Force Airfield. Located on the MSR on the east bank of the River Nile, 40km south of Khartoum. The SAF reported during the period of 28-29 April 2023, that they had repelled an RSF attempt to occupy the airfield. Reportedly the airfield held SAF fighter jets, however the status of these has not been reported. It is likely that SAF fighter jets have instead been operating at Wadi Saeedna Airfield, 20km north of Khartoum, where the international evacuation operations have been conducted. If so, it is highly likely that the SAF are exploiting the security of a constant international presence, knowing the RSF unwillingness to deliberately target foreign/international actors.

It is highly likely that the RSF has sought to obtain control of these HVTs in order to establish a reputable powerbase and to remove any governmental authority which control of these locations may bring. It would also likely force the international community to engage with them and therefore be included in any future resolution for peace within Sudan. Additionally, their occupation would ensure that if/when negotiations occur with the SAF, the RSF will do so from a position of power. During the likelihood of a protracted civil war with no functioning government, assets such as the only oil refinery in Sudan, in a fuel crisis, would ensure an income highly likely via the black-market. Given the conflict has caused mass migration of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and evacuations of foreigners, fuel has become a hugely inflated commodity and would stand to serve whoever controls its continued supply.

During the conflict so far, multiple Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) analysts active on social media have purported to portray mapping of SAF/RSF force laydowns and areas of occupation within Khartoum. Whilst they are difficult to corroborate, it does show the likely situation on the ground when juxtaposed with reports of clashes in areas of HVTs. As previously described, it is highly likely that the communication networks affect the timeliness of reporting when articulating the current situation. For this reason, these sources should be regarded with a serious degree of caution when conducting a threat evaluation. Given the nature of the conflict, the SAF/RSF occupied areas are highly likely to change or be consistently contested. Overall, however, their depiction does allow for general assessment, of which, it is likely that the concentrations of RSF within central Khartoum have allowed for a danger of encirclement. It is possible that SAF have sought to control the Main Supply Routes (MSRs) in and out of the city, easing the SAF operations to advance into the city to clear areas once air strikes have been conducted, and to withdraw to safe locations to avoid incidents of fratricide.

OSINT mapping analysts have attempted to articulate the force laydown of SAF and RSF occupied areas within Khartoum. Source: @War_Mapper

When monitoring the respective social media channels of SAF and RSF, both have driven a hard information narrative regarding the provisions of security towards civilians caught in the conflict; both stating their ability to provide security and accusing the other of targeting civilians or conducting deception to purposefully incriminate the other. Accusations of deception are a likely means of distancing each side from being associated with criminality and lawlessness, likely borne out of a lack of discipline and thorough command and control of forces. The degradation of communication networks and power outages caused by the conflict has also highly likely hampered accurate and timely reporting of incidents. For this reason, it is difficult to accurately attribute blame or identify the intended target. It is likely that both sides exploit this, to both amplify confusion and accuse the other of unjustifiably asserting moral and military superiority. Whilst there has been evidence of civilians assisting SAF in identifying RSF locations on social media, these are likely to be localised and not representative of entire cities or wider regions. Any support for either side will likely be based only on the ability to provide relative peace, reductions in criminality, and ability to obtain humanitarian aid.

Footage on a Sudanese news social media channel purporting to show localised civilian support to the SAF in order to clear RSF from the area. Source: @SudanPlusNews

As part of the force laydown of SAF/RSF controlled areas, there has been a continued body of anecdotal and news reporting regarding the establishment of checkpoints and their permanency since the start of the conflict. Checkpoints highly likely serve as a means of delineating controlled areas, and their permanency and extension will continue after any meaningful ceasefire or truce is brokered and upheld. Reports of harassment and theft at checkpoints are rife and highly likely a result of the lawless nature of the conflict, indicating that forces are not being sufficiently resupplied and rely on banditry as a revenue stream to maintain supplies. It is highly likely that command and control of forces on the ground is lacking and therefore those requiring travel through checkpoints will highly likely require bribes either in cash, valuable items or humanitarian supplies.

Ceasefires and Violations

Since the start of the conflict on 15 April 2023, there have been a series of 72hr ceasefires negotiated by international actors such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, and neighbouring countries in East Africa. As of 4 May 2023, a seven-day truce was negotiated. In all these instances fighting has continued, although there have been periods of relative peace allowing civilians to evacuate or obtain supplies. Localised ceasefires outside of Khartoum are reported to have been brokered and, in some instances, adhered to for 24-48hr periods. These examples again suggest that command and control of forces on both sides is limited and that a ‘militia mindset’ of localised warlords will mean strict adherence to the ceasefires will not be enforceable.

Violations of ceasefires have been seen on both sides, each accusing the other of instigating violence. It is highly likely that the ceasefire has been seen as a period of consolidation to resupply forces, bolster defences and checkpoints and portray an element of willing to the international community to facilitate evacuation efforts. Targeting of the RSF-occupied presidential palace by SAF, as well as other alleged targeted airstrikes during supposed ceasefires suggests that the SAF has likely continued with shaping activity, likely to ensure the RSF does not gain significant swathes of territory during this period of consolidation. Similarly, images seen on social media of large military convoys moving into Khartoum from the north were likely to have been SAF maneuvering forces from elsewhere in the country to support clearance patrols to follow-up on air strikes of fleeing RSF troops.

Regional news outlets reporting on the black plumes of smoke as a result of SAF air strikes on Khartoum and neighbouring city, Omdurman. Source: @khabaragency

On the 4 May 2023, upon the violations of the seven-day truce, United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, stated that neither side is ready for peace. It is highly unlikely that constructive dialogue let alone any lasting ceasefire or truce will be observed in the short-term. It is highly likely that both the SAF and RSF will continue with offensive operations until specific decision points (DPs) have been met. These DPs are likely to include:

  • Control of Khartoum.
  • Sufficient occupation or liberation of governmental buildings or other HVTs.
  • Kill/capture of SAF/RSF leaders.
  • Surrender of forces.
  • Attritional factors removing ability to conduct operations.
  • Mutually unbeneficial stalemate.
  • Overwhelming domestic support for either side.

In the meantime, it is highly likely that the conflict will only intensify, especially whilst SAF are able to conduct air strikes. It is highly likely these will continue in order to gain military advantage and degrade RSF combat effectiveness, enabling SAF infantry to clear RSF positions during withdrawals from targeted airstrikes. However, at this stage, the lack of constructive dialogue does highly likely indicate that the RSF still considers itself a capable fighting force regardless of the SAF air superiority, which only serves to increase the violence.

Wider threat from the conflict

Whilst civilians have not been the direct target of either the SAF or RSF, in order to achieve either side’s aim, it has been inevitable that casualties have been caused from crossfire or artillery/airstrikes. There has also been a body of reports suggesting rapes, thefts and looting of shops and private property are commonplace in Khartoum, not only by marauding criminal gangs but allegedly RSF troops. In response, the RSF made an announcement regarding looting and the upholding of the law and rights of the Sudanese people - highly likely a means to establish itself as a legitimate security force, whilst also seeking to divert blame to the SAF, alleging those recorded looting in RSF uniforms were SAF impersonating RSF by the changing of uniforms. Whilst it is not possible to verify the validity of these claims, it is likely that acts of criminality are conducted by both sides, given the lack of discipline, command and control and unlikely effective logistic nodes ensuring resupply.

Footage purportedly showing RSF soldiers looting in an apartment block. Source: @Sudan_tweet

During the initial short periods of peace that had been facilitated by some adherence to the ceasefires, it had been reported by Sudanese doctors that the number of hospitalisations as a result of stabbings had increased. It is highly likely that the threat posed to civilians from looting, harassment and theft increased due to an improved (yet still not entirely safe) freedom of movement; highly likely the reason for a noted change in injuries presenting in hospitals from gunshots or catastrophic injuries to stabbings. The lack of clean water, food and humanitarian supplies combined with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) unable to conduct their operations has left areas affected by the conflict desperate and willing to commit crimes in order to survive or profit from the lawlessness. Where resources can be found, the cost has risen exponentially high. Reports of the SAF acquisitioning fuel, likely to stockpile as a result of the Garri Oil Refinery being occupied by the RSF will almost certainly have contributed to the black-market prices of fuel reportedly reaching 80USD per gallon. In turn this has also almost certainly contributed to the extortionate cost of transport (some anecdotal reports suggest 35-65,000USD for the rental of a bus) to bordering countries or to airfields and ports where foreign citizens are evacuated.

Announcements by international NGOs such as the World Food Program and the Red Cross of aid arriving in Port Sudan, yet with no means of delivery, will likely lead to increased insecurity. Whilst the security of Port Sudan is seemingly calm as evacuations continue amidst security provided by these nations' militaries, they are unlikely to continue in the long term. The lack of fuel for aid convoys, or possible deterioration of security at airfields or ports used for evacuations risks aid being stuck, as seen in Port Sudan. It is likely that should this occur, the risk of theft of aid from militias, criminal gangs or desperate IDPs will remain high. Similarly, aid which is able to be transported is highly likely to be vulnerable to looting, as opportunistic criminal gangs or militias will seek to acquire aid to sell via the black-market or establish power bases through forcing NGOs to negotiate with them for safe transportation.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs mapping of IDP movement out of Sudan which will highly likely place further pressure on refugee camps and bordering countries. Source: @UNOCHA_Sudan

What next?

Both the SAF and RSF have a history of war crimes and recent experience of dealing with rebel groups in Darfur, as well as abroad (in the case of the RSF). Therefore, it is likely neither side will abide by the Law of Armed Conflict, as Sudan descends into civil war. It is highly unlikely that either side’s assertions of authority will ever be welcomed by the Sudanese domestic population, given the continued request to both factions to end the conflict completely and facilitate a civilian-led government, which continue to be ignored. It is more likely that support will be garnered by whomever is able to deliver relative stability, given the chaos that has been seen since 15 April 2023.

The evacuations of foreign citizens have been ongoing throughout the conflict, and the international community has been keen to support negotiations of a ceasefire and more recently, a seven-day truce. However, there have been no overt proclamations of support for either side. It is highly likely that the international community is hesitant to declare support due to a reluctance by the SAF or RSF to facilitate the democracy that the Sudanese domestic population requests. As such, it is likely that the conflict will intensify in the short term until a significant culmination is reached, forcing negotiations or there is a clear victor; at which point Sudanese power brokers will likely only receive pressure to establish democracy.

In the pursuit of victory, it is likely that SAF air strikes will continue to indiscriminately target and destroy any areas associated with RSF, ensuring it is adequately cleared and re-occupied. It is highly likely that should the conflict persist, and the SAF are not able to regain control, the situation as explained will exacerbate the current lawlessness, mass migration of IDPs to bordering countries, and further entrenchment of SAF/RSF controlled areas. The continuing chaos will highly likely enable other power brokers such as local militias, warlords or criminal gangs to establish fiefdoms throughout Sudan.