Sudan or "the perfect storm"

(To Enrico Magnani)

The crisis of the two Sudanese warlords, the commander in chief (and de facto head of state) of the SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the commander of the RSF (Rapid Support Forces, the organized and uniformed heirs of the ferocious militias Janjaweed, who for years have martyred the populations of Darfur, guilty of only defending their pastures from the penetration of Arab farmers) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo known as 'Hemeti' has brought the attention of the international community back, distracted by the crises in Ukraine and the potential one with Taiwan.

The violence of the clashes, which began in the capital Karthoum and then expanded to other regions, as well as causing extensive damage, several hundred dead and thousands of refugees, blocked several thousand foreigners, starting with almost 20.000 Americans (actually many Sudanese with dual citizenship) and several hundreds of British, French, Italian, Japanese and dozens of other nationalities (this is without counting the thousand international employees of the United Nations system, and local personnel [and their direct families only for this last category to over 15.000 people]).

The numerical dimension of the people who will have to be involved in the evacuation, which will also have to take place in the event of a truce, given that essential services have collapsed, is a further challenge to a complex situation, with ancient and more recent reasons and with disturbing prospects.

The first evacuations began, preceded and accompanied by a frenetic series of contacts between the chancelleries and the armed forces of dozens of nations and the EU, NATO and the African Union. These will continue relying largely on Djibouti, the real operational and logistic hub of the region, which hosts various foreign military bases, including Italy.

The reasons that led Sudan (or what's left of it) to the current crisis

Sudan, after a fictitious Anglo-Egyptian condominium (actually British rule only, while the current South Sudan depended on the British colonial administration of Uganda) in existence from 1899 to 1957, becomes independent.

After a short transition begins one endless series of coups, civil wars and economic crises (often aggravated by drought) proposing in various forms the tragic dualism that divides that nation: north and south, Arabs and blacks, Muslims and non, those who live around the Nile and those in arid areas, farmers and shepherds.

The birth of South Sudan apparently removed an important reason for the instability but others have emerged (or re-emerged, such as Darfur, with an unspeakable legacy of violence) which obviously could not lack foreign interference.

For years Sudan, in addition to being governed by despicable regimes, has been the refuge of important global Islamic terrorist networks, inspired and protected by Hassan Al Turabi, a sinister intellectual of great influence for President Al Bashir, in power since 1989 The proximity to Saudi Arabia, protégé of the USA, has allowed Khartoum to emerge relatively unscathed from the global war on terrorism launched by Washington and Al Bashir has repaid Riyadh by sending thousands of regular soldiers and militia of the RSF in the unsuccessful campaign against the Hout Yemenis in 2015 (backed by Iran), pompously dubbed 'Decisive Storm'.

Sudan also saw a return 'Arab Spring' in 2018 and the following year Al Bashir was deposed in a coup and a transitional government was installed and promised to democratize the country and install civilian leadership. In reality, after a few months, the real power ended (in reality he had never left it) in a diarchy, where General Al-Burhan was de facto head of state and Hemeti number two. This strange couple has managed Sudan also making important concessions both in Washington, adhering to the Agreements of Abraham and recognizing Israel in 2022 (Sudan has been part of the so-called 'rejection front' for years and hosting many Palestinian leaders) but at the same time winking at Moscow and Beijing.

Port Sudan or a knife to the jugular of the Red Sea routes

Regardless of the winner of the current dispute, fears about Sudan are growing regarding the consequences it could have on regional stability and the intrusion of foreign influences.

After Sergey Lavrov's visit to Sudan in early February as part of a tour that also brought the Russian foreign minister to South Africa and this was his second visit to Africa (in 2022 Lavrov had visited Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville , Ethiopia and Uganda), Moscow and Khartoum have finalized the terms of an agreement on the establishment of a logistics center for the Russian Navy in Sudan. The news was confirmed during a joint press conference between Lavrov and his Sudanese counterpart Ali al-Sadiq Ali.

Lavrov had previously met with Al-Burhan and Dagalo and pledged to support Sudan's efforts to lift the United Nations arms embargo, still in place since 2004, on Darfur. Furthermore, Moscow has allegedly supplied Sudan with arms in exchange for the use of a base for the Russian Navy in the Red Sea, reopening a negotiation that had been in place since 2019, when the two countries had signed an agreement that would have guaranteed to establish a naval base, housing up to 300 Russian servicemen and up to four naval vessels, including nuclear-powered ones, at the strategic Port Sudan site.

The agreement was made public in 2021, by the then Sudanese Chief of Staff, General Mohammed Othman al-Hussein, who however indicated that Khartoum would review the agreement as it was signed under the former Government of National Salvation and ne would have negotiated a review (perhaps to buy time and raise the price and see alternative offers).

Sudan has been without a parliament since 2019 and parliamentary approval was expected to ratify theagreement on the naval base and hostility towards a free and independent parliament seems to be the only thing uniting the two current contenders.

It seems clear that this base would represent a serious threat to the commercial traffic of the Red Sea and among other things the base would ensure a permanent presence of the Russian navy in the Red Sea, and close to the Indian Ocean, and the new base would be paired with that of Tartus in Syria and would expand Russian power projection in those two sub-regions (the ones Russia seeks in Egypt, Libya and Algeria appear to be stalled).

Interestingly, Dagalo visited Russia the day before the February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine and expressed willingness to host a Russian base. However, it cannot be excluded that even in the event of a victory for Al-Burhan, the agreement with Moscow will become a reality (and all the consequences of the case).

Widening the look at the Russian action in Africa, it must be remembered that regular Russian personnel (and of the Wagner) is present in Libya, Mali, Central Africa, and there are strong suspicions that they are also present in Burkina Faso, Guinea and (even) Chad, the last real French bastion in Africa. But that Port Sudan was the added strategic value for Khartoum, in addition to observing its geographical position, it is enough to remember that between 2012 and 2015 Iran came very close to obtaining what the Russians are asking for today, i.e. a naval base. The initiative was not finalized due to the very tough position of Egypt which threatened military action.

During his meetings, Lavrov had also promised further economic cooperation between Russia and Sudan, probably through the group Wagner, tied to the Kremlin, with prime access to Sudan's lucrative gold mining industry. The other major gold mining operators in Sudan are the Moroccan company Managem (accredited to be owned by the royal family) and the Chinese one Wanbao. After the separation of South Sudan and awaiting the award of the strategic area of ​​Abiey, Sudan, practically lost hydrocarbons, only gold remains as a source of raw materials of value for international markets and Wagner confirms that it is an economic conglomerate- military, a parallel power, sometimes critical of Moscow, given that it is also largely involved in the exploitation of mineral resources, as already in Mali and Central Africa.

The first circle

Sudan is at the center of a long-lasting crisis. It is characterized by frequent armed conflicts and Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea or — looking beyond the Red Sea — Saudi Arabia, UAE (not counting the second circle, EU, NATO, USA, Israel , Turkey and China) are affected. South Sudan, Chad and Egypt all depend on the stability of neighboring Sudan, whether for economic, humanitarian or security reasons.

All these countries depend on good relations with Sudan, but among them, South Sudan stands out, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, after a very fierce civil war (in two phases, 1955-1972 and 1983-2005). Since then, different ethnic groups have battled for power, sparking a civil war in the fledgling state in 2013. that left hundreds of thousands dead. Of the estimated 11 million South Sudanese, several million have been internally displaced or have fled to neighboring countries.

The war has officially ended since 2020, but peace is fragile and tribal clashes, even extremely violent ones, are very frequent and the UN stabilization mission, UNMISS, is an impotent witness (in 2016 the African Union - AU - announced that the peacekeeping force with troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and… Sudan!All these countries, except Rwanda, are members of theIntergovernmental Authority for Development - IGAD -, a regional organization in East Africa; like many AU initiatives this one remained on paper).

South Sudan relies on foreign exchange from crude oil sales, which account for about 95% of government revenues; thus Khartoum is crucial to landlocked Juba for these exports, as the pipeline runs through Sudan to the Red Sea. The government of South Sudan therefore has a strong interest in ensuring that this connection remains in force, and this makes us understand the reasons behind, beyond the 'good neighbor', of President Salva Kiir's offer of mediation. But the same government of Juba, already divided between tribal factions, disagrees, and the same commander of the former Janjaweed it has previously acted as a mediator in repeated South Sudanese crises and somehow the South Sudanese sides are also trying to take sides with respect to the conflict in the north, with the risk of rekindling major crises in South Sudan as well and reigniting the dispute over the sovereignty of the disputed area of Abiey, neutralized and manned by another UN peacekeeping force, UNISFA1.

Abiey is rich in hydrocarbons and the award of it to Juba would increase its wealth, while depriving Sudan of the last possible opportunities to become a producer, but at the same time it would force South Sudan to greater dependence on the situation (and changing leadership) of Khartoum, unless it wants to acquire a network of pipelines that connect it with the ports of Kenya.

The difficult East

After the outbreak of hostilities, the Chadian army said it disarmed 320 RSF fighters who crossed the border on Monday. But it is mainly civilians who are now fleeing. Refugees from areas disputed between regular forces and RSF in Darfur have already arrived in Chad. And this despite the fact that the 1.500 km border with Sudan has been closed. The country is already hosting more than 500.000 Sudanese refugees (mostly from Darfur), but there are strong fears the ongoing conflict could also have an impact on Chad, which is grappling with a stubborn Islamist insurgency (and which cost the lives to President Deby Itno who fell in combat in April 2021).

Now Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, son of the deceased general-president, and soldier himself, installed in power by the leaders of the armed forces, in addition to the Islamist fighters, must face a strong demand for internal democratization to which he and the junta (as always ) 'provisional' tries to resist as much as possible, continually postponing elections for a constituent assembly.

Traditionally, there are strong economic ties between Sudan and Chad, such as the flow of shepherds who grazed their flocks on both sides of the border. While the bilateral relations that deteriorated during the Darfur conflict, also for ethnic reasons, given that the Darfurians are ethnically similar to the Chadians of the north and the Libyans of the Fezzan, have improved following the autonomic reforms granted to that region.

The bulky northern neighbor

Egypt has a long history with Sudan, and not just as a trading partner. In Pharaonic times, Sudan was part of Egypt and was called nubian. For a short time, Nubians also ruled Egypt, and later both countries were under British colonial rule. Egypt and Sudan have similar cultures and the relationship of some Sudanese elites, especially the military ones (as in the case of Al-Burhan), with Egypt is very close. Another factor is the dispute over the waters of the Nile, which has become more acute since Ethiopia started building an upstream dam to power its giant GERD hydroelectric plant.

Egypt wants to bring Sudan into its own turf, there have been broken-down negotiations for years between the three nations, but a treaty has not materialized. The neighboring country is therefore observing the evolution of the situation carefully (and with trepidation) as it fears that the conflict will prolong itself with harmful consequences from many points of view. A weak regime in Khartoum, or the emergence of a hostile alternative political order in Cairo, could have serious repercussions further north.

As mentioned, Egypt is close to Al-Burhan and hostile to Hemeti, supported instead by the United Arab Emirates, Cairo's main financier, re-proposing the current scheme of dystonic alliances and opposing schemes in an Arab-Muslim key, according to interests and needs locals.

Egypt is already home to around five million Sudanese, fleeing poverty or fighting, and has a free movement agreement with Khartoum.

Despite Sudan's enormous importance to its strategic interests, Egypt struggles to find a credible response and position to the chaos in Khartoum. Media sources report one personal friendship between the two presidents-general Al Sissi and Al-Burhan (born when the Sudanese officer was on duty at the general staff school in Cairo).

Egypt's options are further constrained by the fact that the country is in an unprecedented economic crisis and must carefully evaluate statements and (especially) actions. Its currency has lost nearly half its value against the US dollar in the past year. There is runaway inflation, widespread poverty and the strong fear that it could default on its huge external debt by the end of the year. Only after it emerged that Egyptian air force personnel, on site for a joint exercise with regular forces in Khartoum, had been arrested during the fighting for control of the strategic Meroe air base, did the Cairo armed forces release a concise statement. Two days later Egypt stated that it would not take sides in the conflict and that it had offered to mediate. One can therefore understand why it is difficult for Egypt to publicly announce its preferences. This is partly due to the complexity of the political landscape in Sudan and a certain similarity of recent developments in the two countries.

Both Egypt and Sudan have had their revolutions. In Egypt, the military has hindered the transition to democracy, even if in the hands of Islamic extremists (who would have shown their ferocious face as soon as possible). Instead, the two Sudanese contenders have vast support in the Islamic communities (in particular Al-Burhan is considered close to the community of Muslim brothers, harshly opposed by Al Sissi himself) who have badly digested Karthoum's adherence to the Agreements of Abraham and they could ask the victor to withdraw, giving him a blow, certainly not fatal, but weakening its political and symbolic value. That is why there is fear among the Sudanese political elite that the army feels emboldened to do the same against Islamist groups, those close to Hemeti in the first place and use the need for stability and the instrumental use of religion as a political support.

Publicly, the Sudanese army continues to say that it will not stop the transition and that the expected absorption of the RSF into the regular forces (the spark of a latent crisis), is part of the normalization process, but the protest movement that led the revolution in 2019, the Forces for Freedom and Change, does not believe it and fears the re-proposition of the Egyptian experience in a Sudanese sauce.

A geographically small border, but enormous risks with Libya

The Egyptian uncertainties regarding Sudan are also due to the difficult experience gained in Libya where Cairo supported General Khalifa Haftar, who failed to prevail in the post-Gaddafi civil war. Haftar, still close to Moscow, has allowed the passage of the Janjaweed, from a ferocious (and uncontrollable) militia to a real parallel army, even if not equipped like the regular forces, but which has managed to impose itself on the political scene and carve out an important weight in Sudan. The possible involvement of the general, who runs much of eastern Libya, raises fears of further metastases from the Sudanese conflict.

Haftar's bond with Hemeti strengthened as RSF units fought alongside their trainers, theLibyan National Army (LNA) and as a local practice, Haftar and Hemeti run highly profitable smuggling operations, given that Sudan and Libya straddle major trafficking routes in human beings, narcotics and much more.

According to confidential sources, in recent weeks, while the conflict between the RSF and the regular army loomed, Haftar has allegedly increased his support for Hemeti, in agreement with the UAE and Russia, even if the leader of eastern Libya must act prudently so as not to antagonize the Cairo, which it could forget that it supported it and overthrow it with swift action from its huge military bases built on the border with Libya.

However, just a few days before the outbreak of the conflict, Haftar ordered the arrest of a deputy of Musa Hilal, commander of a Sudanese militia (from Darfur), a bitter enemy of Hemeti, responsible for inflicting heavy losses on a detachment of the Wagner – another ally of Haftar – in Central Africa, one of the hubs of Russian penetration into the continent, near the Sudanese border.

In a further show of support, one of Haftar's sons flew to Khartoum to donate $2 million to the Al-Merrikh Club, one of Sudan's two big football clubs and an element of political and popular support for the RSF (this recalls the story of the factions of the 'blue' and 'green' fans in the racecourse of Byzantine Constantinople). During the visit, Hemeti was informed that Al-Burhan was preparing a coup and the RSF acted in advance by taking control of the Meroe airport, with the aim of airborne supplies from abroad with the possible help from Haftar and Wagner.

Given the fluid situation in Sudan, cargo planes have arrived at Kufra airport in southern Libya and convoys of weapons, ammunition and fuel have been sent to Darfur and Khartoum.


As the fighting continues and the evacuations of foreigners follow, Sudan once again seems unable to get out of the tunnel from which it has never been released since 1964, the year of the first "revolution" (or more properly "coup").

The conflict takes place in an international context weakened and made unstable by the criminal and politically insane Russian aggression on Ukraine and the ubiquitous Chinese expansionism. The regional one is no better where many states could be safely called 'failed states' and the West also has few options and those put in place have failed (think of the political nothingness of the Sudanese international debt conference, organized in France in 2020 to ease new loans and cancel old ones).

The future is uncertain as, whoever is the winner of the contest in progress: many questions remain open both to the true intentions of the leaders and their future projects (and/or those who support them), as well as the reliability of some partners locals.

1 UNISFA was unique in the panorama of peacekeeping operations. In fact, until 2021 it was an operation with an almost exclusive Ethiopian presence and a small multinational staff. This uniqueness was the result of a complex negotiation and, although frowned upon by the UN, which favors multinational operations, implemented. The Ethiopian troops (about a brigade) charged with patrolling the oil-rich area and waiting to be awarded either to Khartoum or Juba, or to be partitioned, as appears more probable, saw the gradual departure of the troops from Addis Ababa, recalled for face the crisis in Tigrai (and the one that is announced in Amhara) and have been replaced by troops from countries that usually supply 'blue helmets': Ghanaians, Indians, Bengalis, Pakistanis, with the interesting novelty of Vietnamese and that, always more established in UN peacekeeping operations than Chinese military.

Frame: RAI