What’s Behind the Fighting in Sudan, and What Is at Stake?

REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
People pass by damaged cars and buildings at the central market during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan April 27, 2023.

Sudan is facing among the worst fighting in its history as it struggles to transition to a civilian-led government. Thousands of people are caught in the crossfire, stuck in homes or trying to leave the country as it sinks into chaos.

The military, led by president Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces, led by vice president Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) have clashed in the streets over the past two weeks, leaving at least 500 people dead and thousands more injured, according to the United Nations, raising fears of a wider conflict that could destabilize the region.

Foreign governments have organized dangerous evacuations for diplomatic staff and, in some cases, private citizens. The United States evacuated all embassy staff in an airlift. While the U.S. government last week warned it could not ensure help for U.S. citizens still in Sudan – an estimated 16,000 as of last week – it has begun organizing evacuation convoys for American civilians out of the hard-hit capital Khartoum. On Saturday, a bus convoy carrying 300 American citizens, traveling 24 hours under the protection of armed drones, reached the Sudanese port city of Port Sudan.

The Pentagon also sent two warships to the Port of Sudan.

One U.S. citizen has been confirmed killed, the State Department said April 21, without providing further details.

The full casualty count remains unknown. Airstrikes, gunfire and artillery have rocked the capital, but the violence has spread to other areas, including the Darfur region. Successive cease-fire agreement attempts have failed.

Who is fighting in Sudan?

The crisis began April 15 with clashes between the Sudanese armed forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Tensions have been rising for months over a tenuous power-sharing agreement, backed by international powers, to restart Sudan’s transition to democracy following a military coup in 2021. At the time, the military and RSF had joined forces to oust the country’s transitional civilian leader, who rose to power after the fall of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Now, the RSF is seeking political legitimacy and, similar to the Sudanese military, to maintain control of key economic interests in the country.

The fighting between the two factions, which some experts described as the worst in years, has since intensified, and the situation on the ground remains volatile.

Water and electricity cuts have been reported, and widespread violence has made it impossible for the wounded to reach hospitals, The Washington Post reported. One-third of Sudan’s population of 46 million is acutely food-insecure, according to the World Food Program. Key hospitals in the capital have closed. Some hospitals were hit in the fighting; others lacked power and supplies needed to stay open. Civilians have reported homes being hit by airstrikes or coming under fire, and armed men raiding residences and attacking those inside. Prisons have released inmates because of shelling attacks or because they are unable to provide food.

One resident showed The Washington Post photos of his neighbors, a mother and her two children, obliterated by shrapnel. Another young human rights lawyer was shot alongside seven family members while trying to flee, a heartbroken colleague tweeted.

Khartoum high school teacher Shaheen al-Sharif told The Post that he saw RSF fighters shooting homeless children as he sat at a tea shop. “I’ve never seen someone just shoot kids like this,” he said. “But this is what we expect in the future.

How many Americans were in Sudan, and will they be evacuated?

U.S. special operation forces helicoptered all staff at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum via Djibouti on April 23. Around the time fighting broke out, some 16,000 U.S. citizens, many of them dual nationals, remained in Sudan, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive information.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, had warned in the conflict’s earlier days that the government would not be organizing evacuations of private citizens.

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told CBS on April 24 that “is not safe right now for another evacuation attempt” of American citizens and urged them to shelter in place.

Days later, the U.S. government launched an overland evacuation convoy for American citizens. Under the protection of armed drones, a caravan of local buses carried 300 U.S. citizens from Khartoum to the eastern port city of Port Sudan.

Passengers were told to gather at a golf course, where they embarked on the 24-hour, over 500-mile drive through rough terrain and armed checkpoints, said a U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the situation on the record.

The State Department said it was assisting U.S. citizens eligible with “onward travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.”

Who has been evacuated from Sudan?

Besides the United States, more than 15 countries have also organized daring and dangerous evacuations, some by military airplanes, in recent days.

The United Kingdom took advantage of a pause in the fighting Tuesday and began large-scale evacuations of its citizens using air force flights departing from an airfield north of the capital.

With two heavy-lift aircraft stationed in Jiddah and a navy ship docked at Port Sudan, India began the evacuation of 500 Indian citizens gathered at the port Tuesday morning. A government minister is stationed in Jiddah to oversee repatriation efforts.

European countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain have each organized evacuations of several hundred civilians, including some citizens of neighboring or allied countries.

“It was important to us that, unlike in other countries, an evacuation not only applies to our embassy staff but to all local Germans and our partners,” German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said in a statement Tuesday.

Some of the estimated 10,000 Egyptian nationals in Sudan have sought to take the treacherous route overland to Egypt, according to the AP.

Families in trying to reach Egypt were stuck in a line of 80 buses at the border for 12 hours in 100 degree heat (40C), said Dalia El Roubi, the former head of media for the civilian prime minister. There was another seven hour wait afterward. The bus tickets that used to cost $24 now cost $500, she said.

The crisis has also forced the United Nations to temporarily relocate some personnel and their families, and to halt much of its operations, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Monday. He warned of “a catastrophic conflagration within Sudan that could engulf the whole region and beyond.”

What’s behind the conflict?

Civil war, coups and attempted takeovers of government have contributed to years of political instability in Sudan.

The recent fighting is a power struggle playing out between two groups that were once allied and, in theory, meant to merge.

The military, led by the country’s president, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is clashing with the paramilitary group RSF, led by the country’s vice president, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is widely known by his nickname, Hemedti.

The president and vice president came to power together in the aftermath of former president al-Bashir’s ouster following civilian protests. But tensions have risen in recent weeks because of disagreements about, among other things, an agreement to integrate the RSF into the military.

With an air force and experience fighting in urban areas, the military is better positioned over the RSF, experts say. But the RSF is more than just a militia; it has long-standing roots in Sudan, with a history that includes accusations of rape and pillaging of villages in the western Darfur region since the 2000s. The group is heavily armed and is estimated to have about 100,000 members.

Both leaders have also amassed their war chests over years, ensuring they have the finances to power ongoing military battles and providing them a key source of patronage. Burhan oversees a network of private and sponsored companies. Hemedti controls a wide-ranging family business, including gold mining.

“The way you run Sudan is you pay for a coalition, either in cash or in licensing or in tying them into your kleptocratic network,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. “If you understand the political marketplace, you understand Sudan.”

Is there an end in sight?

It is too early to say how long the fighting will go on for, said Gerrit Kurtz, a researcher specializing in sub-Saharan Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“For now, there is unlikely to be a reliable truce until one of the parties is in firm control of key state and military institutions in Khartoum,” he said, adding that an active armed conflict could last for a long time.

Although four cease-fires have failed because of continuing violence, the western region of Darfur has negotiated a temporary pause in fighting in most areas there.