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Sudan Talks Resume as ‘Libya Scenario’ Looms Large

As the eyes of the world are turned towards Israel and Palestine, representatives of Sudan’s warring parties are in Jeddah to restart negotiations after six months of war. 

Peace talks sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United States broke down in July, but both the Sudanese army and its ally-turned-enemy, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary organisation, have sent delegations to the Saudi port city to discuss the possibility of ending the conflict, which has killed at least 9,000 people and driven more than 5.6 million from their homes.

Last time round, western sources involved with the Jeddah talks told Middle East Eye that neither side was serious about bringing the war to an end and that both the army and the RSF believed they could claim an outright victory.

This time neither side has said they will stop fighting.

Moreover, the warring parties have both declared their intention to set up their own government to rule Sudan, a move that threatens the country with a split reminiscent of that in Libya, with one part ruled by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and another by the RSF.

General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, the army chief and de facto ruler of Sudan, has threatened to establish a cabinet at the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, with the intention of creating an alternative or second capital.

The head of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the general better known as Hemeti, has warned that the establishment of a government in Port Sudan would push him to declare a rival government in the capital Khartoum or another city under the control of his men.

On Friday, a civilian coalition led by former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok announced in Addis Ababa a “draft roadmap to restore peace and democracy to Sudan”.

Areas of control

According to different military sources on the ground, the RSF controls most of the capital Khartoum and its twin cities, and is continuing to make inroads into army-held territory.

The same is true in the regions of Darfur and Kordofan, with the force announcing on Thursday that they had taken control of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state and Sudan’s second-largest city.

Nine of Sudan’s 18 states, located in the middle, east and north of the country, are fully in the hands of the SAF. This includes Port Sudan, the country’s main seaport and its only functioning airport for passengers travelling abroad. The army has declared an alternative capital there, with many foreign diplomatic missions now based in the port. 

Sudan’s governmental institutions are controlled by the army, including the finance and foreign ministries, and the Central Bank, though many of the country’s main official buildings are held by the RSF.

‘There was widespread international intervention in Libya due to the conflict of interests between international players… The same thing is happening now in Sudan’

– Islam Alhaji, Libyan analyst

Sudan’s most productive states, including River Nile, where the majority of mining activity takes place, and agricultural heartlands in al-Jazira, White Nile, Blue Nile, Sennar, Gedarif and Kassala, are dominated by the SAF.

But the RSF controls almost all of its own heartland, the vast western region of Darfur, and has seized the majority of North Kordofan state, which lies along the main route between Khartoum and Darfur, which is where the force brings in supplies from Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR).

In Khartoum and its twin cities Bahri and Omdurman, the RSF controls most government buildings and other strategic locations, including al-Jaili oil refinery, 70km north of the capital, the presidential palace, Khartoum airport and the state radio and television building in Omdurman.

Army cabinet

After spending the early part of the war, which began on 15 April, in hiding, Burhan emerged in August and has been on a quest for domestic and international legitimacy ever since.

The army chief spoke at the United Nations in New York and has met with leaders including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the UN and then held an “unscheduled meeting” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at Ireland’s Shannon airport, which is used by the US military.

Burhan in Qatar
Qatar’s Minister of State Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al-Khulaifi (R) receiving Sudan’s army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Doha on 7 September 2023 (AFP)

A group of retired Sudanese army generals have declared their full backing for Burhan and his plan to set up a new government, but the Sudanese sovereignty council has backtracked on the idea, with secret plans showing it supports the idea of dividing ministries between council members.

In a leaked document, a plan to hand all 25 of Sudan’s ministries and the Central Bank to just four army commanders and members of the council – Malik Agar, Yasser al-Atta, Shams al-Din Khabbashi, Ibrahim Jaber – was revealed. 

This scenario, in which the military men would administer about seven or eight ministries each, was condemned by an RSF source, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press. 

“It seems that Burhan has revised his position and that he can’t form a government in Port Sudan or anywhere else, but the alternative is the control of ministries by just four sovereign council members who are mainly generals – this clearly shows the mentality of how the army will lead these states,” the source said.

Burhan, along with all Sudanese ministers and senior officials, is based in Port Sudan. Western and Gulf embassies have opened in the port, including those of the EU, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, Egypt and others, along with UN agencies and other aid organisations. 

Despite an economic crisis and a severely reduced export of livestock, gum arabic and other materials are being exported through Port Sudan, while most normal imports – including oil – are coming in.

Hemeti fires warning

Hemeti has responded to the prospect of a Burhan government in Port Sudan by threatening to establish one of his own and saying that the RSF could seize the Red Sea port by force.

“The establishment of a war government in Port Sudan will lead to the kind of scenarios that have happened in other countries in the region, where warring parties control different areas in one country,” the RSF chief said. “We have no desire to go towards this scenario.”

The former Janjaweed commander said, though, that the RSF could form its own government in Khartoum if the army pressed ahead. 

“Burhan and the associates of the old regime that are fighting with him have no legitimacy to declare any government, but if they do that we will go for wide consultation to establish a government in the national capital of Khartoum,” Hemeti said. 

RSF propaganda has made much of the fact that Burhan and the army is backed by key members of the Sudanese Islamic Movement and leading figures from the days of former autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who was removed from power in 2019 following a popular uprising.

A source close to the RSF said that the paramilitary and its allies have studied the feasibility of forming a unilateral government in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, not Khartoum. The location makes more strategic sense for the force, which receives supplies from countries neighbouring Darfur, its historic powerbase. 

Middle East Eye has contacted the Sudanese army but received no response. 

New capital ‘unrealistic’ 

Khartoum has for centuries been the centre of power in the Sudanese region. Hashim Tahir, a former government minister, told MEE that cities outside it, including Port Sudan, were not capable of being converted into an alternative capital.

Tahir, who served in the ousted government of Abdalla Hamdok, said: “If we look to the situation of Port Sudan or other cities in the country, we will discover that the idea of establishing any new capital is technically unrealistic,” he told MEE. 

Burhan port sudan afp
Burhan (c) walks through Port Sudan on 31 August 2023 (AFP/Sudanese army handout)

“The infrastructure of the roads, transportation, communication, basic services of electricity, water and other supplies is very poor and fragile because of the war – and even before the war – so this idea will do nothing but deepen the country’s problems,” Tahir said.

“These cities are not functioning anymore and the situation in the entire country is very bad. This idea will expand the war to other areas. It is better to focus on peaceful solutions, I think,” the former transport minister told MEE.

A new Libya

The scenario haunting Sudan is the Libyan one, in which the country splits and is administered by different regimes. 

In his last address to the UN Security Council as representative to Sudan, Volker Perthes warned of the country’s probable division, and the prospect of full-scale civil war. 

Amani al-Taweel, an Egyptian analyst specialising in Sudanese issues, has raised the Libyan prospect, adding that the declaration of a new government or cabinet in Port Sudan would push the RSF to announce its own version, thus leading to more polarisation and deterioration. 

“There are definitely many similarities between the Libyan and Sudanese scenarios, especially in relation to the crises in the two countries,” Libyan political analyst Islam Alhaji told Middle East Eye.

“There was widespread international intervention in Libya due to the conflict of interests between international players – something that is ongoing and has been since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The same thing is happening now in Sudan – it works in favour of western economic and political interests,” Alhaji said.

Long before the war began in April, there was a game of thrones taking place in Khartoum, with Hemeti and Burhan often courting different people in the same international and regional governments. 

In the months leading up to the conflict, senior officials from the US, European Union, Egypt, Russia, Israel and elsewhere all came to the Sudanese capital, while Hemeti took a long trip to the UAE, seen by many as the RSF’s main external patron, in February.

Alhaji told MEE he thought that Sudan’s strategic location and largely untapped natural resources meant that it was “very probable that the two warring parties, in coordination with their external allies, are looking to establish two governments in Darfur and Port Sudan”.

Source : Middle East Eye