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Explained | Sudan's conflict: Who is backing the rival commanders

That backing risks widening and prolonging the war between the Sudanese armed forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.
Last Updated : 12 April 2024, 05:31 IST
Last Updated : 12 April 2024, 05:31 IST

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Cairo: As a devastating conflict has unfolded across Sudan over the past year, the country's military rivals have sought support from foreign backers as they try to tip the contest in their favour.

That backing risks widening and prolonging the war between the Sudanese armed forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.

The influence of outside players has loomed over events in Sudan since the overthrow of former leader Omar al-Bashir during a popular uprising five years ago.

Who supports Burhan?

Burhan's clearest ally has been Egypt, which shares a border with Sudan that more than 500,000 people have crossed since the fighting began.

In both countries, the military has assumed a dominant role in the decades since independence and has intervened following popular uprisings - in Egypt when former army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi led the ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Mursi a decade ago, and in Sudan when Burhan led a military takeover in 2021.

Since the war started, Egypt has received Burhan and his representatives on visits and has launched a peace process involving Sudan's neighbours that ran in parallel with mediation efforts led by the United States, Saudi Arabia and African regional grouping IGAD.

It has joined calls for an effective ceasefire while saying it considers the conflict an internal matter for Sudan.

Another country that neighbours areas of Sudan controlled by the army and where Burhan has sought to shore up regional support is Eritrea, one of his first stops when he resumed foreign trips last year.

Since late 2023, sources say the army has also drawn on material support from Iran, including Iranian-made drones that helped it make significant gains in Omdurman, part of Sudan's wider capital.

Sudan's acting foreign minister, who is aligned with the army and visited Tehran this year as diplomatic ties that had been cut in 2016 were restored, denied weapons had been received.

From further afield, Ukrainian special forces have intervened on the army's side to counter alleged support for the RSF from Russian mercenary group Wagner, according to several reports in Ukrainian and international media.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy held an impromptu meeting with Burhan in Ireland in September to discuss "illegal armed groups financed by Russia".

Who supports Hemedti?

For several years, Hemedti's most important ally has been the United Arab Emirates, Sudanese sources, analysts and diplomats say.

The UAE has aggressively sought to roll back Islamist influence across the region, intervening in conflicts in countries including Libya and Yemen. Hemedti has presented himself as a bulwark against Islamist-leaning factions that established deep roots in the army and other institutions under Bashir.

UN experts say reports that the UAE has sent arms to the RSF through eastern Chad are "credible", and that sources in Chad and Darfur reported cargo planes had delivered the weapons and ammunition several times a week.

The UAE has denied making any such shipments and has said its role in Sudan is focused on humanitarian support and calls for de-escalation.

The UAE has also provided Hemedti, who grew rich through the gold trade, with a platform for channelling his finances as well as public relations support for the RSF, according to Andreas Krieg, Associate Professor at King's College, London.

In a report published in January, the UN experts said the RSF, which has fostered tribal alliances stretching across Sudan's western borders, brought weapons into Sudan from Libya and the Central African Republic, and fuel from South Sudan.

Before the war broke out, Hemedti had cultivated ties with Russia. Western diplomats in Khartoum said in 2022 that Russia's Wagner Group was involved in illicit gold mining in Sudan and was spreading disinformation. Hemedti said he advised Sudan to cut ties with Wagner after the U.S. imposed sanctions on the military contractor. Wagner said last year that it was no longer operating in Sudan.

Which other powers have influence?

Saudi Arabia had close ties to Burhan and Hemedti dating to before the war. Both men were involved in sending Sudanese troops to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

As it steps up its diplomatic ambitions across the Middle East, Riyadh has asserted itself in mediating over Sudan while also looking to protect its economic ambitions in the Red Sea region, said Anna Jacobs, Senior Gulf Analyst with Crisis Group.

"Saudi Arabia is focused on Red Sea security, which is integral to Saudi Vision 2030 and investments along the Red Sea like Neom," she said, referring to the futuristic city backed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia and the United States led unsuccessful efforts last year to negotiate a ceasefire in Sudan.

East African powers Ethiopia and Kenya also hold some sway due to their prominent role in regional diplomacy and previous mediation in Sudan.

South Sudan hosted peace talks between the Sudanese state and rebel groups in recent years, and was designated as one of the countries that could host talks over the current crisis.

Israel, which had been hoping to move forward in normalising ties with Sudan, has also offered to host talks.

What is the West's position?

Before the war, Western powers had belatedly swung behind a transition towards elections as the military shared power with civilians after Bashir's overthrow, offering direct financial support that was frozen when Burhan and Hemedti staged a coup in 2021.

After the coup and led by the United States, Western powers supported a new transition deal that ended up triggering the eruption of fighting by creating a stand-off over the future structure of the military.

Critics say the US was too lenient with the generals.

"Their strategy was stability and their basic misconception was that they would get stability by backing the apparently strong and decisive and cohesive players who happened to be in power," said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and head of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.

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Published 12 April 2024, 05:31 IST

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