The conflict in Sudan is an internal power struggle, with its roots in the country’s troubled politics over recent decades.
Four days of fighting has pitted army units loyal to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional governing sovereign council, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who is deputy head of the council. Their power struggle has derailed a shift to civilian rule and raised fears of a wider conflict.
At the same time, a dozen or more regional powers, major actors in the Middle East and geo-political heavyweights have a stake in the fighting raging in Khartoum and elsewhere.
The United States, which is the biggest actor, is able to exert influence directly on key individuals, through the withholding or delivery of huge sums of aid, its weight in international forums such as the United Nations or multilateral lenders, and its ability to build coalitions of smaller powers. The US wants stability in a restive region of enormous strategic importance, and also to roll back the growing influence of competitors such as China and, to a much lesser extent, Russia. Washington welcomed the fall of the veteran dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, but has been criticised for taking too soft a line with the two main military powerbrokers and particularly with Burhan.
China has been making a major effort to win friends in east Africa through the construction of major infrastructure, economic investment, loans and support for incumbent rulers who are attracted to its brand of authoritarianism. But although China has ambitions to establish a role as a mediator of consequence across the continent, it is unlikely to have much influence on this conflict. This relative neutrality at least offers Beijing a potential opportunity to build a relationship with any eventual victor.
In contrast, Russia is seen as being fully committed to Hemedti and the RSF. The former warlord has been linked to Russian efforts to extract huge amounts of gold from Sudan to help fund the invasion of Ukraine, and Moscow has deployed Wagner group paramilitaries to bolster Hemedti’s operations. Beyond the precious resources, it is Sudan’s strategic position that has attracted Moscow, particularly the chance to position a major naval base there, which would allow operations in the Indian Ocean.
Egypt has longstanding ties with Sudan’s military and has made its support for Burhan clear. Egyptian soldiers – or “trainers” – have been taken captive by the RSF in recent days. Cairo wants stability and likes the idea of an authoritarian military man in charge of its vast neighbour. But it also wants the support of Khartoum in its bitter argument with Ethiopia over the control of the flow of the Nile. The Egyptians also want to check the influence of their regional rivals in Sudan.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also major actors, and their rulers have personal relationships with many of the key figures in Sudan. Both have poured huge sums of money into Sudan since 2019 in an attempt to build a regime favourable to their interests. Hemedti won favour by dispatching thousands of Sudanese fighters to fight in Yemen as part of the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition there, but Burhan has been welcomed too. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become much more aligned with western policy in Sudan in recent years. In recent weeks, Riyadh in particular has been active in trying to avert conflict – though without much success, it appears.
The European Union is aligned with the US and the United Kingdom in seeking a compromise agreement that would lead to a transition to civilian control. Chaos in Sudan could trigger a new increase in refugees, and France is particularly concerned about the consequences for fragile states farther west where it has already lost much influence in recent years.