Maghreb countries need to watch Russia and Libya very closely now to see how the cards fall in the Sudan conflict as a protracted conflict only draws them like moths closer to the flame
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reflected much of the international mood when he predicted that the ongoing showdown between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) “risks a catastrophic conflagration within Sudan that could engulf the whole region and beyond.”
Sudan is today a tinderbox mainly because of a zero-sum armed struggle between vested interests at home and the interference of outside powers, from the East and West.
It is difficult to imagine that anyone could have been surprised that Sudan was racing to the bottom since 2011, when the country lost three quarters of its oil revenues to South Sudan after an economically-ruinous partition, which eventually led to the fall of Islamist autocrat Omar Al Bashir in 2019.
Since a coup in 2021 derailed the transition to civilian rule, “errors of judgment” led Western interlocutors of Sudan to withhold billions of dollars pending the resolution of issues such as compensating US victims for Bashir-era involvement in terrorism. Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated in the country and SAF and RSF tensions escalated.
Despite all this, the international community was for some reason caught off-guard by the most recent conflict. The West seemed more concerned about countering Russian and Chinese competition.
With Wagner troops lurking in the shadows, Moscow has sought two main goals. One was minerals in a country considered Africa’s third largest gold producer, beside its chromite, manganese and uranium riches.The second was a Red Sea naval base.
The cynicism of foreign powers and the short-sightedness of Sudan’s rulers, paved the way for the country’s current predicament, which is also the predicament of its neighbours.
Libya, Chad, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Ethiopia have been long mired in internal strife and destabilising upheaval.
For now, the main story is one of evacuations and displacement. Sudan hosts 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, originally from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other countries. Thousands of refugees have started streaming out of the country to flee the devastation.
UNHRC says 4,000 of more than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees in Sudan have crossed the border heading back to a country where 2.3 million are already internally displaced. Chad recently received more than 20,000 new refugees from Sudan, even though it already hosts 400,000 Sudanese refugees from previous conflicts.
Beyond the certainty of its rising toll, the conflict could spin in a multitude of directions. The most plausible one would be an escalation of tribal and ethnic strife, which could lead to a stand-off between Khartoum and the traditionally rebellious hinterland. A wider fragmentation of the power structure could follow.
The ongoing violence in the West Darfur State, described as “tribal conflicts between Arab and African groups,” could be a harbinger of things to come.
A protracted conflict could also erode the neutrality of regional actors in the showdown between army chief Abdul-Fattah Al Burhan and RSF commander Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.
In the context of escalating hostilities, some observers fear Egypt and Ethiopia could end up taking sides in the Sudanese war. For the time being, the conflict will ratchet up incipient tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa and hinder their stuttering negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Then there is Libya, where the military commander Khalifa Haftar (below) could be tempted to back the RSF at the risk of alienating Egypt, which boasts long-standing ties to Burhan.
Another scenario would be for Chad to align itself with one of the two Sudanese camps, based on cross-border ethnic and tribal ties.
Neutrality could also be abandoned by South Sudan, should the oil infrastructure linking South Sudan to Khartoum be targeted by the RSF hence depriving it and Burhan of vital revenues.
What would mitigate fears over such worst-case scenarios, however, is the unwillingness of most regional actors to be embroiled in a conflict that risks undoing their modest progress towards stability.
Chaos in Sudan could also fuel illegal migration toward Europe. The country has for years constituted one of the main illegal migration routes to Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa. A steady breakdown of authority would allow more illegal migrants to trickle into Libya through its 400-kilometre porous border with Sudan, even if the harsh climate and perilous journey from North Darfur should dissuade many.
Worse still, different extremist groups and traffickers from Sudan and sub-Saharan Africa could try to seize the moment to take their activities up north.
Short of an unexpected escalation, the conflict in Sudan could be mired in a bloody stalemate. Any truce deals will be unavoidably fragile. Recent efforts by the “Quad for Sudan” (the United States, the UK, the UAE and Saudi Arabia) and those of Egypt, Africa’s AU and IGAD have only sought temporary ceasefires. That could change if Sudan’s protagonists decide to seek a settlement, either out of exhaustion or because of outside pressure.
Sudanese actors, civilian and military, still have to show readiness to sort out their differences around the negotiating table in order to pull their country away from the abyss.
When that happens, the protagonists know each other very well and should have no reason to rehash old positions or revive the ghosts of failed practices and ignore the lessons of fallen regimes.
Much will also depend on whether the West can avoid bailing out on Sudan the way it abandoned Libya in 2011 without a clear exit-strategy, leaving Libyans trying to pick up the pieces.
But Sudan’s nightmare scenarios do not have to materialise.
The author is the editor of Arab Weekly and was previously Communications minister in the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. This piece was originally published in Arab Weekly