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Ongoing Atrocities in Darfur and the Betrayal of Sudan’s Pro-Democracy Movement

The ongoing conflict in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces has reached a critical juncture, particularly in Darfur. Amidst the escalating violence, Mat Nashed talks to TIMEP and discusses the crucial steps toward restoring stability and a potential ceasefire.

The war that has been raging in Sudan for the past seven months continues to exact a huge humanitarian toll on civilians, without any signs of an imminent ceasefire. Fighting remains concentrated around the capital, Khartoum, and the Darfur region in the west, which has also seen atrocities including ethnically motivated mass killing, rape, and displacement. 

In the latest round of talks between warring parties in Jeddah, the two main belligerents, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), committed to facilitating humanitarian access, but were unable to reach a much-needed ceasefire agreement. 

Meanwhile, the RSF has advanced in Darfur, raising questions about the future of Sudan as a unified entity. This coincided with a surge in violence in the capital of West Darfur, Al-Geneina, against the ethnically African Masalit tribe committed by the RSF. Just recently, early November 2023, hundreds of civilians were killed by the RSF and its allies. The group enjoys support among the Arab tribes of Darfur, and its precursor, the Janjaweed militia, was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of some African tribes in the Darfurian war that started in 2003. 

TIMEP spoke with journalist and analyst Mat Nashed about the recent developments in the war in Sudan, its humanitarian implications, and the possible role of the international community to ease the suffering.

TIMEP: It has been seven months now since the war started on April 15 2023, a lot of the fighting is currently taking place in Darfur, with the RSF gaining more and more ground. What are the latest developments on the ground? Do you believe there could be any hope for a ceasefire any time soon? 

Mat Nashed: I don’t see a ceasefire coming. I see more atrocities and fierce battles on the horizon. A brief summary of recent developments indicates that Sudan is spiraling deeper into an intractable war. 

Over the last couple of weeks, the RSF took over the SAF’s headquarters in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. It then captured Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, Al-Geneina in the west, and el-Daein in the east, constituting four victories for the RSF and effectively granting them almost complete control over Darfur. As such, the RSF will most probably be far less inclined to agree to a ceasefire and will use its battlefield success as leverage to demand hefty political rewards in any future talks with the SAF. The prospect of a significant battle in the remaining North Darfur also looks imminent, especially since the Sudanese army appears disinterested or unable to mount a defense. 

The RSF will most probably be far less inclined to agree to a ceasefire and will use its battlefield success as leverage to demand hefty political rewards in any future talks with the SAF

There are also several armed movements, who are originally from Darfur and who have recently deployed reinforcements just outside of el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur which is still not under the RSF’s control. These armed movements are fighting under the banner of the Joint Protection Forces (JPF), which emerged from the Juba Peace Agreement that ostensibly aimed to end fighting in Darfur in October 2020. In theory, the JPF was tasked with providing security in Darfur after the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) had its mandate terminated on December 31, 2020. In practice, however, the JPF was unequipped to do so. 

Two major movements that make-up the JPF are the Justice and Equality Movement led by Gibril Ibrahim and a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army led by Minni Minawi. On November 16, both men, who are from the African Zaghawa tribe (ethnic labels are historically hollow and slippery in Darfur), officially declared that they will fight to support the army and protect civilians if the RSF decides to attack el-Fasher. The decision to formally abandon neutrality appears to be motivated by narrow political and economic interests. Both Minawi and Ibrahim believe that siding with the army will allow them to keep the political positions they were granted after signing the Juba Peace Agreement. The former is the governor of Darfur, while the latter is the finance minister. 

Irrespective of their motivations, many aid groups and residents fear that fighting could turn ethnic if, or when, the mostly Arab RSF fights the Zaghawa armed groups. A ceasefire in Darfur therefore looks unlikely. 

What’s more, the global community generally sees the army as the more legitimate and credible institution, compared to the RSF. The military is aware of this and relies heavily on its reputational leverage to demand material and diplomatic support to fight the RSF. 

But the RSF clearly controls significant swathes of Sudanese territory and is threatening to expand its influence further. The RSF hopes that the international community—mainly the U.S. and EU member states—will realize that the group is stronger than the army, thereby rewarding its leaders with external legitimacy. 

The result is a standoff between the SAF and the RSF. Of course, the main victims are civilians, whose lives are continually lost as the country’s security deteriorates. The inflexibility of two highly stubborn leaders, each leaning on their leverage, exacerbates the situation, leading them further and further away from a ceasefire, and heightening the risk that the RSF will continue to push forward in a bid to capture most of the territory in the country, if not all of it. 

TIMEP: With these macro level changes in territory control, there is an inevitable translation into the micro, particularly in the realm of delivering humanitarian aid. What are the challenges for aid groups to deliver relief to communities most affected by this latest episode of violence in the Darfurian conflict?

Mat Nashed: The longer the fighting continues, the more dire the humanitarian situation will become. 

We can take the humanitarian situation in North Darfur as one example. That’s where more than half a million displaced people found shelter during the first Darfur war in 2003. Since the latest war erupted in April 2023, thousands of internally displaced populations from a number of other Darfur states fled to North Darfur for refuge. If the RSF decides to mount a significant assault in this region, we could see a scenario of second and third waves of displacement yet again, affecting those who had established a sense of home for over two decades amidst the aftermath of the initial conflict. This would be an unimaginable humanitarian crisis. 

There was a period of almost 10 years during the first Darfur war when there was a significant struggle to get full humanitarian relief in those areas. At the time, former autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir used starvation and aid as a weapon of war. That tactic is being used again now, according to a number of aid agencies who say that getting aid into Darfur is incredibly difficult. This will only worsen if the RSF are able to take complete control over North Darfur. This is mainly because the SAF controls aid deliveries from its administrative capital in Port Sudan and has restricted the flow of aid to areas under RSF control for the duration of the conflict. To remedy this, aid groups must prioritize getting aid into Darfur via cross-border mechanisms, such as from neighboring countries like Chad or South Sudan. But aid deliveries also require security and the RSF has repeatedly shown that it cannot act as a guarantor of security in any way possible; in fact, it tends to reward its national and mercenary fighters through allowing them to loot markets and aid convoys and kill with almost absolute lawlessness. If that trend continues, which I reckon it will, then aid agencies will have a difficult time reaching internally displaced populations and other victims who are going to be affected when the battle for North Darfur eventually unfolds. 

TIMEP: The RSF has been blamed for the horrific violence seen over the past few months in West Darfur. Thousands have been killed and displaced, mostly from the ethnically African Masalit tribe. How is this violence related to the overall conflict between RSF and SAF?

Mat Nashed: This is a big question with various root causes and layers. For the sake of this interview, let me address two reasons behind the grave violence that the non-Arab Masalit tribe has suffered from. The first is the complete and abject failure from the RSF and the SAF—former allies—to provide security in the region after al-Bashir was toppled by a popular uprising in 2019. The second is the failure of the international community to ensure that there is at least a minimum level of protection for civilians. These civilians have been warning about the potential of violence and atrocities for years.

To contextualize this further, it is wise to go back to the end of 2020, when the UNAMID ended its mandate completely. This mandate was not renewed or reauthorized by the international community, namely, through the UN Security Council. This took place despite countless warnings from various rights groups, from Human Rights Watch and numerous human rights lawyers, as well as survivors from the 2003 Darfur conflict. All these groups, in various forms, have been stressing that civilians need some form of coherent, legitimate, and reliable protection, or at least a semblance of protection. Despite all the criticism that peacekeepers in Darfur had received—many of them legitimate—ending their mandate simply made the protection issues that were already stark significantly more glaring.

Despite all the criticism that peacekeepers in Darfur had received—many of them legitimate—ending their mandate simply made the protection issues that were already stark significantly more glaring

As expected, the RSF violence against the Masalit intensified during UNAMID’s drawdown, while both the SAF and RSF demonstrated little desire or ability to protect civilians. For the SAF, Darfur simply did not make up a significant portion of its traditional constituency which was confined to central Sudan and further north. The RSF, on the other hand, aimed to balance its quest of acquiring domestic legitimacy—which it aspired to achieve by acting as a guarantor of security—while appeasing its traditional Arab tribal allies in the region. 

Many of the RSF’s tribal allies had their own militias who were spearheading attacks against non-Arabs in a bid to consolidate control over water resources and land. What made this more complicated is that the RSF local command structure is very porous; in essence, it is made of commanders who pay allegiance to their local communities and tribal leaders over the RSF’s senior leadership in Khartoum. The line between tribal Arab fighters and RSF soldiers is thus often blurred.

Fundamentally, it was these local RSF commanders that spearheaded Arab militia attacks against non-Arab communities, and particularly against the Masalit tribe in West Darfur, during the transition. But since the war, members of the RSF’s senior leadership have overtly abetted and assisted local commanders and their tribal allies to commit genocidal violence against the Masalit. They no longer have plausible deniability. 

TIMEP: You mentioned the abrogation of the duty that the international community should be showing at this time. What has the acute effect been of the international withdrawal on local fighting within Sudan? And have there been attempts to use either a local, or even international, legal framework to hold certain RSF elements accountable?

Mat Nashed: In hindsight, it was wishful thinking for the global community and the internationally-backed civilian-military transitional government to task the RSF with protecting civilians in Darfur. It was a textbook case of asking the arsonist to put out a fire, and instead the RSF fueled it with more gasoline. Even before the UNAMID peacekeepers completely pulled out, we saw cases of the RSF targeting civilians, such as in 2019 with the attack on the Krinding camp, four kilometers west of Al-Geneina in West Darfur. There, 72 people were slain in an attack led by a notable RSF commander, Musa Hamid Ambilo.

At the time, Sudan’s shaky democratic transition offered hope to Darfuri human rights lawyers that they could use the law to bring perpetrators to justice. But all security forces in Sudan enjoy legal immunity from prosecution—a legacy from al-Bashir’s era. Despite this, dozens of witnesses still provided testimonies to human rights lawyers and opened up domestic cases against RSF fighters, including Ambilo. Feeling threatened, the RSF and allied Arab militias sought revenge against these witnesses and began threatening them with reprisal in person, and over social media and on the phone. RSF commanders and Arab militias attacked Krinding again around a year later. Over a hundred people were killed during the second attack, including 19 of the witnesses who came forward after the 2019 attack. According to survivors and local human rights lawyers, RSF fighters entered Krinding with photos of these witnesses to find them and kill them. Afterwards, the remaining witnesses kept quiet.

The next year, more violence occurred in Kreinik in West Darfur, where there were mass killings. These atrocities should have compelled the global community to at least expand the capabilities of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS)—a political mission that replaced UNAMID—to better monitor the atrocities in Darfur. 

It would be a mistake to attribute the recent campaign of ethnic cleansing, arguably genocide, against the Masalit to simply a lack of protection of civilians and score settling

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to attribute the recent campaign of ethnic cleansing, arguably genocide, against the Masalit to simply a lack of protection of civilians and score settling. Ethnic violence is ultimately the outcome of Arab and Non-Arab communities being forced to compete over water, land and various other resources. For decades, central governments in Khartoum militarized communities and pitted them against each other in order to sustain a predatory economy.

This later translated into security and political elites in Khartoum using some Darfur tribes as proxies by arming them and granting them total impunity. In exchange, these tribes helped preserve a status quo that allowed central elites to keep benefitting from the extraction of lucrative resources in the peripheries to beef up their control over the state.

What we are seeing now in West Darfur is the complete, unhinged, and exacerbated consequences of this predatory logic, which Sudanese elites inherited from Ottoman-Egyptian and British-Egyptian colonization.

TIMEP: How can American and European influence be utilized to put an end to the war and reduce civilian suffering, especially that the main warring parties are supported by two US allies in the region—Egypt and the United Arab Emirates?

Mat Nashed: I’ll state the obvious: First, there needs to be an immediate commitment to protect civilians. That includes rallying diplomatic support to deploy another peacekeeping mission again within Darfur. The UN Security Council does have the ability to do this, but needs strong commitment to implement it. This would increase monitoring, which is very much needed to comprehend the full scale of the atrocities committed all over Darfur. While peacekeepers might appear defenseless in the face of attacks, there is enough literature that suggests that their presence and ability to monitor potential perpetrators can deter or mitigate attacks against civilians. This is the minimum we should be striving for. 

To achieve this objective, there needs to be serious high diplomatic mediation efforts and advocacy for this. It is not unreasonable to imagine that there is a shared belief among the Security Council permanent member states that the conflict in Darfur could become a major security issue that will plague the interests of China, the U.S., and even Russia to some degree, if it gets out of control. 

What I’m saying is that it is not impossible to imagine that rival states in the UNSC can agree to deploy a new peacekeeping mission. I believe it would be in their shared interest to do so.

Meanwhile, the global community must push for a permanent ceasefire for all of Sudan, so that both warring parties can concede day-to-day governance to a civilian establishment. If this conflict goes on, it will, as we have been warning since day one, have unprecedented damage and consequences all over the region. Despite the high stakes, we still have not seen a real commitment among high-ranking diplomats to get the warring parties to stop fighting. At the very least, they should be organizing high level discussions that do not exclude Egyptian or Emirati officials who are supporting opposite sides in the conflict. By involving these states, western diplomats could try to get both RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan in a room to try to pressure them to reach a ceasefire. 

Mediators should make every effort to broker a permanent ceasefire that safeguards civil politics, meaning the inclusion of a civilian dispensation in future high-level talks and space for grassroots organizing. The street’s pro-democracy movement remains the only credible driver of popular aspirations for democratic rule. But right now, the war is the main threat to grassroots politics as both the RSF and army continue to target activists and local relief workers, as well as tribal and community leaders. 

While these are incredibly difficult tasks, the international community is acting as if Sudan is just a lost cause

While these are incredibly difficult tasks, the international community is acting as if Sudan is just a lost cause. This is a betrayal of the pro-democracy movements that sacrificed so much to overthrow a dictatorship in 2019 and then face down a military coup in October 2021.

This is another example of the West—Europe and the United States in this case—washing its hands of another crisis that it helped create, effectively betraying the very values it claims to espouse. This is the point we are at now. And while I understand that mediating an end to the war is a very tall task, it defies all logic that the global community has not demonstrated a genuine effort to do so. 

That must change or else more atrocities will unfold in Sudan and beyond.

Mat Nashed is a journalist and analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. Over the last decade, he has written extensively on state repression, geopolitics, and the plight of migrants and refugees.


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