Sudan’s two largest military forces — the national army, Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and the well-heeled paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — began fighting on the morning of April 15 in the nation’s capital, Khartoum, and other towns across the country. It is a worst-case scenario: instead of restoring the fragile transition to democracy through negotiations, Sudan’s two top military leaders have resorted to war in the nation’s capital.

Within hours, fighting raged across the city as forces vied for strategic and symbolic locations — the airport, military headquarters, the presidential palace. SAF air forces bombed RSF positions, while RSF’s anti-aircraft artillery lit up the skies. Ground forces fought in neighborhoods. Snipers occupied rooftops. The apartment building in which I used to live, near downtown Khartoum, was shelled.

At some point that afternoon, three World Food Programme staff were killed in cold blood by militia in Kabkabiya, an ethnically mixed town in North Darfur where the savannah meets the foothills of Darfur’s Jebel Marra mountain range. The same day, shelling killed civilians in El Fasher, where a friend was indoor hiding: “My kids are very scared… my son kept asking, ‘Why is the war inside the town?’” In Nyala, South Darfur, militia forces looted extensively, targeting aid compounds and government offices.

Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the SAF commander and head of the transitional military council ruling the country, and his deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan (“Hemedti”) Dagalo, who heads the RSF — traded insults and threats, digging in their heels. As the former U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa observed, “Burhan and Hemedti appear to be engaging in a fight to the death.”

Friends and residents in Khartoum sheltered indoors and under beds, away from windows. “We are sleeping [in] the hall,” wrote one. Their calls and videos, crackling with gun fire, explosions and roaring jets, sounded ever more anxious as supplies and power dwindled.

Armed men attacked foreign diplomats, aid workers, hospitals, and residents. At least one foreign national was sexually assaulted. By day four, the United Nations was reporting that nearly 200 people had been killed and more than 1,800 injured.

Amid these dire conditions, the international community have been hard-pressed to respond.

The U.N. Secretary General, the African Union (which has suspended Sudan), regional bodies (including the G7) and embassies have publicly condemned the hostilities. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has personally appealed to both men for a ceasefire. While both have allowed pauses during iftar evening meals during the holy month of Ramadan, al-Burhan rejected the ceasefire and barred African Union diplomats from entry, saying the climate wasn’t yet suitable for mediation.

Meanwhile, the U.N. and some embassies have begun planning evacuations, although White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that U.S. citizens should “make their own arrangements… to stay safe.” Civilians have begun to flee the city by car and by foot, seeking safety in rural areas.

How We Got Here

Many have criticized efforts to broker a political deal reached in the wake of the military coup in October 2021, on the grounds that it legitimized the coup, that neither of the two men at its helm have seen justice for human rights abuses since the beginning of the revolution, and that it failed to reflect the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people.

The resulting “framework agreement,” signed in December 2022 by the security forces and a handful of political parties, deferred the “sticky” issues of transitional justice and security sector reform, among others, on which agreement was needed for any genuine new deal.  If this setup was already doomed, there were other signs things were not going well.

The relationship between al-Burhan and Hemedti was always opportunistic. The two men came into power as chair and deputy chair, respectively, of the ruling transitional military council in 2019 following the ouster of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s long-time Islamist autocrat (who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities in Darfur) after months of popular protests.

The RSF was created by al-Bashir in 2013 to fight rebels in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, leaving a trail of atrocities in their wake. From the beginning, Hemedti was shrewd in his dealing with the army – whether al-Bashir or al-Burhan. According to research I conducted with Human Rights Watch, the RSF led the violent crackdown on protesters who in June 2019 were seeking to oust al-Bashir and bring civilian rule.

In October 2021, when al-Burhan staged a coup against the civilian component of the transitional government, arresting civilian leaders and sweeping away two plus years of work by civilian technocrats, Hemedti supported the move. He also helped secure the allegiance of former rebels who had signed the Juba Peace Agreement, which had resulted from a year-long negotiation process he helped to oversee.   

For much of the next year and a half, the men sublimated their differences while they consolidated their resources and strengthened their forces through recruitment along ethnic lines and by calling in favors from regional powers. But their pragmatic alliance could not survive competition and shifting alliances. Hemedti, smelling an opportunity, re-cast himself as an ally of democracy efforts, an opponent of Islamist remnants of the al-Bashir regime, and a partner in stemming the tide of migration to the north.

Al-Burhan, for his part, chafed at the rise of Hemedti, a camel trader from Darfur who had leveraged his relations with the army to accumulate vast wealth in family-owned businesses and gold interests, including with Russia. The RSF has grown to at least 70,000, many recruited from Hemedti’s own community and other Darfuri Arabs.

In recent weeks, tensions have risen between Hemedti and al-Burhan around differences in their interpretations of security sector reform. According to the think-tank Sudan Transparency Policy Tracker, “integration of the RSF into the regular army, provided for in Framework Agreement’s security and military reform component, has become a serious, and ever more visible, area of conflict.”

What Could Happen Next

Each side claims to have the upper hand, but in the war of propaganda there’s no telling which of the competing narratives to believe.  Doomsday scenarios run the gamut: if SAF wins, al-Burhan and his colleagues will re-install old regime Islamists, with no regard for international pressure. At best, they could make a flimsy pretense of appointing some allied civilians.

The RSF may be less likely win, say some, but they won’t go down easily, and could draw out the conflict, allying with other armed groups in peripheral areas.

Regional interests threaten to widen the conflict. Egypt, seen as a would-be colonizer, supports the SAF and has an interest in Sudan’s Nile water and agricultural land. Ethiopia, which fought Sudan in 2021 over fertile borderlands at Fashaqa, has its own interests, including to counter Egypt. The United Arab Emirates, which supported Hemedti, has benefited from the RSF’s participation in the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and may have sold weapons to the RSF. And Libya and Chad could easily become more involved in Darfur.

Meanwhile alarms are sounding, not only about the impending humanitarian crisis but also the possibility of brutal crackdowns on democracy leaders in the near future. Many of the civilian leaders have gone into hiding, and there are rumors some are being targeted already.

How can international actors respond most responsibly to help Sudan? For one, they should support calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and insist the parties protect civilians in line with international law. They should task a group of high-level diplomats to coordinate all international efforts.

In time, more nuanced actions will be possible, but they should aim to honor Sudan’s democratic transition, and not resume a cynical power-sharing agreement that will not hold. Finally, they should consider — among other actions — individual sanctions on individuals who promote violence against civilians and undermine Sudanese efforts to pursue true transformation.

IMAGE: Smoke billows above residential buildings in Khartoum on April 16, 2023, as fighting in Sudan raged for a second day in battles between rival generals. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)