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Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.” She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
The war unfolding in Sudan is an internal conflict in danger of going global. Finding a sustainable peace will require convincing many countries with a stake in Sudan’s future that they are better off with a partner at peace than one at war.
The conflict is a power struggle between Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, and Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, who heads the Sudanese army and is the country’s de facto leader. Each leads a sizable armed force and, since Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019, the two have oscillated between consolidating military power and negotiating a civilian transition. This came to a head last month when they couldn’t agree to terms for integrating their armies into a single national force.
Neither is eager to forgo the power they’ve accumulated, which enables them to exploit Sudan’s wealth of resources — from gold deposits and croplands to mercenaries and port access on the Red Sea. A cease-fire that was supposed to begin Thursday did not appear to stop the fighting.
These strongmen secured their power not through public legitimacy or governance but through force fortified by the many countries that provide them wealth, support and legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both provide millions of dollars in direct budget support, payment for mercenaries to fight wars abroad and other unaccountable business dealings that benefit the military leaders directly.
Several neighboring countries have strong ties with one or both of Sudan’s warring generals. Elements in Libya, which itself has no controlling authority, have thrown in with Hemedti, while Egypt is likely to support Burhan given long-standing close ties with the Sudanese army. Most, however, are cautious to keep cordial relations with both as insurance for manageable relations in case either one prevails.
All seven of Sudan’s neighbors — which also include Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad — have a stake in Sudan’s status. Each will suffer from continued conflict due to refugee flows and trade impediments. Most of them seem genuine in calling on both sides to end the violence. But the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely neighbors start choosing sides, raising the risk of sustained fighting in the long term.
The United States and the European Union have less directly at stake but are engaged in peace talks out of interest in broader regional stability. Their greatest leverage is humanitarian and economic assistance, though these two generals don’t seem particularly concerned about the welfare of the country’s people.
The West’s role in helping negotiate a transition after Bashir’s removal inadvertently helped lay the groundwork for today’s conflict, since it was instrumental in pressing civilian activists to accept a joint military-civilian transitional government. This was done in the interest of expediency, but it ultimately helped legitimize the position of the generals at the helm.
The doomed transitional arrangement was, in many ways, the inevitable outcome of unaccountable foreign interference that boosted the fortunes of these generals in the first place. Western influence might not have been able to prevent the military’s dominance, but to pretend they would lead a democratic transition was an unnecessary mistake.
No discussion of foreign influence would be complete without addressing China and Russia. Though they aren’t the most important players in Sudan, each could play a role, for good or ill.
Russia’s Wagner Group is believed to have connections with both the UAE and Hemedti through gold trade, suggesting it could be a potential spoiler. China is Sudan’s largest trading partner, so it has a greater stake in stability.
The question now is how to turn extensive outside interest into sufficient pressure for peace.
Partner countries and neighbors can help mitigate conflict, and often seek to do so, as violence and victims easily spread across borders. In our interconnected world, more actors also have a financial stake in more countries, which had enhanced expectations that globalization would bring greater peace.
But exploiting resources of conflict-prone countries often means capitalizing on chaos instead, so outside parties too often act as instigators, tag-teaming with one side or another to take a country’s wealth and resources while citizens pay the price.
Recent history has shown that, when outside actors driven by greed help strongmen hoard power, it makes for longer, deadlier wars and record numbers of people fleeing violence. Sudan can only avoid this fate if interested countries see their interests met better by its peace than its war.
With no dominant influence, this conflict has no quick fixes. The best answer is the slow, painstaking effort of diplomacy, leveraging the influence states have not only on Sudan’s actors but on each other. And while ending the fighting is the first order of business, that will be just the start.
Only greater investment in diplomacy over the long term, and patience to seek sustainable solutions, can help ensure that widespread foreign entanglement in places like Sudan fosters stability instead of conflict.