ICG: International diplomacy should seize ‘narrow window’ for peace negotiations in Sudan

Sudan war: A fight between two commanders - Cartoon by Omar Dafallah (RD)

NAIROBI – July 24, 2023

The International Crisis Group (ICG) said that “a narrow window for dialogue about stopping the fighting in Sudan may have opened” but that “outside actors should urgently coordinate efforts” to take this opportunity to steer the warring parties towards a negotiated end to hostilities.

In a new analysis of the situation in Sudan, the ICG explained that the war is entering a critical new phase in which international diplomacy could play a decisive role if actors would coordinate their efforts better.

The International Crisis Group is an independent international organisation “working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world” and has published several analyses on Sudan in the past, including on the current conflict.

“Sudan’s calamitous three-month war may be entering a critical new phase. In recent weeks, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has further entrenched its superior position in the capital, Khartoum, and intensified a siege of the headquarters where top generals in the Sudanese army, its enemy in the conflict, have been holed up since the war began,” the thinktank explained.

Amidst this mounting pressure, army leaders “have shown a new willingness to entertain peace talks, while the paramilitary claims victory is nigh”. It is uncertain what will come out of this situation but, given the terrible toll the war has already taken on Sudan and all the dangers that loom if the war continues, “it is imperative that outside actors seize every opportunity to bring the parties back to dialogue before the moment is lost”.

The ICG writes that “whether the two sides can find middle ground is an open question, but there is reason enough to test the proposition”.

“The army’s battlefield losses and besieged headquarters give it strong motivations to come to the table; likewise, the RSF’s narrow base of support, abysmal standing at home and abroad, and the steep odds of taking all of Sudan by force have long meant that, even if it comes out on top militarily, it needs a negotiated settlement.”

International parties should work to convince both warring parties of this logic. However, “diplomacy thus far has been messy,” the group stated.

The USA and Saudi Arabia-led Jeddah negotiations have been criticised for being ‘secretive’ and for not including other international and Sudanese civilian parties.

Meanwhile, neighbours of Sudan have hosted their own peace-building conferences in Egypt but experts and analysts have expressed scepticism regarding the summit’s prospects for success. They believe the initiative runs parallel to yet another summit by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the outcomes of which the Sudanese government has rejected.

These different international diplomatic partnerships “will need to pool their efforts in a more coordinated fashion, and with a greater sense of urgency, than they have mustered to date”.

If they manage to do so, however, “success is far from guaranteed, especially if the RSF wants to keep pressing its momentum in Khartoum before coming to terms. The army and its aligned militias, meanwhile, could easily splinter”.

Nevertheless, “the stakes are too high not to make a concerted new push to halt the conflict at this pivotal moment in Sudan’s war-torn history”.

‘The stakes are too high not to make a concerted new push to halt the conflict’

What could a deal look like?

The chances of a comprehensive peace deal are narrow even with the small hopeful signs that the army is willing to re-enter negotiations.

“In order for peace talks to succeed, both parties will have to see an upside to reaching a deal, and outside actors will need to provide a coherent, well-supported negotiating track. Right now, it is unclear what the former might entail or even whether anything can compel the army and RSF to negotiate rather than fight.”

The biggest question is what deal, if any, RSF Commander-in-Chief Lt Gen Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo might be willing to strike, given the RSF’s military momentum.

“But though the paramilitary has gained the upper hand on the main battlefield, he might have both military and political reasons to explore a settlement,” the ICG explained.

“Militarily, failing to strike a deal means the RSF would face the task of conquering the rest of Sudan, with all the risks that entails. The political reasons may loom even larger, relating to the extreme narrowness of Hemedti’s support base in Sudan and beyond due to RSF troops’ horrific behaviour since the conflict started and the force’s ethnic militia character.”

Even if the RSF manages to consolidate military control of Khartoum and Darfur, Hemedti will face a huge challenge in governing the central, northern, and eastern parts of Sudan, “many of which are held by the army or army-aligned communities”.

“Refusing to negotiate would almost guarantee that conflict would continue in pockets of resistance to RSF rule. It would also cement Hemedti’s dreadful reputation abroad and risk returning Sudan to the pariah status of Bashir’s time,” the ICG concluded.

With regards to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), as the army is officially called, difficulties arise too. Although some leaders have communicated some openness to talks, it remains unclear whether the army will want to prioritise peace to save Commander-in-Chief Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan and other commanders from the General Command in Khartoum, “or risk their eventual capture or killing at the RSF’s hands so as to continue the military struggle”.

‘Any settlement raises the risk of a split in the army’

“Given internal fissures and the deep hostility toward the RSF, any settlement raises the risk of a split in the army,” including the possibility that hardliners team up with Al Bashir-era Islamists to fight on, the ICG said. The inner ring of the military elite in the army, also called the Kezan*, is known to hold Islamist views and be loyal to former dictator Omar Al Bashir.

An RSF victory is unlikely to leave room for those hardline Al Bashir-allied Islamists in Sudan, who will then face a difficult choice between negotiating surrender terms, battling on in a losing cause, or fleeing to a third country. “But any political solution would need to include moderate Islamists, at least those not associated with the Bashir regime, given the risk of alienating such a large constituency and creating conditions for militancy to ferment,” the ICG said.

* Kezan, or kizan, is a pejorative nickname used by many Sudanese to refer to Islamist loyalists to the regime of Omar Al Bashir (1989-2019) and who enjoyed far-fetching privileges during his rule. The word is the plural of koz which means ‘wooden or iron mug’. The nickname is based on a description the Islamic Brotherhood called themselves, when the founder of the group, the Egyptian Hasan El Banna, said “Religion is a sea, and we are the mugs that draw from it”.