Crisis in Sudan

Map of Sudan

Over the last several days the security situation in Sudan has become worse. There is fighting in the capital city of Khartoum, the airport is closed, hundreds of lives have been lost, and thousands injured. Most of the essentials of living (food, water, electricity, medical care, etc.) are in short supply or no longer available. It is unclear which faction controls what part of the country. The fighting has interrupted what many had hoped would be a peaceful transition to civilian rule in the coming weeks; one that should have started at the beginning of April.

Fight Between Two Warring Parties. The clash between the warring parties began on or about April 14, 2023. The two factions are the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Both commanded by opposing Sudanese generals. In addition, there are a host of other local warlords, militias, and violent groups within Sudan contributing to the chaos. The leaders of both factions have been jockeying for power in the soon to be formed civilian government.

Al-Burhan and SAF. Sudanese President Genearl Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is head of the country’s transitional governing Sovereign Council. Sudanese soldiers are loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (Wikipedia). The situation has been, according to al-Burhan, characterized as a rebellion and coup against the government of Sudan.

Dagalo and RSF. The Rapid Support Forces forces or RSF are led by Vice President General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo; he is deputy head of the Sovereign Council. Dagalo is a former camel herder from the Darfur region and has economic interests in minerals and livestock. The RSF was created in 2013 by former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The roots of the RSF can be found in a pro-government Janjaweed militia that was active in Darfur in the early 2000s where a local rebellion was defeated. The RSF also sent fighters to Yemen in the battle against Iran-aligned rebels; on behalf of some Gulf region countries.

Background to the Conflict. The two generals had been sharing power since an October 2021 coup. Disagreements arose over the integration of the Rapid Support Forces into the Sudanese Armed Forces. In addition, members of the Sudanese military feared the loss of control over revenue generating functions in the government and in society with a move to civilian control. Corruption has always played a large role in Sudan. A breakdown of the origins of the current conflict is presented by Jelena Pejic in “The Fighting in Sudan is an Armed Conflict: Here’s What Law Applies”, Just Security, April 20, 2023. The Pejic article also explores the legal status of the SAF and RSF.

Other Actors. There are reports that some regional nations may be providing support to the combatant forces. Egypt is believed to have sent aircraft to Sudan and possibly tanks and military personnel to support the government forces. It has close ties with Sudan’s military as it sees it as an ally against Ethiopia. Some reports indicate that the Russian paramilitary organization – the Wagner Group – could be aiding the RSF (CNN, Apr 21, 2023). The PMC is reported to have operated in Sudan since 2017. Russia would like to set up a small naval contingent in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In addition, international media sources say that General Dagalo and the RSF are backed by Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. The United Arab Emirates has close ties with the RSF.

Embassy Staff. Nations around the world are worried about their diplomatic staffs and their nationals that are living and working in Sudan. The United States has Department of State (DoS) embassy personnel that need to be evacuated but no attempt has been made thus far. DoS is instructing embassy personnel to ‘shelter in place’. The Department of State says it has ‘full accountability’ of its embassy personnel.

U.S. Citizens. Thousands of U.S. citizens who live or work in Sudan are in danger as well; many of them dual citizens. There are reports that at least one American citizen has died in the violence (according to DoS). It is impossible to leave the country by air as the Khartoum International Airport is closed due to battle damage and battles occurring on or near the airport. The State Department has stated that it is not safe to undertake a U.S. government coordinated evacuation of private American citizens at this time. There are about 19,000 Americans in Sudan. A Department of State spokesman ‘waffled’ a bit on April 20th when asked by journalists at a press conference if the U.S. was prepared or planning to evacuate U.S. citizens who were not embassy employees.

Refugees, Displaced Civilians, and Humanitarian Issues. Thousands of Sudanese, most from the Darfur region (Wikipedia), have fled to neighboring countries; many to Chad (CIA map). They are traveling along the roads as air travel is nonexistent in Sudan at this time. There are reports that Sudan’s southern border with Chad has been closed. Many Sudanese have fled the areas of the fighting for safer regions of Sudan. They are suffering from lack of shelter and food. Delivery of humanitarian supplies by international organizations has been extremely curtained due to the security situation.

U.S. Response. Up to now, the United States response to the crisis has been to encourage the two opponents to cease hostilities and to engage regional powers close to Sudan to use their influence to end the conflict. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with (DoS) the two generals leading the forces in the conflict; asking for a ceasefire. Thus far, the diplomatic efforts have been a failure; at least from what can be gleaned from open source news reports.

International Response. Countries around the world are weighing in on the conflict – using their influence to negotiate a ceasefire and end to the hostilities. The United Nations has been very active in attempts to bring an end to the conflict as well. Germany and Norway made some initial attempts to evacuate embassy personnel but these did not pan out. Some other nations are positioning forces in the region (aircraft, etc.) but they have not entered Sudan as of yet. Most of the international response has been public comments and diplomacy behind the scenes.

Ceasefire. Two cessations to the fighting have occurred, but both were unsuccessful. There is hope that another ceasefire will take place over the Eid al-Fitr celebrations. This would allow citizens to escape the conflict zones, receive medical care, and find food and shelter. The U.S. Department of State said on April 20th (DoS) that the “24-hour ceasefire announced on April 19th has mostly held.” The statement that the ceasefire ‘has mostly held’ has been questioned by many observers of the conflict. The Department of State is hoping that the ceasefire can be extended (DoS) to Sunday, April 23rd, which would be the end of Eid.

NEO. At this point, the United States has determined that it can’t evacuate its embassy staff or any of the thousands of American citizens. That is, until the security situation improves. At some point, the United States may decide to conduct a non-combatant evacuation operation. A Sudan NEO would most likely be preceded with some intense negotiations between the United States and the two warring factions to ensure that the U.S. does not get dragged into a civil war. It is unlikely that the United States would conduct a ‘forcible entry’ into the airport.

Khartoum International Airport. The largest airport in Sudan, Khartoum International Airport (Wikipedia), is located in the capital city. As of April 20th it was closed to air traffic. Media reports indicate that the airport was a target of heavy shelling with destroyed airplanes on the runways and ramps.

Map showing distance from Khartoum International Airport to Camp Lemonnier.

U.S. Forces Moving. The U.S. is currently positioning military forces and assets at Camp Lemonnier (Wikipedia) in the country of Djibouti (CIA map). Camp Lemonnier is usually home to about 2,500 service members who belong to Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). This TF conducts a variety of operations in the Horn of Africa region. Forces in Djibouti are about 1,000 miles distant (1,700 kilometers); about a 4 hour and 40 minute flight. Camp Lemonnier is the best location from which to stage a NEO and to where evacuees would first be sent before their onward movement to another location.

U.S. Future Actions? The current administration has still not recovered from the chaotic Afghanistan non-combatant evacuation operation (Afghan War News) conducted in August 2021. One hopes that the Department of State has learned a few lessons since then. If it decides to conduct a NEO then hopefully the planning has already been done and the Department of Defense is ready to execute it.


Maps: Derived from maps by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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