KHARTOUM—Almost two weeks since Sudan erupted into a personal war between two generals, life for millions of citizens in Khartoum and across the country has become nearly impossible. I am writing this piece in the dark in Khartoum, as electricity has been intermittent since the morning of April 15, when fierce fighting began in the capital between Sudan's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF. We also have not had running water since then. Our food supplies are running out, and nearby shops are closed. This is the situation of an upper-middle-class family, in a relatively decent neighborhood of the city. It is impossible to imagine the extent of the impact of this war on less privileged families.
With all humanitarian assistance projects now suspended because of the fighting, a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Sudan. The continuation of this conflict risks dragging the country into a full-blown civil war, fought in both urban centers and rural areas. With external actors from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates siding with one side or the other, the fighting also has all the hallmarks of developing into a brutal proxy war engulfing the Middle East and North Africa. There is only one way to change the course of looming events: This war must end immediately.
Ever since the revolution in 2019, the international community has continued to put its trust and good faith in both Burhan and Hemedti—despite neither general proving worthy of it.
- Hamid Khalafallah
But the war between the two generals—Sudan's army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the commander of the RSF, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as "Hemedti"—seems far from over. Both generals are determined to wipe each other out. Three early cease-fires were announced but not honored. Fighting only slowed down when foreign diplomats were getting evacuated in recent days—an alarming indicator of how the lives of Sudanese people are expendable to the outside world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 420 people were killed by the end of the first week of fighting. A fourth cease-fire announced early this week on the evening of April 24, following efforts led by the United States, was violated the next morning, with both parties accusing each other of breaching it. The lack of commitment to cease-fires suggests that both the Sudanese army and the RSF are not interested in ending their war just yet.
This has all left Sudanese civilians to face the gravity of the situation on their own. Humanitarian access is almost non-existent, with no guarantee of safe passages, even as foreigners are getting evacuated safely and under protection. Meanwhile, locals are fleeing Khartoum en masse to other states of Sudan or neighboring countries, seeking safe haven and refuge. Yet these are expensive, exhausting and often humiliating trips that most Sudanese, who have already been living through an economic crisis for years, cannot afford. The magnitude of the catastrophe in Sudan requires all international powers to work together to end this war.
Foreign governments, along with international and regional entities, have a long history of mediating in Sudanese crises, from the war in Darfur to the aftermath of the 2019 popular uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir. Some would even argue that foreign mediation since 2019 has contributed to the violent escalation between the Sudanese army and the RSF, by empowering both of them. In the hope of guaranteeing security and stability in Sudan, and by extension the entire region, global powers strongly advocated for civilian leaders sharing power with the military in Khartoum after the fall of Bashir. Despite the military brass impeding Sudan's democratic transition on several occasions, most of all in the October 2021 coup d'état, they were not sanctioned and did not face any consequences. Such deference to the military has legitimized the generals' political ambitions and made them believe that they are essentially immune from punishment or any international consequences.
The personal war between Burhan and Hemedti also has strong transnational linkages, as both the Sudanese army and the RSF—the former Janjaweed militias that terrorized Darfur and which Bashir rebranded to consolidate his power—have regional and international allies who are involved in this war in one way or another.
All these factors indicate that there is a crucial role for the international community to play in ending this war. Nevertheless, outside powers, including the United States, need to change the way that they are dealing with Sudan, and particularly with Burhan and Hemedti. Ever since the revolution in 2019, the international community has continued to put its trust and good faith in both generals—despite neither of them proving worthy of it. Holdovers from Bashir's regime, Burhan and Hemedti kept on breaking promises on Sudan's political transition, especially on handing over power to a civilian government, with no costs imposed by the countries supposedly supporting democracy in Sudan.
Even after Burhan and Hemedti turned on each other and plunged Sudan into a war of their own making, international actors are still using weak pleas and statements to try to influence the generals.
- Hamid Khalafallah
This culminated in the October 2021 coup, orchestrated by Burhan and Hemedti together, to overthrow the civilian-led transitional government. The United States and other global powers promised targeted sanctions against the coup leaders, but they were never implemented. Even after Burhan and Hemedti turned on each other and plunged Sudan into a war of their own making, international actors are still using weak pleas and statements to try to influence the generals.
It is about time, instead, for real action, with the U.S. and other countries capitalizing on the leverage they have over the two generals' regional allies, from Egypt to the UAE. Cutting the supplies of weapons to the Sudanese army and the RSF, and threatening the ties that both leaders have with these regional powers, would leave Burhan and Hemedti no options but retreat. Moreover, seriously pursuing targeted sanctions will threaten their transnational financial interests, which are at the core of this power struggle. This leverage should be used to exert serious pressure on Burhan and Hemedti to commit to a truce and engage in talks to end the war. The situation is critical, and the time for empty gestures is over.