This week marks one year of Sudan’s brutal civil war, which ignited on the morning of April 15, 2023, when the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) started battling in the capital city of Khartoum. Far from silencing their guns, the two sides continue to fight fiercely to devastating effect; and with scant global attention or outcry, the Sudanese war has quickly become the world’s worst forgotten conflict.

The belligerents have disregarded the laws of war, using explosives in residential areas and occupying civilian structures like apartment buildings, hospitals, and schools. Both sides routinely employ inhumane tactics for which they have become best known — RSF fighters plunder, pillage, and rape, and the SAF drops barrel bombs in civilian-populated areas.

The United Nations estimates that the death toll 12 months on stands in the tens of thousands. Its expert panel reported 10,000-15,000 were killed in one city in West Darfur alone, so the overall figure is likely far greater. But accurate figures aren’t available, nor can they be, given the lack of electricity, telecommunications, and medical personnel to report each case.

The statistics are shocking. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 10.7 million people have had to flee their homes, often multiple times. Around 9 million people remain in Sudan, while close to 2 million have escaped to Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, and other neighboring states. Sudan is now the world’s largest displacement crisis, surpassing Syria.

As the head of the World Food Program (WFP) warned last month, Sudan will also experience the world’s largest hunger crisis unless fighting stops and aid gets in. War has devastated domestic agricultural productivity and doubled already-soaring inflation rates, making food scarce and unaffordable. Yet both sides continue to harass or attack relief workers — sometimes due to their ethnicity — and block or divert aid. The SAF’s recent promises to allow in cross-border humanitarian assistance are partial at best.

When the conflict broke out, following months of tension and disagreements between the two sides’ commanding generals, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the SAF and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka “Hemedti”) of the RSF, no one expected it to last long. Still, Sudanese experts and Sudan-watchers looked on in horror as large numbers of RSF fighters swarmed Khartoum and routed the regular army from key bases.

As the weeks turned into months, it became clear there would be no quick win. Currently, the belligerents have consolidated their respective areas of control — the military retains the north and east of the country, while the RSF is in parts of Khartoum as well as Sudan’s southern and western regions, including most of Darfur. But these positions are not static. The SAF gained control in Omdurman in recent weeks, and there are several active frontlines in Gezira, Khartoum, Southern Kordofan, and North Darfur. In some places, separate armed groupings, including former rebels or local defense forces, have entered the fray. Both sides are also receiving material support from external actors making power plays in the region. Sudan seems to possess all of the ingredients necessary for a protracted fight.

Analysts stress that there can be no military solution to the conflict, only a negotiated one. However, most have less to say about what could compel the warring parties to put down their weapons or convince them to honor their past promises of a humanitarian cease-fire. The Sudanese people — represented by a sufficiently inclusive and diverse group — should shape the fate of their country, not belligerents through another flawed power-sharing deal, like the one following the overthrow of long-time autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

So far, international engagement has been disorganized and ineffective. The mediation sponsored by the United States and Saudi Arabia that began at Jeddah last year aimed at a humanitarian cease-fire, but the parties did not uphold their pledges. Simultaneous efforts by regional bodies like the African Union, eastern Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and neighboring countries seemed to go nowhere. 

But recently, there have been signs that international actors are growing more serious about Sudan. In November, the UN appointed a special envoy, as did the African Union and the IGAD. In February, the US named its own special envoy for Sudan, following months of pressure on the administration to raise its profile on helping resolve the conflict. And on March 8, the UN Security Council finally passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire and unhindered humanitarian aid — a step that seemed to put Sudan in global focus again, if briefly.

A serious obstacle, however, is a handful of external actors’ continued provision of arms and materiel to the warring sides. Most glaringly, as the UN panel of experts and others have documented, there is credible evidence the United Arab Emirates has been supplying the RSF in violation of the UN arms embargo. Meanwhile, the SAF has relied on support from its allies including Turkish drones via Egypt and others from Iran.

The set of domestic and global interests that drove US policy on Sudan 20 years ago may no longer exist, but the United States and its allies should play a much greater role. Sudan is not just a humanitarian catastrophe; a failed Sudan also poses security threats in a volatile region. The country’s location — sandwiched between the Red Sea, Sahel, Middle East, Horn of Africa, and Sub-Sahara — puts it at the center of complex geopolitical dynamics, layers of conflict, climate change effects, porous borders, armed actors, and massive refugee flows. 

On paper, US policy emphasizes support for Sudanese human rights and democratic aspirations. And indeed, the US has used many “tools” in the atrocity response toolbox toward these ends. US officials have called out the horrific atrocities committed in the war, imposed a handful of new sanctions on people and entities connected to both warring sides, and pledged to support accountability, including through the International Criminal Court (to which Washington is not a party).

But these are not enough. What’s missing, and what the new special envoy must now address, is a strategy to end the war and build a sustainable peace. What will it take to support Sudan’s pro-democracy civilian constituencies and prevent a repeat of the failed transition from 2019 to 2021? The US should signal that it is thinking seriously about this through high-level engagement, diplomatic savvy, and a willingness and ability to influence regional relationships. Crucially, the first step must be to halt any assistance to the warring sides that prolongs the fighting and deepens the human suffering that comes with it.   


Jehanne Henry is a human rights lawyer and researcher with a particular focus on Sudan and South Sudan. She is also a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Egypt and the Horn of Africa Program.

Photo by LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

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