The war in Sudan.. Who supports Hemedti and who supports Al-Burhan?

As a devastating conflict erupted in Sudan last year, the country’s two warring rivals sought support from abroad in an attempt by each side to resolve the conflict in its favour.

This support threatens to expand and prolong the power struggle between the army forces led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces led by Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

In 2021, the two former allies ousted the civilians with whom they had been sharing power since the fall of former President Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019, but they later disagreed over the issue of integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the army.

The influence of external players on the course of events in Sudan has been evident since the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir during a popular uprising five years ago.

Al-Burhan’s most important supporter is Egypt, which shares a border with Sudan, through which more than 500,000 people have crossed since the start of the fighting.

In both countries, the military played a dominant role in the decades following independence and intervened in the wake of popular uprisings. In Egypt, the former army commander, current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, led the overthrow of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi a decade ago. In Sudan, Al-Burhan led a military coup in 2021.

The Wall Street Journal reported last October that “Egypt also provided the Sudanese army with drones and trained the forces on how to use them.”

Since the war broke out, Egypt has received Al-Burhan and his representatives on visits and launched a peace process that included Sudan’s neighbors and took place in parallel with mediation efforts led by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Intergovernmental Authority for the Development of East African Countries (IGAD).

Egypt joined calls for an effective ceasefire, while saying that it considered the conflict an internal matter for Sudan.

Another country neighboring areas of Sudan controlled by the military, whose support Al-Burhan sought in the war, is Eritrea, which was among his first stops when he resumed his foreign travels last year.

Sources say that since late 2023, the army has also relied on material support from Iran, including Iranian-made drones that have helped it make significant gains in Omdurman, one of three cities on the banks of the Nile that make up the capital, Khartoum.

“Sudan did not obtain any weapons from Iran,” Sudanese Foreign Minister-designate Ali al-Sadiq, an ally of the army who visited Iran this year as diplomatic relations that were severed in 2016 were restored, told Reuters.

Last January, Bloomberg reported, citing three Western officials, that the Sudanese army had received shipments of the “Muhajir 6” aircraft, which is a single-engine drone, manufactured in Iran by Al-Quds Aerospace Industries, and carrying precision-guided munitions.

According to several reports by Ukrainian and international media, Ukrainian special forces also intervened alongside the army to confront alleged support provided by the Russian special military group Wagner to the Rapid Support Forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held an unplanned meeting with Al-Burhan in Ireland last September to discuss “illegal armed groups funded by Russia.”

Last November, some Darfuri armed movements announced their official involvement in the fighting alongside the Sudanese army, facing the Rapid Support Forces, which also find support from other armed formations that have entered the conflict.

The governor of the Darfur region, head of the Sudan Liberation Movement, Minni Arko Minawi, announced that his forces would fight alongside the Sudanese army “to reclaim the country and the homes of citizens from the Rapid Support Forces.”

Who supports Hemedti?

Analysts, diplomats and Sudanese sources say that for several years the UAE has been Hemedti’s most important ally.

The UAE is strongly seeking to defeat the influence of Islamists in the region, as it has intervened in conflicts in countries including Libya and Yemen. Hemedti presented himself as a bulwark against the factions with Islamic tendencies and tendencies that had established themselves in the army and other institutions during the Bashir era.

UN experts say that reports that the UAE sent weapons to the Rapid Support Forces through eastern Chad are “credible” and that sources in Chad and Darfur reported that cargo planes were transporting weapons and ammunition several times a week.

The UAE denied providing any of these shipments and said that its role in Sudan focuses on humanitarian support and calls to stop the escalation.

Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London, said the UAE provided Hemedti, who made a fortune from gold trading, a platform to transfer and channel his financial resources as well as support in terms of public relations for the Rapid Support Forces.

The Wall Street Journal reported last August that “the UAE is sending weapons to the Rapid Support Forces.”

In a report published in January, UN experts said that the Rapid Support Forces, which has strengthened its tribal alliances extending across Sudan’s western border, also brought weapons from Libya and the Central African Republic and fuel from South Sudan.

Before the outbreak of war, Hemedti also strengthened his relations with Russia. Western diplomats in Khartoum said in 2022 that the Russian Wagner Group was involved in illegal gold mining in Sudan and was spreading disinformation. Hemedti said that he advised Sudan to sever relations with Wagner after the United States imposed sanctions on it. Wagner said last year that it was no longer working in Sudan.

The Sudanese army also accuses the Rapid Support Forces of seeking the help of militants from foreign countries, such as Niger, Chad, and others. This is a conversation that has been frequently reported by the army commander, Al-Burhan, and his assistant, Lieutenant General, Yasser Al-Atta.

What other forces are at play?

Saudi Arabia has close relations with Al-Burhan and Hemedti, both of whom have sent troops to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Anna Jacobs, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that with its increasing diplomatic ambitions across the Middle East, Riyadh has strengthened its position in mediation efforts in the Sudan crisis while also looking to protect its economic ambitions in the Red Sea region.

She added, “Saudi Arabia is focusing on the security of the Red Sea, which is an integral part of the Kingdom’s 2030 vision and investments along the Red Sea such as (the) NEOM project,” referring to the modern city supported by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Last year, the Kingdom and the United States led unsuccessful efforts to reach a ceasefire in Sudan.

Ethiopia and Kenya, the two major powers in East Africa, also have some influence due to their prominent roles in regional diplomacy and past mediation in Sudan.

South Sudan has hosted peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in the past few years, and is considered among the countries that could host talks on the current crisis.

Israel, which had hoped to move forward with normalizing relations with Sudan, also offered to host the talks.

What is the West’s position?

Before the outbreak of war, Western powers supported a transition leading to elections after the army shared power with civilians following the ouster of Bashir, and provided direct financial support that was frozen when Burhan and Hemedti staged a coup in 2021.

After the coup, Western powers led by the United States supported a new transitional agreement, but this agreement instead contributed to the outbreak of fighting by creating a confrontation over the future structure of the army.

Critics say the United States has been too lenient with military leaders.

“Their strategy was to achieve stability and their fundamental misconception was that they would gain stability by supporting the strong, decisive, cohesive players who happened to be in power,” said Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudan and executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.

The fighting since April 15, 2023 has killed more than 13,000 people. It resulted in the displacement of about eight million others, including more than 1.5 million who sought refuge in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

The conflict has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, as about 25 million people, equivalent to more than half of the population, need aid, including about 18 million who face severe food insecurity, according to United Nations data.

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