The war in Sudan

On the War In Sudan: A Regional Crisis Looms

The current conflict in Sudan is only the latest example of how the country at the crossroads of the Horn of Africa remains highly relevant to international affairs, within both the Middle East and Africa. Since April 15th, Sudan has been locked in a bloody conflict that threatens to tip the Horn of Africa over the brink toward a humanitarian disaster[i]. In July, three months since the outbreak of fighting, the U.N. has warned that if the fighting continues at its current trajectory, the conflict is likely to escalate into a full-scale civil war[ii].

Roughly a decade ago, Sudan was Africa’s largest independent country. The partition of the state into Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the fall of its long-time dictator Omar Al Bashir, in other contexts might have diminished the country’s importance. However, a quick look at the actors vying for influence and business opportunities on the ground prior to the recent conflict, such as Qatar and Turkey, suggests that Sudan has successfully retained this historical importance[iii]. Despite losing access to the oil flows of the south following the independence of South Sudan, Sudan remains the second largest economy in the Horn of Africa.

Sudan’s Strategic History in Geopolitics

Sudanese history suggests that the country can, and often does, balance multiple geopolitical relationships, and pivot quickly.

While many countries around the world can lay claim to being cultural “bridges” between different regions, Sudan’s position means it is important to both Red Sea trade and water flows of the world’s longest river. As a key trade waterway in Africa, this proximity to the Nile primes Khartoum as an essential economic gateway in the region.

Sudanese history suggests that the country can, and often does, balance multiple geopolitical relationships, and pivot quickly. For example, Sudan secretly helped the U.S. and Israel smuggle out Fashoda Jews from Ethiopia during “Operation Moses” in the 1980s[iv], even though Sudan and Israel had no relations until the signing of the Abraham Accords decades later[v].

To take a more recent example, President Bill Clinton, battling an impeachment scandal at home, launched an airstrike on a pharmaceutical factory in 1998 in Khartoum[vi]. At the same time, members of the Sudanese security establishment quickly came to embrace working with both the United States and Israel after 9/11. Or, most famously of all, Sudanese officials offered to turn Al Qaeda terrorist Osama Bin Laden over to the United States in the mid-1990s, after allowing him to take refuge in the country[vii].

Historically, Sudan as a country is blessed with a cultural resiliency and vast natural resources that can allow a post-war comeback. These resources include, gold, oil, livestock, and a vast agriculture potential, due to the fact that it is the only country in which both the Blue and Nile transit as individual rivers. Perhaps of all of these Gum Arabic is the most important commodity – so much so that U.S. sanctions on Sudan made an exemption for this commodity less soft drink manufacturers find themselves without a supply of the vital crop.

How will the conflict affect Europe?

The affairs of the region have a direct impact on immigration demographics across Europe.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the present conflict is unlikely to die down anytime soon, and the international community has a responsibility to do what it can now to ameliorate suffering.  According to media reports RSF forces razed the Sirba and Abu Surouj Camps destroying over 4,000 structures and buildings. This is a level of discussion unknown in any present conflict. Where will the people who once lived there go? Dozens were killed in the attack but, thousands are now displaced. It is one of a number of disturbing attacks in West Darfur.

The influx in African migration toward Europe in the form of refugees[viii] and asylum seekers in recent years, which is likely to grow due to the current conflict, means that the affairs of the region have a direct impact on immigration demographics across Europe. Concerns over the E.U.’s ability to host such a large number of refugees, predicted to reach 1.2 billion in the next 30-years, predominantly from Africa, have subsequently permeated the media and public discourses[ix].

Over a quarter of a million people have already fled from Sudan to neighbouring countries, and many are currently in temporary camps, where the coming rainy season will make life near intolerable. Subsequently, it is in the international community’s own interests to tackle the issue head-on to avoid the humanitarian and refugee crisis that will inevitably follow the conflict if left unchecked.

From an Urban Conflict to a National Crisis

The conflict will be decided in Khartoum. Whoever controls Khartoum, controls Sudan.

Though Sudan has had several civil wars since its independence in 1956, the current conflict is different than those that preceded it[x]. This is because, at present, this is a clash between two Sudanese military factions. On the one side the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and on the other the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

There are two paths to a wider war. One is a further breakdown in the chain of command. The present war of generals is bad enough. A clash of colonels would be worse still. Secondly, would be for Sudanese political factions and civilians to start picking sides. The conflict will be decided in Khartoum. Whoever controls Khartoum, controls Sudan. Though in defeat there is little doubt the RSF could wage an indefinite insurgency across the Darfur region.

With a metropolitan size of 6-7 million, Khartoum is one of the largest cities in Africa and the Arab world.[xi] The scale of potential human suffering here is hard to compare. Khartoum is one of the world’s 75 largest cities and the only one, other than Baghdad, in that group to have seen significant street fighting and aerial bombardment in less the last half century.[xii] Urban warfare experts often talk of how future conflicts will happen in megacities[xiii]. Khartoum may be a tragic test case. The RSF has sought to lay sieges to major military based in Khartoum in a bid to bring the SAF to its knees.

A Conflict Worse Than Ukraine?

Humanitarian concerns should trump geopolitics in our view of the current Sudanese war.

Thus, as pivotal as Sudan is, humanitarian concerns should trump geopolitics in our view of the current Sudanese war. Europe and the global community must act now to avoid a catastrophe and further destabilisation in the Horn of Africa.

The Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, has said the conflict has the potential to be “worse than Ukraine”.[xiv] Her claim was quickly dismissed as a public relations move but, the recent military history of the Horn of Africa suggests how deadly conflicts in the region can be to civilians. The war threatens to further compromise the food security of one of the world’s most venerable regions. Already the United Nations estimates that half of Sudan’s population is in need of immediate humanitarian aid[xv]. It’s also worth noting that this first time the country recorded its reportedly first-ever outbreak of Dengue Fever in Khartoum. [xvi]

The South Sudanese Civil War (2013-2020) offers one such example of how the conflict in the Horn of Africa has a disproportionate impact on civilians. According to one study published in 2018 by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine [xvii],  some 383,000 people had died in the conflict since 2013[xviii]. Of these some 193,000 were civilian deaths due to displacement, disruption of health care, and starvation. Tragically, starvation continues to be weapon of war for some actors in the Horn of Africa. [xix] 

A largely civil war in the Horn of Africa has seen civilian deaths at a level equivalent to a conflict between a NATO-supported Ukraine and one of the world’s greatest arms producers.

To put that in perspective, according to the “Costs of War” Project from Brown University between 2001 and 2022 some 243,000 people were killed in either Afghanistan or Pakistan as part of the conflict there of which the minority were civilians.[xx]

Roughly 500 civilians were killed in Sudan in the first month alone.[xxi] A figure just slightly less than the monthly average in Ukraine. That is to say, a largely civil war in the Horn of Africa has seen civilian deaths at a level equivalent to a conflict between a NATO-supported Ukraine and one of the world’s greatest arms producers. In the months since the outbreak, an estimated 1,136 deaths have been recorded by the Sudanese Health Ministry, with the actual number suspected to be more than double the official figures[xxii]. While civilian deaths peaked and levelled off early in Ukraine, we are likely to see expanded suffering among civilians unless the global community acts.

Food Insecurity: A Lingering Issue

Tragically, Sudan’s largest export since the start of the conflict has been refugees.

Prior to this conflict, a third of Sudan’s population are facing food insecurity and other humanitarian challenges. [xxiii]  A United Nations document released in March claimed as many as 129,000 people face eminent starvation and death in the Horn of Africa. [xxiv] While initially it was forecast that South Sudan and Somalia would be the hardest hit by this emerging crisis – Sudan’s new conflict puts millions more at severe risk.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in forty years.[xxv]  During my trip to the region in February locals in Ethiopia and Djibouti told me that conditions are not as bad as they were in 2011 – a year in which famine claimed by some estimates directly or indirectly claimed a quarter of a million lives. However, the conflict in Sudan and the disruptions to global food supplies due to the war in Ukraine may be complicating factors.

Beyond this, the current conflict ravaging Sudan could prove to have a knock-on effect on conflicts in neighbouring countries across the region. In early July, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the ongoing fighting is likely to destabilise the entire region[xxvi]. Countries such as Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, who have been grappling with their own political struggles, are particularly at risk[xxvii].

Thus, it is imperative for collective action to both build peace and stem the humanitarian crisis and to curtail the spread of conflict across the region. While a number of countries pooled resources to help their nationals flee Sudan – the world must now use those same capabilities to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

As the Sudanese people bravely face this storm, they do so with less coin in their pockets. The country’s exports have been largely halted since the start of the conflict[xxviii]. Tragically, Sudan’s largest export since the start of the conflict has been refugees. Over 800,000 have fled abroad as a result of the conflict and over 1.2 million have already been displaced. [xxix]


Russia’s war has taught European leaders that Kiev is far closer to Brussels than many realised. The same is just as true for a far larger city – Khartoum.

The international community to improve the situation before it gets worse. Thus far, both Saudi Arabia and the United States and Sudan have been involved in a number of abortive ceasefires and attempts at talks[xxx]. However, neither side is ready to accept a compromise, as both are keen to achieve definitive military victory.

The European Union has undertaken some important steps to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis, notably launching an “Air Bridge” to provide much-needed humanitarian aid.[xxxi] Similarly, King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSrelief) based in Saudi Arabia has provided a similar “Air Bridge” to provide humanitarian supplies to Sudan.[xxxii]

The international community must continue to implement initiatives such as these and expand its approach to strengthen the humanitarian response before the conflict in Sudan destabilises its neighbours and ultimately the Southern Mediterranean Basin. Russia’s war has taught European leaders that Kiev is far closer to Brussels than many realised. The same is just as true for a far larger city – Khartoum.

[i] ACLED.com. (2023). Fact Sheet: Conflict Surges in Sudan. Retrieved from: https://acleddata.com/2023/04/28/fact-sheet-conflict-surges-in-sudan/
[ii] CNN.com. (2023). UN warns of ‘full-scale civil war’ in Sudan after weekend airstrike kills dozens. Available at https://edition.cnn.com/2023/07/10/africa/un-sudan-civil-war-intl/index.html
[iii] Burger, J. (2018) Doing Business in Sudan: Investments and Untapped Opportunities. Retrieved from: https://www.ntu.edu.sg/docs/librariesprovider100/abi/2018_may_burger-jh-doing-business-in-sudan-investments-and-untapped-opportunities.pdf?sfvrsn=2f2f5c35_2#:~:text=Industry%3A%20Investment%20opportunities%20in%20industry,refractories%2C%20and%20printing%
[iv] Center for Israel Education (N/A). Operation Moses Begins to Bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Retrieved from: https://israeled.org/operation-moses-begins-to-bring-ethiopian-jews-to-israel/
[v] Leiter, Y. (2023). Sudan: Expanding the Tent of the Abraham Accords. Retrieved from: https://jcpa.org/article/sudan-expanding-the-tent-of-the-abraham-accords/
[vi] Robinson, N. (N/A). Bill Clinton’s Act of Terrorism. Retrieved from: https://jacobin.com/2016/10/bill-clinton-al-shifa-sudan-bombing-khartoum
[vii] The Guardian. (2001). Osama: The Sudan Years. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/17/afghanistan.terrorism3
[viii] BBC. (2023). How the tide of migration is changing European politics. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-66202565
[ix] EUObserver. (2022). EU couldn’t handle a million refugees, how will it handle a billion? Retrieved from: https://euobserver.com/opinion/156540
[x] The Guardian. (2023). The Long History of Civil War in Sudan. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/26/the-long-history-of-civil-war-in-sudan
[xi] Macrotrends.net. (2023). Khartoum, Sudan. Retrieved from: https://www.macrotrends.net/cities/22579/khartoum/population#:~:text=The%20current%20metro%20area%20population,a%202.74%25%20increase%20from%202020.
[xii] CityMayors.com. (2023). Largest Cities in the World. Retrieved from: http://www.citymayors.com/statistics/largest-cities-population-125.html
[xiii] Evans, M. (2015). The Case Against Megacities. Retrieved from: https://press.armywarcollege.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2800&context=parameters
[xiv] Financial times. (2023). Sudan crisis has potential to be ‘worse than Ukraine’ for civilians, says UN official. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/e081bfc4-6ce6-4716-9179-7c4d3f012f50
[xv] Al Jazeera. (2023). Humanitarian aid to Sudan slow despite fighting lull amid truce. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/24/humanitarian-aid-to-sudan-slow-despite-fighting-lull-amid-truce
[xvi] Abdelaziz, K. (2023). Sudan’s exports grind to a halt, deepening humanitarian crisis. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/sudans-exports-grind-halt-deepening-humanitarian-crisis-2023-05-12/
[xvii] Reuters. (2018). Study estimates 190,000 people killed in South Sudan’s civil war. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southsudan-unrest-toll/study-estimates-190000-people-killed-in-south-sudans-civil-war-idUSKCN1M626R
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] The Guardian. (2022). Starvation used as a weapon is a war crime in South Sudan, says report. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/nov/25/starvation-weapon-war-crimes-south-sudan-report
[xx] Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. (2022). Afghanistan. Costs of War Project. Retrieved from https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/civilians/afghan#:~:text=About%20243%2C000%20people%20have%20been,those%20killed%20have%20been%20civilians.
[xxi] CBS News. (2023). As Battle For Sudan Rages On, Civilian Deaths Top 500. Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/as-battle-for-sudan-rages-on-civilian-deaths-top-500/
[xxii] Reuters. (2023). Sudan war’s death toll in Khartoum is double official figures, independent tallies show. Retriever from: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/sudan-war-kills-more-than-twice-many-civilians-khartoum-officially-reported-2023-07-28/
[xxiii] United Nations News. (2022). UN warns of escalating humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/06/1120632
[xxiv] United Nations News. (2023). South Sudan: Urgent funding needed to prevent mass starvation, says UN. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/03/1134442
[xxv] The Guardian. (2023). Human-Driven Climate Crisis Causing Horn of Africa Drought – Study. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/apr/27/human-driven-climate-crisis-fuelling-horn-of-africa-drought-study
[xxvi] NPR.org. (2023). The U.N. secretary-general says Sudan is on the brink of a ‘full-scale civil war’. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2023/07/09/1186689871/sudan-civil-war-darfur-united-nations
[xxvii] The Guardian. (2023). Sudan conflict: why is there fighting and what is at stake in the region? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/27/sudan-conflict-why-is-there-fighting-what-is-at-stake
[xxviii] Reuters. (2023). Sudan’s Exports Grind to a Halt, Deepening Humanitarian Crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/sudans-exports-grind-halt-deepening-humanitarian-crisis-2023-05-12/
[xxix] Al Jazeera. (2023). UN refugee agency warns more than 800,000 may flee Sudan. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/1/un-refugee-agency-warns-more-than-800000-may-flee-sudan
[xxx] CNN. (2023) Saudi Arabia and US announce Sudan 24-hour Ceasefire. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/09/africa/sudan-24-hour-ceasefire-intl/index.html
[xxxi] European Commission. (2023). Sudan: EU launches Humanitarian Air Bridge to provide essential supplies. Retrieved from: https://civil-protection-humanitarian-aid.ec.europa.eu/news-stories/news/sudan-eu-launches-humanitarian-air-bridge-provide-essential-supplies-2023-05-10_en
[xxxii] Saudi Gazette. (2023). Second Saudi Plane Carrying Relief Supplies Arrives in Sudan. Retrieved From: https://www.saudigazette.com.sa/article/632323/SAUDI-ARABIA/Second-Saudi-plane-carrying-relief-supplies-arrives-in-Sudan

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