Hazy geopolitics means Sudan conflict rages unseen
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Hazy geopolitics means Sudan conflict rages unseen

This photo dated Aug 4, 2023, shows people fleeing the violence in West Darfur, crossing the border into Adre, Chad.  REUTERS
This photo dated Aug 4, 2023, shows people fleeing the violence in West Darfur, crossing the border into Adre, Chad.  REUTERS

Video released by Sudan's rebel Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on Wednesday shows the last few vehicles of aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres evacuating al-Fashir, the largest city in North Darfur, watched by the gunmen who have besieged the city and appear intent to overrun it altogether.

The aid group had run one of the last working hospitals in al-Fashir and was among the last independent sources reporting events on the ground.

For weeks, Western diplomats, aid workers and the United Nations have warned of a potential human catastrophe in al-Fashir, which they say is currently home to 800,000 civilians, many of whom have already fled ethnic cleansing across the rest of the Darfur region.

In a statement on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron accused both the RSF and Sudanese government of indiscriminate shelling and urged both to de-escalate, following similar and repeated calls from the United States and other Western powers.

The violence, however, shows no sign of letting up. The European Union has warned since November of "another genocide" after the conflict there between 2003-2008 killed 300,000 and displaced more than two million.

Most RSF fighters and commanders come from Sudan's former Arab Janjaweed militia who terrorised Darfur in the 2000s -- now apparently reinforced with money and weaponry from Russia, as well as reportedly the Gulf.

According to Human Rights Watch, the last time the RSF took a major urban centre, El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, from April to November last year, it killed thousands at a minimum and left hundreds of thousands as refugees. Human Rights Watch called on both the UN and African Union to ensure an arms embargo, but that seems very unlikely.

Like conflicts raging in Myanmar and in Ethiopia's Tigray region from 2020-2022, the death toll in the latest round of fighting in Sudan may well outstrip that of Ukraine or Gaza. But where daily developments in those two wars still make the headlines, wars in some of the world's poorest regions fail to attract the same coverage.

In reality, however, they are just as much a consequence of a new era of geopolitical competition and confrontation, in which both major and smaller powers -- in particular China, Russia and increasingly the Gulf and other states -- deliver weaponry and diplomatic support that help fuel the mounting bloodshed.

Western powers meanwhile increasingly appear to feel too overstretched to offer much more than platitudes, commentary and occasional financial sanctions.

The geopolitics of these new wars is both complex and often deliberately opaque. When it rose up last April, the RSF was theoretically a paramilitary group backing the government in Khartoum.

But it was also rumoured to be supported by Russia's Wagner mercenaries as a route to seizing Sudan's gold and other natural resources.

In the days leading up to the RSF uprising, commercially available aircraft monitoring data showed military transport planes flying from bases in Libya and Syria linked to the Wagner Group to RSF strongholds in Sudan.

The RSF itself last year denied ties to Wagner -- but its military chief, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known by his nickname "Hemedti", has been repeatedly linked to the group and visited Moscow in 2022.

What has happened since remains unclear. Last year saw a highly public face-off between the Wagner Group and its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Kremlin, culminating in an attempted coup in June followed soon after by the death of Prigozhin and others in a plane crash.

According to UK think tank the Royal United Services Institute, shortly after the Wagner mutiny, its operations in Africa were brought under the control of Russian military intelligence agency the GRU, which offered its "regime protection" services to friendly governments including those in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso which had seized power in recent Wagner-backed military coups.

Within Sudan, however, Russian aid was reported to have continued to flow to the RSF -- at least initially. Throughout last year, there were sporadic reports of Sudan's government in turn getting support from Ukrainian special forces – as well as a video in the Kyiv Post this February apparently showing Ukrainian intelligence officers interviewing a captured Wagner fighter.

Judging by its actions in Darfur, the RSF remains well-equipped – with the government in Khartoum reportedly telling a UN Security Council meeting late last month the rebels were also being armed by the United Arab Emirates. That would complicate matters -- the UAE remains a significant Western partner, albeit one that has publicly courted Moscow and Beijing.

Meetings between Russians and Sudanese

That UN meeting had been called at the request of Britain, and the fact UK officials did not object to the Sudanese comments provoked an angry response from the UAE.

According to former British minister Nadhim Zahawi, writing in the Times, that included cancelling all ministerial meetings with the UK, "expressing their anger that we are standing by while the Sudanese defame them".

Where the truth on that might sit is again difficult to determine. By early this month, however, it appeared increasingly apparent that the Kremlin had reopened relations with the government in Khartoum, raising the prospect that Russia -- or perhaps different elements within it -- might have backed either both or different sides within Sudan.

In recent months, Russian media have announced several meetings between Sudanese officials and their Russian counterparts, culminating last month with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov meeting Sudanese army commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Port Sudan, the main base for Sudan's military since the RSF took parts of the capital Khartoum early in the war.

Before the current conflict, Russian officials had talked of Port Sudan as a potential Kremlin military base. According to trade data, last month's meeting came shortly after Russia began diesel fuel supplies to Sudan, with other reports of weapons supplies beginning to flow to Khartoum.

Unless Saudi-sponsored peace talks can deliver a breakthrough soon, the Khartoum government may well need those weapons. Each week brings reports of fighting across the whole country.

Within North Darfur itself, meanwhile, the scale of violence is sometimes apparent only from satellite footage that shows burnt settlements across much of the region – the result of the RSF attacks that drove so many civilians to seek shelter in al-Fashir.

Darfur's bloodshed earlier this century prompted worldwide campaigns led by Hollywood celebrities, including George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, grabbing attention and ultimately prompting the deployment of a joint African Union and UN peacekeeping mission that somewhat stemmed the violence. None of that, however, looks like happening now.

The fact that those waging war in Sudan are able to do so with impunity is worrying in itself. But it also speaks to a world not just becoming more complex and confrontational, but one in which a major global tragedy barely makes it to the inside pages of the largest newspapers. Reuters

Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

Peter Apps

Reuters global affairs columnist

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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