Less than five years into its halting journey toward democracy, Sudan is spiraling toward protracted civil war. On April 15, fighting erupted between the country’s two main security organs, the army and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which have been jockeying for power ever since they jointly overthrew longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The hostilities have been most intense in the capital city, Khartoum, but violence has broken out in at least eight of Sudan’s 13 states. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, and regional powers are lining up behind the main belligerents, promising to replenish their war stocks and enabling them to continue tearing the country apart.
At the root of the conflict is the fragmentation of Sudan’s security apparatus. Two rival centers of power have emerged since the country’s 2018–19 revolution and the military coup that followed: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. Both men have exploited the instability of the country’s now derailed democratic transition—first sidelining the civilian transitional government in October 2021 and then resisting international pressure to resolve their differences and hand power to a new civilian administration last month.
Now their rivalry has pitched the country into chaos and is threatening to reignite long-simmering conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere that could spread to Sudan’s neighbors. But Sudan doesn’t have to go the way of Libya or Syria. The best chance of extinguishing the conflict lies in a unified front: if Western and regional powers come together with Sudanese civil society groups to push for a permanent cease-fire and eventually a civilian-led transition to democracy, they may still be able to halt Sudan’s slide into civil war. But time is of the essence. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the odds of escalation—and the slimmer the chance of putting the country back on a peaceful path to democratization.
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