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A proxy war between the DRC and Rwanda in eastern DRC is very likely to continue for at least the coming year 

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 06 March 2024.

  • Rwanda-backed M23 rebels have in recent months conducted daily attacks in eastern DRC
  • A peace deal in the east or a sustained conflict between the DRC and Rwanda are both improbable this year

The prospect of a war between the DRC and Rwanda in 2024 is low but rising. There has been a surge in attacks by the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group in eastern DRC in recent months. M23 seems to be mounting a new offensive, intended to isolate the regional capital Goma. This has resulted in major diplomatic and military tensions between the two countries. Recent international efforts to mediate a peace deal in eastern DRC have also failed, sustaining the high risk of limited cross-border skirmishes.

Both military conflict and a peace deal this year between the DRC and the M23 rebel group nonetheless remain respectively unlikely and very unlikely in our assessment. Both sides but particularly Rwanda still seem to view using proxy groups as preferable to using their own armed forces, which implies that they remain reluctant to engage in direct confrontation.

Diplomacy faltering amid widespread rebel violence

M23 rebels have mounted daily attacks on security forces and rural villages in eastern DRC in recent months. There have already been 175 incidents this year, based on data collated by our partner the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The group appears to have recently launched an offensive aimed at capturing the town Sake, and controlling all supply routes to Goma (see map). Capturing Sake would allow the M23 to pressure the authorities into resuming talks and implementing the terms of a peace deal both parties agreed to in 2009.

The surge in rebel violence has contributed to extremely fractious diplomatic relations between the DRC and Rwanda. Congolese President Felix Tshisekdi said in a presidential election campaign speech in December that his counterpart, President Paul Kagame, behaves ‘like Adolf Hitler’. Regional bodies attempted unsuccessfully to facilitate talks over de-escalation during an African Union summit earlier in February. And Tshisekedi has repeatedly refused to engage directly with the M23, which he views as being under the control of Rwanda.

Military tensions between Rwanda and the DRC have worsened too. The Rwandan government said on 18 February it had adjusted its military ‘posture’, including through ‘measures to ensure complete air defence of Rwandan territory’. It said this was in response to the ‘DRC’s dramatic military build-up’. Kinshasa has recently deployed additional forces to fight rebels in the east. The US said at the UN Security Council on 20 February both sides ‘must walk back from the brink of war’.

There have already been sporadic instances of cross-border fighting between the DRC and Rwanda militaries in recent months. On 17 February, Kinshasa accused Rwanda of a mortar attack against the international airport in Goma. Local media reports suggest this attack damaged a military plane stationed there; the Congolese authorities denied this. In January 2023, the Rwandan military shot at a DRC fighter plane on approach to Goma, damaging it. Intense recriminations have typically followed previous incidents but neither government has escalated further.

Scenarios for relations between DRC and Rwanda

We have outlined three scenarios which capture the most plausible ways relations between the DRC and Rwanda could progress this year. For each scenario, we have outlined how we anticipate the current conditions might evolve into that scenario, timeframe projections and indicators with estimates on the approximate probability of each. A shift towards our conflict scenario would probably be sudden, due to the current presence of armed forces on either side of the border. But a peace deal would probably come as a result of a gradual progress towards confidence building.

Scenario A – Proxy war between Rwanda and DRC in eastern DRC (~60-70%) 

Rwanda continues to fund M23 rebels but both sides avoid a full-scale conflict. 

This is the most probable scenario, in our estimation. It is a continuation of the current situation; Rwanda, and to a lesser extent the DRC, continues funding and arming proxy groups in eastern DRC to undermine each other. Rebel attacks continue daily in Rutshuru, Masisi and Nyiragongo territories. This is where M23 has been most active since its resurgence in 2021. There are sporadic cross-border attacks and shelling between Rwanda and the DRC, but neither side seeks to escalate beyond this baseline.

M23 is however unlikely to attempt a direct assault on Goma. They captured the city in 2012 following a similar period of intense armed fighting across rural areas. But they retreated from the city within two weeks following an ultimatum set by neighbouring African countries and backed by Western diplomats. A future attempt to take Goma would probably be similarly costly, especially as international countries would threaten international intervention again. Instead, M23 are likely to restrict the flow of goods to the city.

This scenario would have the following implications: 

  • Daily fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Rutshuru and Masisi territories
  • The M23’s main military objective remains to capture Sake, further isolating Goma
  • Disruption to supply lines to Goma, leading to price hikes and shortages in the city
  • Short-lived and sporadic disruption to flight operations at Goma International Airport
  • Infrequent but violent anti-Western protests in Goma and Kinshasa, targeting Western embassies and assets
  • Kinshasa continues to arm rebel groups fighting the M23 in eastern DRC
  • Continued high interstate conflict risks between the DRC and Rwanda

Indicators that this scenario is likely to continue:

  • Both sides continue to accuse each other of border incursions but refrain from engaging in military retaliation
  • Western governments maintain calls for a mediated solution to end rebel violence in eastern DRC
  • Rwanda continues to deny providing financial and military support to M23 rebels
  • The DRC refuses to openly engage in talks with the M23

Scenario B – Conflict between the DRC and Rwanda (~30-40%) 

Rwanda launches a major offensive into eastern DRC, aiming to capture Goma and sparking daily armed confrontations with Congolese forces. 

This scenario is unlikely this year, in our assessment. Neither side appears willing to commit the financial and military resources necessary for direct conflict. And Rwanda seems to be achieving its goal of undermining Kinshasa’s control of eastern areas using proxy groups. Major advances by the Congolese military and rebel groups is the most plausible way that Rwanda could consider direct military confrontation, in our analysis. M23 losses would threaten Rwanda’s control over mining resources across rural areas.

Rwanda is the more plausible instigator of any military escalation. It has long argued that its actions in eastern DRC are aimed at undermining rebel groups hostile to Kigali, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Rwanda has previously emphasised its right to alleged self-defence and Rwandan troops are also already present across the border. The US and France earlier this month called on Kagame to ‘withdraw its troops from Congolese soil’. The DRC is comparatively overstretched militarily; it has struggled for several decades to contain rebel groups in the east.

A moderate risk of an unplanned escalation appears to be increasing, however. Usually reliable social media accounts reported in February that Rwanda recently deployed Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones to the Kamembe airbase near the DRC border. Militarisation is likely to result in a volatile shared border, sustaining a continued risk of skirmishes escalating into conflict. There have been retaliatory border skirmishes in the past, such as when Kinshasa accused Rwandan forces of attacking its border troops in July 2023.

This scenario would have the following implications: 

  • Rwandan forces capture Goma, disrupting business and humanitarian activities in the city
  • International economic sanctions are imposed on Rwanda
  • Damage to critical infrastructure and disruption to essential services in Goma
  • Closure of border crossings between the two countries
  • M23 maintains control of large parts of Rutshuru and Masisi territories
  • Tens of thousands of refugees cross into Rwandan territory or head south towards Bukavu

Indicators that this scenario is becoming more likely: 

  • Western governments advise their citizens to leave Goma
  • Western governments advise that evacuation options are increasingly limited
  • Rwanda alleges that the DRC is preparing an imminent assault on Rwandan territory
  • Local media reports of Rwanda deploying several thousand troops to the border
  • The DRC implements a curfew in Goma
  • Rwanda indefinitely closes border crossings with the DRC
  • Rwanda evacuates communities from border areas
  • The DRC permanently closes Goma International Airport following repeated mortar attacks there

Scenario C – Peace deal between the DRC and M23 rebels (~10-20%)

The DRC and the M23 rebel group sign a ceasefire agreement backed by Rwanda, resulting in an improvement in bilateral relations. 

This third possible scenario is highly unlikely in 2024. It would require both countries to significantly cut back their support for rebel groups. But the DRC, like Rwanda, has recently provided military supplies for a coalition of local rebel groups (locally called ‘Wazalendo’). Wazalendo lacks a clear command structure and its fighters have previously committed abuses against Tutsi communities, which the M23 (and by extension Rwanda) claim to protect. Significant mistrust between Tshisekedi and M23 rebels means neither appears willing to offer concessions towards a peace deal.

This scenario would have the following implications: 

  • Other rebel groups in eastern DRC continue to mount frequent attacks across rural areas
  • High prices of staple goods would drop towns and cities in the east of DRC
  • Internally displaced individuals return to areas previously controlled by M23 rebels
  • The high risk of a conflict between Rwanda and the DRC significantly drops
  • Western countries ease their travel advice for Goma as the likelihood of armed fighting in the city significantly drops
  • The operating environment in Goma significantly improves

Indicators that this scenario is becoming more likely: 

  • DRC government officials suggest pursuing non-military options to reduce violence in eastern DRC
  • Rwanda suggests that security risks for Tutsi in eastern DRC have improved
  • International bodies announce there has been progress in mediation efforts between the DRC and Rwanda
  • The DRC and the M23 sign a temporary ceasefire and implement confidence-building measures
  • M23 agrees to withdraw from areas it has captured since 2021
  • The DRC authorises humanitarian workers and journalists to enter M23-controlled areas

Image: Burkinabe gendarmes sitting on their vehicle in the city of Ouhigouya in the north of the country on 30 October 2018. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.