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Fighting between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is likely to persist in Khartoum into next month. This follows almost two weeks of active fighting between the two after a coup attempt on 15 April and is despite a tentative – but ill-adhered to – ceasefire in recent days.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 28 April 2023.

  • Fighting in Khartoum will probably persist during much of May at least
  • In the likely event of heavy RSF losses in Khartoum, the group will probably retreat to the south-west of the country
  • There is a likely chance of a prolonged civil war, largely contained to the south-west, for the rest of the year, at least it is likely if the RSF is able to maintain support from foreign backers to sustain fighting against the army

The RSF is so far proving resilient in the capital despite some losses and aerial inferiority but overall the Sudanese army appears to have the upper hand. We anticipate that the army will eventually push back the RSF to its stronghold in southwestern Darfur state, where fighting will probably continue beyond the near term.

RSF expulsion from Khartoum is likely

We assess that the Sudanese army will eventually expel the RSF from the capital in the coming weeks. The RSF has suffered some losses in Khartoum but we understand from social media footage that it still has a presence in Khartoum North and Omdurman. As such the Sudanese army will probably continue to use heavy and indiscriminate shelling and it is likely to take them several weeks to regain control of the city.

In the likely event that the RSF suffer heavy defeats in Khartoum and Omdurman in the coming weeks, we anticipate that the group will retreat to Darfur state. This would be to protect their stronghold, but also to gain an advantage over the Sudanese army with guerilla and asymmetric tactics in rural areas. The RSF has tens of thousands of fighters countrywide, mostly in the south-west. And the group has maintained its positions there with reports of Chadian fighters being recruited from across the border, seemingly in preparation for a prolonged conflict in Darfur.

Fighting in Darfur state and west more broadly will probably last beyond the near term. And there is a high risk of the RSF provoking violence against and between communities. It would also probably mean more indiscriminate air strikes by the Sudanese army in rural areas with a high potential for civilian casualties. Both the RSF and the Sudanese army have poor relations with many local ethnic and tribal groups after a civil war there in the 2000s. A prolonged conflict in this region would mean a refugee crisis in southern Sudan into Chad, South Sudan and CAR would be very likely.

External influence over conflict dynamics

Material support for the RSF from allied actors is the key factor that would shift the direction of the conflict. On current indications material and manpower supplied to the group will probably be sufficient to sustain a localised conflict but fall well short of that needed to allow the RSF to overthrow the army. The supply of weapons and fighters to the RSF is most likely to come from Libya’s General Haftar and his Wagner Group-linked Libyan National Army (LNA).

And so far there have been several unverified reports since the start of fighting in Sudan of weapons (including MANPADS) being delivered to the RSF. However, the Sudanese army has said in social media posts in the past week that it has been targeting suspected convoys carrying weapons to the RSF, particularly those heading to Khartoum. So we assess that these would most likely be used in the southwest to protect their positions there rather than to make gains in the capital.

We also doubt that foreign mediation would provide a lasting solution in the long term unless either Abdel Fatah Al-Burhan (head of the Sudanese army) or Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Hemedti), who commands the RSF, are removed from their positions. But both sides appear to have maintained good ties with regional players since the start of the conflict – namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. And attempts for a ceasefire, including a US-led effort on 24 April, are likely to be short-lived with both sides appearing intent on continuing fighting.

Outlook for fighting beyond the near term

There is currently a high chance of a prolonged civil conflict in Sudan beyond the medium term. The battleground for such fighting would most likely be Darfur and Kordofan state rather in Khartoum. The RSF appears highly capable of sustaining fighting on the ground there for several months at least. As a sign of this, we have seen credible press and social media reports of RSF reinforcements in these areas and intense clashes there in the last few days.

The prospect of a truce, mediated by regional partners and the US, is diminishing. This is because most foreign nationals and Sudan’s elite have reportedly evacuated or fled the country and so the immediate urgency to limit fighting by both sides is not as urgent as it has been. And even with mediation, we doubt international partners are able to resolve the conflict; it has already evolved from a personal power dispute between Burhan and Hemedti into an existential fight.

Image: Smoke billows over residential buildings in Khartoum on 1 May 2023 as deadly clashes between rival generals’ forces have entered their third week. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.