Sudan's army aims to build on Khartoum victories but risks overextending

Analysts warn that distances and troop shortages could bog down the military in battles of attrition against the rival RSF paramilitary

Sudanese supporters of the armed popular resistance, which backs the army, in Gedaref, south-eastern Sudan. AFP
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Sudan’s army has declared it intends to build on recent battlefield successes in Khartoum by pushing on against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, its rival for control of the country, but experts warn that the army risks overextension in the vast regions west and south of the capital.

“The army has nothing to lose,” said Gen Yasser Al Atta, deputy chief of the armed forces, over the weekend after it secured a string of victories in Omdurman, part of the greater Khartoum area.

Gen Al Atta said the army was determined to drive the RSF out of Al Jazeera, the country's breadbasket region south of the capital that was captured by the paramilitary in December.

The army plans to later march on to the western city of Al Obeid to set up a base as a springboard for retaking cities in Darfur captured by the RSF last year, he said.

“Before that, our forces will attack Al Jazeera from a multitude of directions,” he vowed.

His comments come after the leader of the army, Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, rejected a UN Security Council resolution adopted earlier this month that calls for a ceasefire in Sudan during Ramadan, which began on March 11.

Gen Al Burhan has meanwhile been trying to gain an edge in the war, going on the offensive in the capital and procuring arms from regional allies.

The sharp rise in the army's fortunes is a break from its generally poor performance in the war, which broke out in April last year.

In the opening stages of the conflict, the army lost most of the Sudanese capital to the RSF, including the city’s only international airport, the presidential palace, most of the armed forces’ sprawling headquarters and several army bases and military industrial complexes.

Up against the RSF, an agile and well-armed force of an estimated 100,000 combat-seasoned men, the army has relied heavily on air strikes, heavy artillery and, more recently, drones to attack the paramilitaries or repel their attempts to seize more sites in the capital and elsewhere in the vast Afro-Arab nation.

The army's bombardment of RSF positions in cities has earned it accusations of war crimes.

The RSF's capture of Wad Medani, Al Jazeerah’s biggest city, was a particularly heavy blow to the army because of its strategic location and the fact that the local garrison withdrew without a fight in circumstances yet to be explained by investigators.

However, troops and allied volunteers have made significant gains in recent days in Omdurman, capturing the national radio and television headquarters and driving out RSF fighters from nearby neighbourhoods.

The army, buoyed by the recent delivery of Iranian-made attack drones, is also engaged in intermittent fighting to defend a string of Nile-side cities south of Wad Medani that the RSF is trying to capture to consolidate its control of the region.

War of attrition

However, given the distances involved and a shortage of troops, the army could get bogged down in costly battles of attrition that are near-impossible to win, analysts warned.

“The army is trying to regain the trust and confidence of the population through its operations in Omdurman,” said Sami Saeed, a senior Sudan analyst at an inter-governmental, Europe-based think tank. “But the army remains largely incapable of launching large-scale operations in open territory.

“The gains made in Omdurman are limited in their scope and were carried out over weeks, not days. The army is now thinking of bigger operations elsewhere in the country but I think it’s better off making more gains in the capital to generate more popular support.”

Residents of Darfur, the RSF’s birthplace and power base, this week reported the movement of a large number of the paramilitary’s men and fighting vehicles towards Khartoum and Al Jazeera, apparently to bolster positions there against army attacks.

“Darfur is now left with a small number of RSF fighters,” said Hamdan Bareemah, an activist from west Darfur, near the border with Chad. “It’s a risk they seem to be comfortable taking.”

For its part, the army has been stepping up the recruitment of fighting-age male volunteers.

Ceremonies marking the completion of training by thousands of volunteers indicate that the recruitment drive has been accelerated to fulfil the army’s manpower needs as it prepares to regain more territory from the RSF.

However, many of the recruits are widely suspected to be Islamists who once served in militias associated with the 29-year regime of dictator Omar Al Bashir, toppled in 2019 by his generals amid a popular uprising.

That, in turn, has given a significant boost to the RSF’s long-standing claims that it was essentially fighting an army led by Al Bashir loyalists and supported by remnants of his regime’s hated militias.

Humanitarian cost

The war between the army and the RSF, led by Gen Mohamed Dagalo, broke out in April last year after weeks of tension over the details of Sudan’s democratic transition, particularly the future role of the military and associated paramilitaries.

About eight million people have been displaced by the war, which has destroyed the nation’s infrastructure and deepened ethnic and regional rifts. There are no figures for the killed and injured, but they are believed to be in the tens of thousands.

The UN says 18 million of Sudan's 48 million people are acutely food insecure, five million of whom have reached the last level before famine. The UN World Food Programme says less than 5 per cent of Sudanese can afford a full meal.

Much of the blame for abuses against civilians is directed at the RSF, which has been accused of committing large-scale offences against residents in Khartoum, including commandeering homes, looting, arbitrary arrests, torture and sexual attacks.

It is now facing similar accusations in Al Jazeera where, according to official figures, the population of four million had swelled by two million who took refuge there from Khartoum.

Since the RSF arrived there, 2.5 million left the entire region and another one million fled Wad Medani to find refuge elsewhere in Al Jazeera.

“The pain is excruciating and the fleeing was fraught with danger,” said Muqdad Ibrahim, a Wad Medani native who fled to Al Manaqel, another city in Al Jazeerah.

“Most of us lost our work and security. Our choice was either to stay put and die a slow death or flee into a world of uncertainty,” he said.

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Al Shafied Ahmed reported from Kampala, Uganda.

Updated: March 21, 2024, 6:22 AM