Focus of Sudan war shifts to its troubled west with fighting raging around two key cities

The outcome of fighting for El Fasher and El Obeid could be turning point for Sudan, say analysts

A girl leads a donkey as it pulls a metal barrel to a recently dug well for groundwater in Sudan's eastern state of Gedaref. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Sudan's civil war has shifted focus from the capital Khartoum to the vast nation's western regions, with heavy fighting between the army and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces reported in recent days in the regions of Darfur and Kordofan.

A senior UN official said over the weekend that intense fighting in the Darfur city of El Fasher involved "heavy weaponry." Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for Sudan, said that wounded civilians were being taken to hospital while others were trying to flee.

"I am gravely concerned by the eruption of clashes in (El Fasher) despite repeated calls to parties to the conflict to refrain from attacking the city," she said.

"I am equally disturbed by reports of the use of heavy weaponry and attacks in highly populated areas in the city centre and the outskirts of (El Fasher), resulting in multiple casualties."

The RSF claims to enjoy overwhelming support in western Sudan, particularly Darfur, whose residents have long complained of being marginalised by an Arabised and Muslim political and economic elite centred in the capital and the nation’s north.

Grievances centre on a notorious Darfur-based militia called the Janjaweed, now the RSF, which has captured four of Darfur’s five state capitals since the war began 13 months ago, leaving the army in control of El Fasher, capital of the state of Northern Darfur and the site of fierce fighting in recent days.

The war in Sudan is essentially a fight between two generals – army chief Gen Abdul Fattah Al Burhan and RSF commander and one-time ally Gen Mohamed Dagalo – for control of the vast resource-rich north-east African state.

It broke out in April 2023, following weeks of rising tension between the two men over details of Sudan’s democratic transition, especially the role of the military and associated paramilitaries in a civilian-led Sudan.

The war has forced more than eight million people to flee their homes – the world’s largest number of displaced – killed tens of thousands and destroyed much of its infrastructure. Both sides stand accused by the UN and others of war crimes, with the RSF singled out for ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

The war has also created a humanitarian crisis, with the Afro-Arab nation now on the brink of famine.

In El Fasher, the army’s local garrison has been bolstered by thousands of volunteers and allied rebels. The RSF has for weeks laid siege to the city but its fighters have been unable to break inside it.

In the neighbouring Kordofan region, intense fighting between the army and the RSF has raged since last week around the army-controlled city of El Obeid amid unconfirmed reports of minor incursions by the paramilitary.

Videos posted online showed dozens of bodies from both sides littering the streets of the suburbs of El Obeid, which has traditionally hosted some of the army’s largest training facilities and is home to a key airbase.

El Obeid has seen clashes between the army and the RSF from the early days of the war, with the RSF trying unsuccessfully to capture a strategic road linking the city to the capital Khartoum to the east.

The loss of either El Fasher or El Obeid to the RSF could go a long way in deciding the outcome of the war and could seal the fate of the nation’s chronically restive and impoverished west.

El Fasher is the nation’s largest city after Khartoum, with a peacetime population of 1.2 million that has swelled by well over a million since the war began as displaced Darfurians, mostly of African heritage, found refuge there from what the UN and others have labelled as ethnically motivated attacks by the RSF and its allied Arab militias.

The city has for decades served as a hub for UN agencies delivering humanitarian aid across Darfur, where a civil war in the 2000s displaced about 2.5 million people and killed 300,000, according to UN figures.

“El Fasher falling will be a grand military and political turning point in Sudan and would likely lead to the declaration of a government there that rivals the one led by the army in Port Sudan” on the Red Sea, said Osman Mirghani, a prominent Sudanese analyst based in Cairo.

“If this happens, the secession scenario will rear its head. And if Darfur breaks away from Sudan, that will have ramifications for several neighbouring nations, especially Chad, because of all the border-transcending tribal links that exist,” he said.

Another Sudanese analyst, retired army Brig-Gen Mohanad Salah Hassan, noted the RSF’s inroads in the suburbs of El Fasher but assessed that capturing the city from the army and its allies would not be easy.

“That local rebel groups have joined the army made a dramatic difference to the balance of power in favour of the army in this battle," he said. “The army and its allies have staged at least 20 attacks against RSF positions outside the city in the last few days alone.”

The military has long relied on artillery and air strikes - increasingly by Iranian-made drones - to compensate for its manpower shortage. However, said Brig-Gen Hassan, volunteers and former rebels have provided the army with the infantry muscle it lacked.

The fighting raging in western Sudan contrasts with a relative quiet that has prevailed for weeks in the capital after intense fighting earlier this year that saw the army making significant gains in Omdurman, a city that's part of the capital's greater area across the Blue Nile from Khartoum.

However, fighting is continuing in the Al Jazeera region south of Khartoum, where the RSF captured the provincial capital of Wad Medani in December in a surprise attack that robbed the army of an area known as Sudan’s breadbasket.

The army has been making slow but steady progress there, fighting its way towards the city from three directions – east, south and west – with the aim or recapturing Wad Medani.

“The army and its allies are moving slowly, applying attrition tactics,” said Mr Osman, the Sudanese analyst.

With the fighting continuing on a multitude of fronts, the chances of a negotiated end to the war appear to have considerably diminished. Attempts by Saudi Arabia and the US to broker an enduring ceasefire failed to silence the guns in the war’s early days.

Renewed calls by Washington and Riyadh on the warring pair to return to the negotiating table have so far produced no results, with Gen Al Burhan categorically rejecting the offer.

“Our fight against the rebel terrorist Rapid Support militia will not stop except by liberating this country from these criminal rebels,” Gen Al Burhan said last week.

“We will not stop fighting until we defeat these criminals who destroyed this honourable country and who deprived citizens of their property, committed the most horrific violations and raped our free daughters in Khartoum, Al Geneina (in western Darfur) and Al Jazeera.”

Updated: May 12, 2024, 3:51 PM