The fight for El Fasher in Darfur could determine Sudan’s war

The army’s defeat in such a strategically significant clash could leave a powerful militia in full control of the country’s western regions, give it supply lines, and leave millions facing atrocities.

Women and children at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan, in January 2024.
REUTERS/Mohamed Zakaria
Women and children at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan, in January 2024.

The fight for El Fasher in Darfur could determine Sudan’s war

The residents of El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur in Sudan, are living on the brink. Surrounded by fighters from the merciless Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia and under siege since the middle of April, every day is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of anxiety and pending horror. A university town with deep roots as a caravan post, El Fasher is the last place in the west of Sudan that the RSF does not yet control. It Is also symbolic, being the historic capital of the precolonial sultanate of Darfur.

Judging by the siege and the suffering, its status as a final Western army hold-out may not last for long. Even by Sudan’s standards, conditions here are terrible. One of its last functioning hospitals (South Hospital), run by the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), was forced to close due to damage from shelling. Eyewitnesses said RSF fighters looted drugs and equipment, stole an ambulance, and assaulted staff.

Things are getting worse in El Fasher after the RSF blocked food, water, fuel, and medicine. A shaky truce broke down on 10 May. Ever since, RSF fighters have shelled the city, focusing on the east. Explosions are heard daily. MSF said 56 people died over a two-week period in May, with another 500 sustained injuries, as the RSF stepped up its artillery bombardment and the army hit back with airstrikes.

Nathaniel Raymond, director of Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, which uses open-source intelligence to analyse the conflict, said the RSF was now burning civilian housing in the city, roughly an area the size of 100 football pitches so far.

REUTERS/Mohamed Zakaria
A woman and baby at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan, in January 2024.

A powder keg city

The international community is worried, both about the humanitarian suffering and also the strategic ramifications for Sudan’s civil war, should the RSF force the army out of the city. US Special Envoy Tom Perriello says it could be “the bloodiest, most brutal battle of the war." Raymond was starker, warning that it could be “a genocidal bloodbath”.

El Fasher is currently home to around 2.8 million Sudanese, including around 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled here in recent months from other areas of Darfur that are now under RSF control. The RSF is well known for perpetrating atrocities. At least 150 people, including 35 children, were recently massacred by suspected RSF forces in the village of Wad al-Nourah in Gezira state.

The regular army (the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF) has withdrawn from every other area of Darfur except El Fasher. Now, 30,000 of its troops are hemmed in alongside the city’s frightened residents. Airdrops are sustaining them for now.

The battlefield is not simple. Various armed factions from Darfur are also in the city, including former adversaries of the ousted President Omar al-Bashir, whose regime had deployed the RSF against them. Residents say it is these groups that control the city, not the army. There are also old rivalries, complex ethnic alignments, and tribal allegiances to consider. For instance, the Sudan Liberation Army, led by Darfur’s governor Minni Arcua Minnawi, and the Justice and Equality Movement, led by finance minister Gibril Ibrahim, are both linked to the Zaghawa tribe.

RSF fighters, meanwhile, are drawn mainly from the Arab Rizeigat tribe and have been accused of killing non-Arab Sudanese throughout the country. Other Arab factions are fighting alongside the RSF, while Black African ethnic groups, such as the local Zaghawa people, are holed up in the city, taking refuge.

Claims and counterclaims

The RSF, led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), has dominated its army opponents throughout most of Darfur, where he is from, but its victories have come at a terrible cost. There are strong ethnic cleansing claims from El Geneina, a city in West Darfur, where RSF fighters killed at least 10,000 in February.

REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A Sudanese woman at her makeshift shelter in Adre, Chad, shows burn scars on her hands that she said she sustained in April 2023 after RSF militants torched the IDP camp where she was living in El Geneina.

Accusations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide have been levelled by the United Nations, while Human Rights Watch said the militia had specifically targeted the Masalit tribe, detaining men and boys and killing more than 1,000.

Since the RSF set up its blockade, severing army supply lines on the ground, residents have relied on the remnants of last year’s harvest, but supplies are running out, as are the aid provisions stockpiled before the siege. Only one hospital remains operational in the city’s northeast, while a clinic in the south has a single surgeon. Both sides accuse the other of initiating assaults while claiming a commitment to non-escalation. The army said: “Our forces are positioned and under attack... it is logical and expected (that we) respond and repel this assault, in El Fasher and elsewhere.”

The RSF said: “We remain committed to the principle of non-aggression, particularly given El Fasher’s significant civilian population. We shall not instigate an attack unless provoked (by the army), in which case we retain the right to defend ourselves.”

Civilians are nevertheless being killed, particularly as the army’s military camps are close to residential areas. Satellite images show RSF troops deliberately targeting the Abu Shouk camp, home to 100,000 IDPs.

REUTERS/Mohamed Zakaria
A woman and baby at the Zamzam displacement camp, close to El Fasher in North Darfur, Sudan, in January 2024.

Darfur’s neighbours

On 14 May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated a plea for both sides to safeguard civilians, facilitate the opening of relief corridors, and not escalate. The US urged all armed groups in Sudan “to cease immediately their attacks on El Fasher.”

The lasting turmoil in Darfur could destabilise this part of Africa. Neighbours—including Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Libya—are all already being drawn in. Across the borders flow refugees, weapons, and supplies.

These states already have significant security issues, including disputes over resources, power struggles, and tribal conflicts. In the Sahel, France and the US have recently withdrawn troops. Meanwhile, Russia and China are vying for influence. Mali, Niger, and the CAR now turn to Russia for weapons and China for money, in a clear shift away from the West, which disapproves of military coups. The resultant instability makes this fertile ground for extremists, traffickers, and terrorists.

Capturing El Fasher would give the RSF full control of Darfur, which it could then use as a base, letting it expand into neighbouring states in central Sudan, including pivotal regions like Gezira, Sennar, and Khartoum. Full control would mean easier access to Chad, Niger, the CAR, and Libya, making Darfur a kind of fortified zone for the RSF’s military supplies and personnel.

The size of Spain, Darfur has abundant resources, particularly its gold, which the RSF highly values and guards assiduously. Gold exports to Russia and the Gulf are largely financing the RSF’s campaign.

Cautious of casualties?

The RSF confirmed its “commitment to assisting civilians by creating secure routes for their voluntary relocation to safer destinations of their choosing while ensuring their protection”. This allows it to say later that it offered safe passage. Yet the militia is also wary that current and potential partners are starting to distance themselves from it, owing to accusations against RSF fighters, so Hemedti and the group’s leaders are being careful about going full-throttle into a city of 2.8 million.

Despite its record of intercepting aid convoys, the RSF recently requested that the international community launch an aid operation for the people of Darfur. Agencies are now weighing up whether to work with the RSF. The decision requires thought since the distribution of aid by one warring side in a conflict can help that side build a power base and confer upon it a sense of legitimacy.

REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig
Members of the Sudanese Armed Forces gather on the street, almost one year into the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), in Omdurman, Sudan, April 7, 2024.

The cost of defeat

Equally, if SAF troops abandon El Fasher, the army would lose popular support across much of the country, including in areas like Port Sudan, which it still controls. Retreat from a city of such strategic importance could prove pivotal in the civil war. It would demoralise SAF troops in Darfur and beyond, and desertions would follow. Alliances would soon shift, as would the balance of power.

Since the onset of the conflict in Darfur, both the army and the RSF have made errors. In particular, the army drew tribes into the conflict, in effect politicising them—an unwelcome throwback to the Bashir regime. Most tribes initially maintained neutrality. Drawing them in makes ethnicity a defining factor in the war, adding to tensions.

These ethnic tensions could make the fight for El Fasher all the more prone to brutality and atrocity, which in turn could fan the flames in neighbouring countries. No wonder Sudanese physician Yasir Yousif Elamin called the city “a ticking time bomb”.

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