How Regional Power Politics are Fueling Deadly Wars
How Regional Power Politics are Fueling Deadly Wars
For the past year, much of the world’s attention has been focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan—flashpoints that could trigger direct or even nuclear confrontation between the major powers. But the outbreak of fighting in Sudan should also give world leaders pause: it threatens to be the latest in a wave of devastating wars in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia that over the past decade have ushered in a new era of instability and strife. Mostly because of conflicts, more people are displaced (100 million) or in need of humanitarian aid (339 million) than at any point since World War II.
Since fighting erupted in April between Sudan’s armed forces and a paramilitary group notorious for atrocities committed two decades ago in Darfur, at least 700,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, hundreds have been killed, and thousands more injured. Street battles, explosions, and aerial bombardments are devastating the capital, Khartoum, as the two factions vie for control over this northeastern African country of 45 million. In Darfur, tribal militias have entered the fray, raising fears of a wider conflagration. Cease-fires have repeatedly broken down.
The dynamics at play in Sudan’s crisis mirror those of many wars in this recent wave. The roots of these conflicts lie in struggles to shake off decades of dictatorial rule, they disproportionately affect civilians, and they are prone to foreign meddling. The involvement of an ever-larger cast of outside actors—not only major powers but also so-called middle powers such as Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf monarchies—has fueled and prolonged this latest spate of wars, as regional powers compete for influence amid uncertainty about the future of the global order.
In Sudan, a diverse crowd of foreign actors had a hand in the country’s derailed transition to democracy following longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019. Several could now get sucked into the fighting. At a time when most recent wars have dragged on for years without resolution, both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), helmed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, seem to be settling in for a long and bloody slog—one that could reverberate far beyond the country’s borders.
CONFLICTS ON THE RISE
In the years following the end of the Cold War, the global outlook seemed less gloomy. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the number of active wars declined throughout the 1990s. So, too, did the number of people killed in conflicts each year (with the notable exception of 1994, when the Rwandan genocide occurred). Although battle deaths don’t tell the whole story—conflicts often kill more people indirectly, through starvation or preventable disease—overall, a more peaceful future beckoned, buoyed in part by favorable geopolitics. Major powers at the United Nations mostly agreed on sending peacekeepers and envoys to help settle wars in the Balkans, West Africa, and elsewhere. The decade of optimism about liberal democracy and capitalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union was also one of UN activism and a burgeoning peacemaking industry, which likely contributed to the global decline in conflicts.
Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars did not, according to Uppsala’s data, reverse the global dip in armed conflicts. But they did set the stage for what was to come by eroding Washington’s international credibility. The war in Iraq, moreover, upset the regional balance of power between Iran and the Gulf monarchies and paved the way for a resurgent Islamist militancy and, ultimately, the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Since about 2010, the number of conflicts and battle deaths has crept back up. Wars triggered by the 2010–11 Arab uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Yemen and new conflicts in Africa, some shaped by spillover from the Arab conflicts, initially fueled the uptick. These new wars were not originally part of the United States’ post-9/11 struggle against al Qaeda, but as Islamist militants including ISIS profited from the chaos, Western counterterrorism operations overlaid other feuds. More recently, fresh bouts of fighting have broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, and in Myanmar. According to the Uppsala Program’s latest data, contemporary conflicts are now killing more than three times as many people per year around the world as wars did two decades ago.
THE ROAD TO CHAOS
These new conflicts have several things in common. The first is that several stem from thwarted efforts to escape authoritarian rule. In Libya, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, and to some degree Ethiopia, movements began with social unrest and rousing street protests—often triggered by economic hardship or fury at autocratic and inept rule—but ended in chaos. In some cases, regimes fought back; in Syria, for instance, President Bashar al-Assad has clung to power. In others, dictators fell, but institutions they had hollowed out and societies they had divided couldn’t withstand the ensuing contests for power. These struggles follow a recurring pattern: people expect change; the old guard seeks to preserve its privilege; new armed factions want a share. Uncorked ethnic, religious, or racial tensions fuel division. Settlements that divvy up power and resources in an equitable or satisfactory way prove elusive.
Seen in this light, Sudan’s story is all too familiar. After an inspiring countrywide protest movement overthrew Bashir, Sudan has fallen victim to the autocrat’s own legacy. Hemedti is a warlord from Darfur who aided Bashir’s genocidal war against rebels in the region starting in 2003. In 2013, Bashir banded various Janjaweed militias together under Hemedti and renamed them the Rapid Support Forces, empowering the paramilitary’s units as a hedge against an army takeover and using them repeatedly to suppress uprisings in western Sudan. The other belligerent in the country’s conflict, Burhan, is a career military officer who participated with Hemedti in the Darfur campaigns and whose aversion to civilian rule has obstructed Sudan’s democratic transition. The RSF and the SAF united briefly to overthrow Bashir and then kicked out the civilian leaders with whom they had pledged to share power. Eventually, Hemedti and Burhan turned on each other.
Although the violence was ostensibly triggered by Hemedti’s refusal to put his paramilitaries under SAF command, the power struggle runs deeper than that. Ultimately, Sudan’s transition ran aground because neither Burhan and his fellow generals nor Hemedti and his allies would relinquish power and risk losing their grip on the country’s resources or facing justice for earlier atrocities.
Today, more midsize foreign powers are jockeying for influence in unstable political arenas.
A second hallmark of recent conflicts present in Sudan is the disproportionate suffering of civilians. Belligerents of the past decade have shown scant regard for international law. Although the 1990s and early 2000s also saw their share of horror—indeed, the United States’ conduct in its own wars in Iraq and elsewhere likely contributed to the sense of lawlessness that currently reigns on many battlefields—today’s conflicts display a striking degree of impunity. Warring parties of all stripes appear to have thrown the rule book out the window.
Deliberate assaults on civilians—including the aerial destruction of cities; attacks on hospitals, clinics, and schools; the obstruction of aid; and the weaponization of hunger and famine—have become commonplace. In Syria, the Assad regime’s routine use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons was exceptionally barbaric. But in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, and elsewhere, governments and rebels alike have purposefully or recklessly targeted civilians or denied them the medical care, food, water, and shelter they need to survive.
The signs in Sudan are already troubling. The country has suffered atrocities against civilians in the past, but the sustained urban warfare this time around is unprecedented. The sudden escalation of street fighting in Khartoum left residents unprepared. Millions have been caught in the crossfire, trapped in their homes and struggling to get food, water, and other essentials. Hemedti has sent tens of thousands of fighters from the hinterlands into the capital, where they shelter among civilians, commandeer houses, and loot to survive as supply lines break down. As for the army, its shelling in densely populated parts of Khartoum appears indiscriminate. Its refusal to stop fighting shows it cares more for safeguarding its power and privilege than for the war’s human toll.
AVOIDING A PROXY FREE-FOR-ALL
The third and perhaps biggest shift in crises over the past decade has been the changing nature of foreign involvement. Outside meddling in wars is nothing new. But today, more foreign powers, particularly non-Western midsize powers, are jockeying for influence in unstable political arenas. This dynamic has helped fuel the deadliest wars of the past decade.
These entanglements are symptomatic of larger shifts in global power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was left with unmatched power in what is known as the unipolar moment. Too much nostalgia for Western hegemony would be misplaced; the bloody wars in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Afghan and Iraq wars, and even previous wars in Sudan all happened at a time of American predominance (and, in some cases, because of it). Nonetheless, the emergence of a strong and confident West, along with the United States’ growing network of alliances and security guarantees, played an outsize role in structuring global affairs.
The extent to which one assesses the unipolar moment as over depends, to some degree, on the metrics used to measure (the United States remains the only country that can project military power on a global scale, for example). Nonetheless, governments around the world no longer see the United States as a lone hegemon and are recalibrating accordingly. The uncertainty they sense about what comes next is destabilizing. Regional powers are jostling and probing to see how far they can go. Many sense a vacuum of influence and see a need to cultivate proxies in weaker states to protect their interests or stop rivals from advancing their own (as, they would argue, big powers have long done). Their forays into power projection have often been as counterproductive and disruptive as the U.S.-led efforts that preceded them.
If one outside party makes a move in Sudan, others will follow.
The Middle East’s major fault lines—notably, a bitter contest for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies and a competition pitting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey—have proved especially destructive. For years, these rivalries have upended democratic transitions and prolonged conflicts, mostly in the Arab world but also in the Horn of Africa, as competing powers pitched in behind local allies. Some geopolitical struggles have been less zero-sum: Russia and Turkey, for instance, back opposing sides in Libya, Syria, and, to some degree, the South Caucasus but maintain reasonably cordial bilateral ties and have even cooperated to broker cease-fires in Syria. Overall, though, increased outside involvement has complicated efforts to end wars.
In Sudan, as well, a wider array of foreign powers is enmeshed than might have been the case some decades ago. Both Hemedti and Burhan have ties to the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE shoring up Sudan’s security forces after Bashir’s fall. Hemedti’s paramilitary units have fought for Gulf powers in Yemen, an arrangement that has earned Hemedti wealth and power, and he has ties to powerful actors in Chad, the Central African Republic, and across the Sahel. He has also been linked to the Wagner paramilitary group and the Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who may have funneled weapons his way in the early days of the fighting in Khartoum. Burhan and the SAF, on the other hand, are backed by neighboring Egypt.
Western powers have also played a role in the unfolding Sudanese tragedy. Sudanese activists accuse Washington of picking favorites among civilian leaders and leaving others, notably the resistance committees that championed the revolution, out of the negotiations during the transition. Western powers clearly missed opportunities to support civilian authority and waited too long to unlock aid in the wake of the 2019 revolution. The United States was also too slow to lift its anachronistic designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism—a step that might have empowered civilian leaders when they ostensibly held power with the security forces. But whether Western governments could actually have nudged Hemedti and Burhan aside, as some analysts argue, is unclear, given their powerful militaries and the support they enjoyed from outside.
Sudan’s transition to democracy would have always faced an uphill battle given its troubled domestic politics—namely, Bashir’s autocratic legacy and the difficulty of finding a modus vivendi among the remaining political actors. But foreign involvement and the external support granted to both the SAF and the RSF made it harder still.
A BLOODY SLOG
The Sudan crisis, like other recent ones, has many of the ingredients of a protracted war. According to the International Rescue Committee, wars now last on average about twice as long as they did 20 years ago and four times longer than they did during the Cold War. No end is in sight for conflicts in the Sahel, for example, where fighting between Islamists, rival militias, and security forces engulfs ever-larger tracts of the countryside, or in Myanmar, which is still in the throes of a calamity triggered by the 2021 coup. Even in places where bloodshed has declined recently—such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—the lull has not produced any real settlements or ended long-standing humanitarian disasters. The question is whether Sudan will now join this list.
Today’s conflicts often persist in part because they tend to be more complex than in the past, often involving not only more foreign powers but multiple battling parties. Warlords can now more easily tap global criminal networks and markets to sustain their campaigns. In many war zones, jihadis are among the main protagonists, which complicates peacemaking: militants’ demands are hard to accommodate, many leaders refuse to engage in talks with them, and counterterrorism operations hinder diplomacy.
Moving away from military rule in Sudan is essential.
Alarmingly, these dynamics are nearly all potentially at play in Sudan. For now, the struggle is a two-sided confrontation between the SAF and the RSF—but other parties may well get dragged in. Former rebels and other militias, which thus far have mostly sat out the conflict and refused to pick sides, could mobilize to defend themselves. The longer the crisis lasts, the graver the danger that militants with links to al Qaeda or ISIS—which hold sway on several other African battlefields—move in.
The SAF and the RSF seem determined to fight on until one side gains a decisive upper hand, paving the way for talks in which the victor dictates the terms. In neighboring Ethiopia, the war in Tigray ended largely because Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal forces prevailed on the battlefield, and the outgunned Tigrayans were forced to accept a settlement largely on Abiy’s terms. But Sudan is not Ethiopia. After decades of Bashir’s misrule, Burhan’s army is weak and divided. It will struggle to root out the tens of thousands of RSF fighters entrenched in parts of Khartoum, including in the presidential palace, in government buildings, and elsewhere. A decisive triumph for either side seems unlikely—and would certainly come at an enormous civilian cost.
A protracted war in Sudan would be devastating. Even before today’s conflict, about a third of Sudanese—more than 15 million people—relied on emergency aid. Should the humanitarian crisis devolve into a full-blown catastrophe, the instability could well spill over into neighboring countries, which are themselves ill equipped to manage an accelerated exodus of Sudanese fleeing violence or fighters flowing across borders. Moreover, the strategic location of Sudan’s coastline along one of the world’s most vital waterways, with an estimated 10 percent of global trade passing through the Red Sea each year, means the country’s collapse would reverberate even further afield.
WATCHING AND WAITING
There is, perhaps, a sliver of hope in the geopolitics of Sudan’s crisis. The mood in Arab capitals is more measured than it was a few years ago. Riyadh, in particular, has recalibrated, turning the page on its 2017 spat with Qatar and even seeking to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran, including through a deal brokered by China in March. Moreover, the regional powers most involved in Sudan—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt—belong to what has traditionally been the same bloc. The Saudis, whose development plans hinge on stability around the Red Sea, have especially strong motives to halt the fighting. Riyadh’s influence with both Burhan and Hemedti and its close ties to the UAE and Egypt probably give it the best shot of reining in the warring parties, particularly with U.S. support.
Whether Saudi leaders can restrain Egypt and the UAE from providing support to Burhan and Hemedti, respectively, is not clear. There are signs of strain in the usually friendly relations between Riyadh, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi. Nor are Arab capitals the only ones that could weigh in; neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea fret about instability along their borders and may intervene more directly if Egypt does so. So far, all outside powers, seemingly fearful of an all-out war, appear to be acting with some restraint—but if one outside party makes a move, others will follow.
For now, continued fighting seems the likeliest scenario. Both Burhan and Hemedti see the conflict as existential—and SAF officers as a group are bent on wiping out the RSF. Even if the two parties were to pause hostilities, the dispute over control of the RSF’s future that sparked the fighting in the first place would remain. Although today’s crisis makes the prospect of the two generals stepping aside seemingly unlikely, moving away from military rule is essential, all the more so given the public revulsion at the battling forces in the Sudanese capital. Talks convened by the United States and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah in May involve only representatives from the two warring factions; wider dialogue that includes civilians, perhaps led by the African Union, is urgently needed to forge common ground even as cease-fires break down. The array of actors with influence and competing interests makes coordination among Arab, African, and Western actors crucial. Critically, as efforts to stop the fighting continue, more concerted diplomacy, including from the United States, is necessary to avert a proxy free-for-all among outside powers that would stifle all hope of a settlement anytime soon.
No one should underestimate how disastrous a slide toward a protracted, all-out conflict in Sudan would be—primarily for the Sudanese but also more broadly. At a time when other crises are stretching the world’s humanitarian system to the breaking point and many capitals are consumed by the conflict in Ukraine or its knock-on effects, the world can ill afford another catastrophic war.