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Sudan’s armed rivals in battle for international legitimacy amid US sanctions

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Recent US sanctions have plunged Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into a deep legitimacy crisis, imperiling their pursuit of political respectability. This crisis has prompted the Sudanese army to reassess its own prospects. Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo, brother of RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and his deputy, saw his assets frozen in the United States, while Abdul Rahman Juma, an RSF commander in West Darfur, faced a visa ban.

These sanctions, imposed on September 6, have dealt a significant blow to the RSF’s efforts to gain political legitimacy, particularly after both individuals were targeted due to their involvement in human rights abuses, particularly atrocities in Sudan’s West Darfur province. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited Juma for ordering the June 15 assassination of West Darfur’s Governor Khamis Abdallah Abakar.

“The sanctions really are a blow to the personal brand of the Dagalo family,” said Kholood Kair, a Sudanese expert and founding director of Confluence Advisory.

The Importance of Legitimacy In 2019, the RSF initiated an extensive and costly campaign to rehabilitate its image, shifting from a violent militia responsible for numerous atrocities in the Darfur region to a force ostensibly defending calls for democracy. This rebranding effort was launched in the wake of a popular uprising that had ousted Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir. The RSF sought to align itself with the wave of public discourse, attempting to co-opt human rights activists through generous financial incentives and enlisting PR firms to transform its image.

The RSF intensified its efforts to improve its reputation after a civil war erupted between the paramilitary force and the Sudanese army on April 15. However, the US sanctions now threaten to undermine these efforts and the significant resources invested in this image makeover.

“Abdelrahim and Hemedti have been very conscious about being sanctioned because they know that is the kind of thing that follows you around for the rest of your life,” noted Jonas Horner, an independent expert on Sudan. “They’ve always known that legitimacy is very important if they want to be relevant politically.”

Beyond Rehabilitation? In West Darfur, the RSF and allied Arab militias have faced allegations of summary executions, sexual violence, and mass burials of corpses, according to human rights groups, witnesses, and the United Nations. However, Abdelrahim Dagalo denied these reports during an interview with Sky News Arabia on September 7, claiming that the violence in West Darfur resulted from a “tribal war” fueled by the army.

Mohamad Sharif, a human rights lawyer who fled el-Geneina to Chad in May, contradicted this narrative, stating that the Arab militias were being armed by the RSF, not the army. Sharif insisted that all witnesses from West Darfur attribute the crimes to the RSF.

He pointed to the assassination of Governor Abakar, who was killed after reporting a genocide in West Darfur during an interview with Saudi channel Al Hadath. Sharif also mentioned the targeted violations against human rights monitors and dissidents, all allegedly ordered by the RSF.

Equal Treatment? Analysts suggest that the army has attempted to frame the conflict as a war between the state and a rebel militia, rather than a battle between two factions within the security forces. While US sanctions against the RSF may align with the army’s narrative, it does not necessarily imply that Western diplomats have decided to grant more legitimacy to the army than to the RSF.

One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed the view that both sides should be disqualified from governing Sudan, advocating for a civilian entity to assume power after the conflict. However, they also expressed concerns that US realpolitik might lead to the recognition of the army as the government of Sudan, particularly to avoid RSF control or the resurgence of al-Bashir-era figures associated with the army.

Balancing Act Washington faces two main concerns: preventing the RSF from defeating the army and preventing the resurgence of al-Bashir-era figures who support the army. “US officials are trying to balance both of these concerns,” noted Kholood Khair of Confluence Advisory. They are apprehensive about the RSF, a militia, establishing a government or parallel government in Sudan, as well as the prospect of al-Bashir-era Islamists attracting Sahelian jihadists to the conflict.

Emboldening the Army Sanctions against the RSF could potentially make the Sudanese army less receptive to peace talks. According to Alan Boswell, an expert on the Horn of Africa for the International Crisis Group, there is a risk that the army may interpret the global shift in opinion against the RSF as an opportunity to seek victory on the battlefield.

In recent days, the army has intensified indiscriminate attacks in Khartoum, causing growing concern among US officials about civilian casualties resulting from air attacks. On September 10, an army air attack struck a market, resulting in over 40 civilian deaths and approximately 70 injuries. Activists reported the presence of a few RSF fighters selling looted items, but hundreds of civilians were also present, selling juice and tea to earn a living.

The army’s willingness to target residential areas has become evident, and the perception that they have enough internal and external support to evade repercussions could potentially fuel their aggressive

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