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Sudan War Explained: What Is Paramilitary Group RSF, Why Is It Fighting Sudanese Military?

More than 800 people were killed in a multi-day assault earlier this month attributed to Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and their Arab allies in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. But what is the RSF and how did it became so powerful?

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Smoke rises during clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Khartoum, Sudan.
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Eight months on, the Sudanese conflict between the country's military and rival paramilitary forces and allied militias has turned into a devastating humanitarian crisis, raising fears of a repeat of past civil wars in the North African country in which around 300,000 were killed. 

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are locked in a power struggle in Sudan that has killed thousands and displaced millions of civilians. 

Sudan is no stranger to wars. While the latest unrest began in April, a crisis had been brewing since 2019 when these power centres of Sudan came together to support a popular uprising to oust Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir from power. 

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The SAF is led by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, who has been the leader of Sudan since 2021 when the SAF and RSF overthrew a transitional council set up after the ouster of Bashir in 2019. The RSF is led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy leader of the country before the beginning of the war.

While the SAF and RSF were allies in the ouster of Bashir, the two also did Bashir's bidding throughout the 2000s to crush regional rebellions against the central leadership. The RSF, however, grew in influence and numbers over time and its leader Dagalo, widely called Hemedti, acquired great wealth after occupying gold mines in the country and developed greater ambitions. 

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What is RSF, why is it fighting Sudanese military?

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which comprises the Army and Air Force of the country's regular military, is fighting against the rival paramilitary force, called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and its Arab militia allies. 

The RSF evolved over the years and has been through numerous transitions. It rose in prominence in the early 2000s that also sparked the rise of its leader General Mohamed Hamdan 'Hemedti' Dagalo. Back then, the group was known as 'Janjaweed' forces that acted as the sword-arm of the then-Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who crushed rebellions in the western and southern regions of the country. Later, Bashir formalised the Janjaweed forces and the group took the form of RSF in 2013. 

But the paramilitary has a tainted record as it has been accused of genocide in the past. 

Earlier this month, RSF and its allied Arab militias were accused of killing more than 800 people in Ardamata in Sudan's West Darfur. The United Nations (UN) said that the multi-day attack forced 8,000 to flee to nearby Chad. Reports of rapes of women have also surfaced. 

"The RSF went door-to-door in Ardamata, in west Darfur, according to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, rounding up and killing people from the Masalit ethnic group...The Masalit have been targeted as supporters of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in the tensions and outbreaks of violence surrounding west Darfur’s capital of El Geneina," reported The Guardian.

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"During Sudan’s Darfur conflict in the early 2000s, he was the leader of Sudan’s notorious Janjaweed forces, implicated in human rights violations and atrocities. An international outcry saw Bashir formalize the group into paramilitary forces known as the Border Intelligence Units. In 2007, its troops became part of the country’s intelligence services and, in 2013, Bashir created the RSF, a paramilitary group overseen by him and led by Dagalo," notes CNN.

The then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell characterised RSF's campaign in Darfur as a "genocide" and eventually African Union (AU) and UN peacekeeping forces were deployed to contain the situation. Around 300,000 were killed in the yearslong conflict through the 2000s.

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"The Darfur war broke out in 2003 and would later be condemned as a genocide against non-Arab populations such as the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit peoples in western Sudan by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the U.S. State Department...The group [Janjaweed] carried out brutal attacks across the Darfur region and is responsible for mass displacement, sexual violence, kidnapping, and other crimes. The first two years of the conflict in Darfur claimed over two hundred thousand lives, and over one hundred thousand more have died since 2005," notes the think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Through these years of violent campaigns and the evolution of Janjaweed from an Arab paramilitary to being rebranded as a regular and well-integrated paramilitary force RSF, its leader Hemedti grew very powerful. He joined hands with SAF chief General Abdel-Fattah Burhan to topple dictator Bashir in 2019. Then, they had a fallout. Hence the power struggle and the ongoing war.

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Power struggle of SAF's Burhan and RSF's Hemedti

Even though there are racial and regional dimensions to the fighting, the conflict has been described as a personal power struggle between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader General Mohamed Hamdan 'Hemedti' Dagalo.

Writing in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik called Hemedti a "shadowy militiamen" for much of his life. She noted, "Hemedti first became a nationally known figure after the Sudanese revolution of 2019, which ousted President Omar al-Bashir, a military dictator who ruled for almost 30 years. Until the revolution, Hemedti was a shadowy background militiaman who worked for Bashir, using his private army to stamp out rebellions in the restive west of the country on behalf of the central government."

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Lately, RSF has made significant gains in Sudan's west. The Guardian has reported that RSF now holds four of the five Sudanese army bases in the Darfur region and took control of another two bases in October. With such control, the group has been accused of carrying out an ethnic massacre in the regional capital El Geneina, where mass graves were identified in July, according to the paper. 

"Some observers are interpreting what is happening in Sudan – correctly, in my opinion – as a battle between two men who are desperate not to be ejected from the corridors of power by means of a transition to an elected government," said Christopher Tounsel, Associate Professor of History, University of Washington, in an article for The Conversation. 

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Tounsel further noted, "One can certainly interpret both men to be obstacles to any chance of Sudan transitioning to civilian democracy. But this is first and foremost a personal power struggle. To use an African proverb, 'When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled'."

The rising power of RSF and its leader Hemedti are central to the ongoing war. While the RSF and SAF jointly overthrew dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and then together ousted the transitional council in 2021, the two had a fall-out in early 2023. During 2021-23, Burhan and Hemedti ruled as number one and two respectively in the country. The rising profile of the RSF, however, led Burhan to press for the absorption of the RSF into the regular army. The RSF resisted it. The New York Times reported that the RSF has around 70,000-150,000 personnel and has sought support from Russia in recent months. Guardian's Malik called the RSF the biggest private army in Africa.

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"He has also deepened his connection to foreign powers, visiting Russia at the beginning of the war on Ukraine, partnering with the Wagner mercenary group to dig for gold in Sudan, and deploying troops in Yemen, to serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, and in Libya, for the United Arab Emirates," notes The Times.

Hemedti and his family also have a yearslong gold-mining business to fund the group and remain rich. Guardian's Malik noted, "Hemedti owns, along with other family members, a gold mining company that operates in lands he seized in Darfur 2017. In 2018, Bashir gave Hemedti permission to mine and sell gold, and operations extended to other gold-rich areas in outside Darfur in the south of the country. The gold was exported, according to a 2019 Reuters investigation, circumventing capital controls, and even sold to the Sudanese central bank for a preferential rate. The yield was allegedly used to enrich Hemedti and his family, and fund the expansion of the RSF."

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While the RSF lack the firepower of the conventional military and an air force, corruption and inefficiency in the SAF would mean that the chances of an outright defeat of the RSF are low. Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation's Michael Horton says that negotiations are the only way to prevent a protracted war.

"Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are nimble, capable, and self-financing. These three factors combined with the fact that corruption and cronyism have hollowed out their primary rival, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), mean that the SAF and its allies are unlikely to defeat the RSF. Barring meaningful negotiations, Sudan faces a protracted war that will fragment the already brittle nation," notes Horton in an article.

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The SAF-RSF war has already plunged Sudan into a humanitarian crisis. Figures from trackers cited by The Times suggest that at least 10,400 have been killed in seven months of fighting and nearly 5 million —nearly one-tenth of Sudan’s population— have been displaced internally and another 1.2 million have fled to neighbouring countries of Chad, South Sudan, and Egypt. The UN says that half of the country's population requires aid for survival.

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