The conflict erupting in Sudan is unnerving its neighbors and others over concerns about sharing the Nile waters and oil pipelines, the formation of a new government and a new humanitarian crisis brewing.
Sudan, which relies heavily on foreign aid, is no stranger to conflict. But this time, the fighting is tearing apart the capital rather than the remote part of the country, which lies in an unstable region bordering the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Five of Sudan’s seven neighbors — Ethiopia, Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan — have faced political instability or conflict in recent years.
Fighting between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) broke out in Khartoum on Saturday, undermining internationally backed plans for a transition to civilian rule after the 2019 ouster of Omar al-Bashir.
In this conflict, the chairman of Sudan’s ruling council and army commander, General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, and the wealthy former militia leader, General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo (better known as known as Hemedti), Burhan’s deputy on the council and leader of the unconventional RSF force.
What is at stake for regional countries?
Egypt – The histories of Egypt and Sudan, the most populous Arab states, are intertwined by politics, trade, culture and the shared waters of the Nile. Cairo has feared political unrest in its south since the 2019 uprising that ousted al-Bashir. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who also rose to power in the military power struggle, is close to Burhan.
Sudanese are by far the largest foreign community in Egypt, with an estimated 4 million people, including some 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
Egypt and Sudan, both dependent on the Nile for fresh water, fear threats to their supply from the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the upper Blue Nile. The two countries have pushed to regulate the operation of Ethiopian dams. Any tension between Khartoum and Cairo could undermine their efforts to reach a deal.
Libya – Sudanese mercenaries and militia fighters are active on both sides of the conflict that has divided Libya after 2011. Many Sudanese fighters have returned to Sudan in recent years, heightening tensions in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where another years-long conflict has continued, with fighting continuing after a 2020 deal with some rebel groups.
Sudan is also a departure point and transit route for asylum seekers traveling to Europe via Libya, where traffickers take advantage of conflict and political instability.
chad – Sudan’s western neighbor, Chad, has received some 400,000 displaced Sudanese from previous conflicts, and some 20,000 more refugees have arrived from Sudan since the latest fighting began, according to the United Nations.
Chad fears that the crisis will spread across the border to areas populated by refugees. Most are from Darfur, where, during the Darfur conflict, Chad faced cross-border attacks from Sudanese Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, which later morphed into the RSF. The attackers attacked Darfurian refugees and Chadian villagers, looting livestock and killing resisters.
The Chadian government said it disarmed 320 paramilitary troops who entered its territory on Monday.
Chad is also concerned about mercenaries working for Russia’s Wagner Group in neighboring Central African Republic. They are reportedly close to the RSF and may support Chadian rebels who threaten N’Djamena’s government.
Wagner denies any activity in Sudan.
gulf arab states – Rich oil producers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long sought to influence developments in Sudan, seeing the transition to Bashir’s rule as a way to curb Islamic influence and stabilize the region.
Investors from both countries have poured money into a range of projects ranging from agribusinesses to airlines and strategic ports along the Red Sea.
South Sudan – South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war, exports 170,000 barrels of oil per day through pipelines from its northern neighbor.
Analysts say neither side of Sudan’s conflict has an interest in interrupting those flows, but South Sudan’s government said this week that the fighting has hampered logistical and transport links between oil fields and Port Sudan.
Some 800,000 South Sudanese refugees also live in Sudan. Any large-scale returns could further intensify efforts to provide vital aid to the more than 2 million displaced people in South Sudan who have fled their homes due to civil unrest.
Ethiopia – There are regular skirmishes along the disputed border between Sudan and Ethiopia. Analysts say either side can exploit the unrest in Sudan to achieve their goals.
Tensions arose along the fertile but disputed Al-Fashqa border in 2020 when war broke out in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, forcing an influx of more than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees into the already impoverished region of eastern Sudan.
Ethiopia will also be watching developments amid tensions over the $4 billion Blue Nile dam, which Sudan says could pose a threat to its Nile dam and its citizens.
Eritrea – Many Eritrean refugees living in northern Ethiopia have fled their camps during the 2020-2022 Tigray War. Eritrean refugees in Sudan could face a similar plight if any conflict outside Khartoum escalates.
What are the concerns of world powers?
Russia – Moscow, which has long sought a warm-water port for its navy, has secured one in a deal with Bashir that Sudanese military leaders say is still under review.
In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the creation of a Russian naval facility in Sudan capable of berthing nuclear-powered surface ships.
Western diplomats in Khartoum say in 2022 that Russia’s Wagner Group is involved in illegal gold mining in Sudan and spreading disinformation. Two years ago, the US imposed sanctions on two companies operating in Sudan linked to Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a statement on Wednesday, Wagner denied it had operations in Sudan, saying its staff had not been there in more than two years and saying it played no role in the recent fighting. It said it was responding to foreign media inquiries, “most of which were provocative”.
In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Sudanese officials during a trip to Africa seeking to expand Moscow’s influence at a time when Western countries are trying to isolate Moscow by sanctioning its invasion of Ukraine.
America and the West – Like other Western powers, the US is pleased to get rid of Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes over the Darfur conflict.
But critics say Washington has been slow to support the transition to elections. Sudan’s hopes for democracy were dashed when al-Burhan and Hemedti staged a coup in 2021.
With neither of Khartoum’s opponents showing any readiness to compromise, the latest fighting is expected to derail any swift return to civilian rule.