Situation Update | October 2023
Sudan: Ethnic Strife Amid Escalating Power Struggles
6 October 2023
- Almost six months into the conflict, ACLED records over 2,300 political violence events and more than 9,000 reported fatalities1This number is a conservative estimate due to methodological limitations of real-time reporting in a conflict of this nature. For more, see the Fatalities FAQ in ACLED’s Knowledge Base in Sudan since fighting first broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on 15 April.
- In the last month, from 2 to 29 September 2023, ACLED records 465 political violence events and more than 1,500 reported fatalities.
- As fighting over the control of strategic locations intensified between the SAF and RSF in Khartoum, other armed groups became more actively involved in the country’s conflict dynamics. In late September, the Abdul Wahid al-Nur Faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) gained control of large swaths of territory in Darfur region. Several groups also announced their support for either of the warring factions, further entrenching the conflict across the country.
- Khartoum state had the highest number of political violence events and fatalities during the reporting period, with over 370 and 1,130, respectively. South Darfur state had the second-highest number of fatalities, with nearly 200 recorded. Clashes involving Salamat and Beni Halba militias in Kubum locality of South Darfur resulted in over half of all recorded fatalities in the state.
- The most common event type was battles, with over 220 recorded, followed by explosions/remote violence, with nearly 170 recorded. Over the past month, the number of recorded bombing incidents has more than doubled compared to the previous month, with almost all bombings recorded in Khartoum state.
Ethnic Strife Amid Escalating Power Struggles
As Sudan’s conflict marks its sixth month, both the SAF and RSF are intensifying their efforts to gain supremacy, escalating the struggle for critical strategic positions in the country. In Khartoum, there has been an increase in bombings in the past month, while clashes in all SAF bases and RSF-controlled areas have escalated. Urban and semi-urban zones across Darfur and Kordofan regions are also experiencing intensified fighting, resulting in dire humanitarian circumstances for civilians.
The prolonged war saw new groups joining the conflict in September, indicating a worrying trend that de-escalation may become increasingly difficult in the near future. The complexity of the situation is further compounded by both sides’ competition for international legitimacy, adding another layer of tension to the conflict dynamics. This report provides an overview of the developments in the conflict over the past month, with a focus on the increased use of bombings in the battle for strategic positions in Khartoum, as well as ethnic tensions and territorial contests in Darfur and Kordofan regions.
Increased Bombings in the Khartoum Battleground
Over the course of the conflict between the SAF and RSF, the battle dynamics have evolved significantly. Notably, there has been a recent increase in both parties’ reliance on bombings in Khartoum, including airstrikes and fighter drones, as well as artillery shelling. This development came after attempts to make significant advancements on the ground and defend gained positions through direct clashes, resulting in high casualties for both sides. In the Khartoum tri-city metropolitan area, the conflict has primarily revolved around critical military bases and vital supply routes, which are of paramount importance to both parties. From the beginning of the conflict, the RSF adopted a strategic approach, focusing its attacks on SAF’s military bases and actively defending supply routes under its control. This approach aimed to disrupt SAF operations and secure logistical supply routes, which proved successful as the RSF gained significant control over urban areas in Khartoum.2Arab News, ‘Air strike in Khartoum kills 20 civilians: Activists,’ 3 September 2023 Meanwhile, the SAF has relied on airstrikes since the initial days of the conflict, recognizing the RSF’s widespread presence and force on the ground.
Since mid-August, SAF bases – the Armored Corps base in particular – have faced severe assaults by the RSF. In response, the SAF has increasingly resorted to bombing RSF positions. The SAF has concentrated its bombings in areas surrounding military bases, key bridges, and RSF-occupied neighborhoods (see map below). These locations hold critical strategic importance for the RSF’s operational capabilities and control over the region. The southern Khartoum area has become a focal point for these operations. However, breaking the RSF’s siege on military bases in Khartoum state remains a challenge for the SAF.
Furthermore, there has been a notable increase in the use of fighter drones by both the SAF and RSF in the past month. This trend emerged as a result of SAF’s limited number of fighter jets as well as RSF’s growing success in shooting them down.3Kazim Abdul, ‘Sudan Air Force maintains capabilities despite recent loses,’ Military Africa, 24 June 2023 More recently, the SAF has reportedly incorporated kamikaze drones4Kamikaze drones are racing drones that are readily available and easy to assemble. They are fitted with additional batteries and warheads, enabling them to achieve high speeds and carry explosive payloads such as rocket-propelled grenade warheads. into its operations.5David Hambling, ‘Kamikaze Drone Videos From Sudan Conflict Signal Rapid Proliferation (Updated),’ Forbes, 15 September 2023 This evolving strategic landscape initially favored the SAF due to the Sudanese Air Force’s aerial advantage. However, the RSF adapted its strategies by acquiring and deploying drones to target SAF bases. The source of these drones has been a subject of speculation, with suggestions that they may have been seized from the al-Yarmouk Complex or supplied to the RSF by regional allies.6Abdolgader Mohamed Ali, ‘Will RSF drones tip the balance of Sudan’s war?,’ The New Arab, 26 June 2023
Furthermore, since 14 September, there has been a discernible change in the RSF’s military strategy in the capital, particularly evident in shifting operations from the Armored Corps base to the General Command Headquarters. Following a brief decrease in violence in Khartoum earlier in September, the RSF’s strategy has shifted towards focusing on specific SAF bases. In a tactical maneuver, the RSF concentrates its efforts on one base at a time, launching multifront offensives that can last for days or even weeks. This approach enables the RSF to overpower and potentially seize the targeted base, while SAF forces are engaged in constant skirmishes elsewhere, diverting their attention and resources. This strategic shift aligns with the growing trend of increased use of bombings to target or defend these bases.
The increased reliance on bombings in the conflict has had severe consequences, especially in terms of civilian casualties. ACLED records over 70 incidents of civilian targeting in Khartoum in September alone, resulting in at least 213 reported fatalities. Moreover, 75% of all recorded civilian fatalities in Sudan resulted from bombings in Khartoum, which highlights the deadly nature of bombings and their devastating impact on civilians.
Ethnic Clashes, Territorial Changes, and the Growing Engagement of Armed Groups in Darfur
Amidst continuing ethnic tensions in Darfur region, an increasing number of armed groups are becoming actively engaged in the conflict dynamics in the region. In late September, the al-Nur faction of the SLM/A expanded its control over vast territories in North, South, and Central Darfur states (see map below). This significant development followed the massive displacement of thousands of families from conflict-affected areas in Darfur to regions under the group’s control.7Darfur 24, ‘SLM’s al-Nur: Fighting between RSF and the Army in Darfur caused massive displacement,’ 18 September 2023 The SLM/A al-Nur faction asserted that their expansion beyond the areas previously under their control – the mountainous Jebel Marra8Radio Dabanga, ‘SLM-AW: ‘Outbreak of disease in Jebel Marra’,’ 22 February 2023. – aimed to protect civilians affected by the ongoing war between the SAF and RSF.9Sudan Tribune, ‘SLM-Nur expands control to several areas in Darfur to protect civilians: official,’ 23 September 2023
Furthermore, the Joint Forces – comprising the Minnawi faction of the SLM/A, the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces, the SLM/A-Transitional Council faction, the Justice and Equality Movement, and the Sudanese Alliance Movement – intensified their military engagements in the region in September. These groups are the signatories of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement, and established joint security forces on 27 April to ensure the protection of civilians.10Sudan Tribune, ‘Minnawi warns against plans to attack Darfur joint force,’ 9 September 2023 However, in the past month, they seem to have shifted their focus from primarily escorting commercial and humanitarian aid convoys to actively engaging in military operations.
In South Darfur, clashes between the Salamat and Beni Halba militias persisted in Kubum locality throughout September. Both of these communities are Arab cattle herders. The Beni Halba are primarily based in Ed El Fursan in South Darfur, while the Salamat have their roots in Chad and are based in Central Darfur.11Radio Dabanga, ‘Tribal fighting in South Darfur’s Kubum continues despite multiple interventions,’ 28 August 2023 On 19 September, the Salamat militia overtook Kubum town after intense clashes with the Beni Halba. Numerous attempts to reconcile the two communities since clashes began in May have failed thus far. On 28 September, Musa Hilal, the commander of the Revolutionary Awakening Council (RAC),12Musa Hilal, commander of the RAC and Border Guards, was arrested by the RSF in 2017 along with 50 other members of the RAC, after clashes in Misteriy when Musa Hilal refused to cooperate with the government’s campaign of disarmament and arms collection. Musa Hilal was released in 2021. See Radio Dabanga, ‘North Darfur Defence Minister denies civilian casualties in Misteriya raid,’ 30 November 2017 launched a new reconciliation initiative after the Beni Halba rejected the efforts made by the second commander of the RSF. Furthermore, there were reports of infighting between RSF soldiers from the Salamat militia and unidentified Arab militias in Markondi on 10 September, resulting in at least 40 fatalities and the Salamat militia reportedly burning down the town.
In North Darfur, fighting resumed between the SAF and RSF after over 10 days with no recorded incidents between the two sides. The clashes primarily took place in camps hosting internally displaced persons (IDPs) in El Fasher locality and led to dozens of reported civilian casualties and the displacement of at least 190 families. Toll gates have been established by unidentified local militias mainly on roads leading to El Fasher, imposing financial burdens on commercial and passenger vehicles and further exacerbating the challenges faced by civilians in the region.
At the beginning of September, the SAF and RSF reaffirmed their commitment to halt hostilities in El Geneina, West Darfur, following discussions with the deputy governor and a community initiative. Despite the lull in fighting between the two parties, over the course of several days in September, the RSF clashed with Erenga militias in Gorni and Abu Surug towns in Sirba locality, leading to the displacement of civilians into Chad. The violence escalated to the point where the RSF abducted local mayors, demanding an end to resistance against them and indicating their intention to escalate the assault. Additionally, a significant development occurred on 6 September, as hundreds of Abu Tira soldiers, accompanied by a substantial number of military vehicles, defected to the RSF in El Geneina. This move has the potential to shift the balance of power in favor of the RSF, thereby disrupting the delicate and fragile peace in the city.
The situation in Central Darfur remains deeply concerning and volatile, with ongoing clashes between the SAF and RSF in the capital city of Zalingei. The city has witnessed significant back-and-forth shifts in territorial control between the warring parties. Initially, the RSF gained full control of the city on 4 August, only to be followed shortly by the SAF regaining control. On 14 September, the SAF regained control of RSF-held positions in the Hasahisa IDP camp and other locations within the city. However, the following day, skirmishes erupted in the eastern Hasahisa neighborhood and the Hasahisa IDP camp. Reports indicate that indiscriminate shelling by the RSF targeted camp centers, resulting in civilian casualties. Consequently, civilians were compelled to flee from the Hasahisa neighborhood in search of refuge from the escalating violence.
Complex Dynamics Amidst Clashes and Emerging Militias in Kordofan Region
The situation in Kordofan region was marked by intense confrontations last month, involving various actors, including state forces, rebel groups, ethnic militias, and pro-government militias. Reports indicate clashes between the SAF and RSF in multiple areas in North and West Kordofan states (see map below). In South Kordofan, fighting resumed between the SAF and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) faction led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu after a lull in fighting from 7 to 27 September. The al-Hilu faction controls substantial territory in South Kordofan. Amidst this turbulent backdrop, a new pro-government militia has emerged, engaging in armed clashes with the Awlad Mansour (Misseriya) militias, further complicating an already challenging situation.
In North Kordofan, violence escalated after the RSF intercepted a truck on 1 September, abducting over 100 Dar Hamid community miners in al-Jamama. Some abductees were reportedly coerced into carrying weapons, while others were held captive in an RSF military facility. This prompted the Dar Hamid militia to threaten the use of force to secure their release – the Dar Hamid militia, backed by Kababish and Jawmaa, had previously clashed with the RSF on 24 July. Three weeks later, members of the Dar Hamid community engaged in clashes with the RSF in Umm Simeima after the RSF killed a businessman during a looting attempt.
Following a short period of no recorded incidents between the SAF and RSF, fighting between the two sides erupted in Umm Rawaba after the RSF allegedly shot dead a civilian. The SAF temporarily took control of the city after clashes with the RSF on 12 September. In response, the RSF retaliated against civilians the following day, looting dozens of vehicles and destroying property. The RSF regained control of the city after the SAF withdrew to Kosti.
In late August, a pro-government militia called the Reserve Forces-Eagles Brigade militia was formed in Dar Hamar, West Kordofan, after being supplied with weapons by the SAF. This militia subsequently clashed with Awlad Mansour (Misseriya) militias for three consecutive days in and around Umm Kaddada in September, resulting in a dozen reported casualties and over 1,300 people displaced. The clashes were reportedly triggered by the SAF Military Intelligence classifying the Misseriya community as supporters of the RSF.13Altaghyeer, ‘Dead and wounded in a civil clash in West Kordofan and accusations against the army of “creating sedition”,’ 20 September 2023
Signs of a Prolonged War
Sudan’s conflict has reached a critical point after almost six months, characterized by an intense power struggle between the SAF and RSF and intensified battles for strategic locations nationwide. The use of bombings, particularly notable in Khartoum, signifies an alarming escalation in recent weeks, while clashes have amplified across SAF bases and RSF-controlled territories. This turmoil has also expanded to urban and semi-urban areas in Darfur and Kordofan, where more actors are becoming actively involved in the conflict. Amidst these challenges, the competitive quest for international recognition further complicates the situation. In September, the SAF commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan addressed the United Nations General Assembly, while the RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, shared his message through a recorded video.14Al Arabiya, ‘RSF leader Hemedti calls for ceasefire and political talks in Sudan’s civil conflict,’ 22 September 2023 Hemedti has threatened to establish a government in RSF-controlled areas if the SAF did the same in Port Sudan,15Ahmed Younes, ‘Hemedti Threatens to Establish Authority based in Khartoum,’ Asharq Al-Awsat, 15 September 2023 amplifying the tensions in the already complex conflict landscape.