The Battle of El Fasher: A Critical Point Shaping the Future Map of Sudan

The ongoing battle for control of El Fasher in western Sudan serves as a microcosm of the larger conflict in the country, intertwined with local, national, and international interests and conflicts. It is widely believed that the outcome of this battle will significantly shape the future political and military landscape of Darfur and Sudan as a whole.

This paper attempts to observe and analyze the current battle, discussing the importance of El Fasher and North Darfur, how the current battle erupted, analyzing the participating parties, their strengths and weaknesses, alliances, and combat tactics, and concluding with anticipated scenarios and their implications on various levels.

  1. The Importance of El Fasher and North Darfur
    The city of El Fasher holds multidimensional importance, which can be summarized as follows:

a. Symbolic Importance: El Fasher has immense symbolic significance on many levels. It represents the capital of the last of Darfur’s five states still under Sudanese government control, and thus, control over it means control over the strategic North Darfur state and gaining more weight in any upcoming negotiations.

Additionally, the city holds a deep-rooted historical significance in the collective memory of the region’s inhabitants, particularly the Zaghawa, Massalit, and Fur people, as it was the capital of the Darfur Sultanate in the 18th century and a meeting point for caravans traveling between the Nile Valley, Chad, the broader Sahel region, and Egypt.

b. Administrative Importance: As the capital of North Darfur State, El Fasher is the administrative center of the state, hosting government institutions and offices and the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Division of the army. It is also an educational and health hub with many educational institutions, including El Fasher University, and contains facilities for limited social services and healthcare to meet the needs of the city’s residents and displaced people.

c. Geopolitical Importance: North Darfur, comprising 57% of Greater Darfur’s total area, has a strategic location bordered to the northwest and west by Libya and Chad, respectively. It also borders seven Sudanese states and connects with four states and Khartoum via vital roads.

d. Humanitarian Importance: On the humanitarian and relief level, the city has become a hub for relief activities since the conflict in the Darfur region began in 2003. It hosted the headquarters of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and many international NGOs and relief organizations.

With the outbreak of the current war in Sudan in April 2023, the city became the “safe haven of Darfur” where thousands of fleeing people sought refuge. The state government claims that there are about one and a half million displaced people in the area, most of them displaced due to the Darfur War since 2003, living in three camps near El Fasher.

e. Economic Importance: El Fasher is the economic center of North Darfur, known for the agricultural productivity of its surrounding areas, producing crops such as millet, sorghum, and peanuts, alongside livestock farming. The region has a vast wealth of livestock, and the city serves as the central market for the state’s residents and a bustling transit point for goods to and from Sudan due to its proximity to both Libya and Chad.

  1. How Did the Recent Battle for El Fasher Start?
    Many sources indicate that a fragile peace prevailed around El Fasher due to unwritten understandings based on neutrality adopted by the Darfur armed movements and the announcement of the Joint Force of the Armed Movements in November 2023, declaring El Fasher a “red line” and that they would fight against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) if this line was crossed. This resulted in a fragile truce among all parties that lasted for several months.

However, tensions began to rise due to several developments, including some Darfur movements siding with the army, and the Sudan Liberation Movement (Minni Arko Minnawi) and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jibril Ibrahim) engaging in extensive recruitment efforts in March 2023 to help “defeat the terrorist rebel RSF militia,” welcoming soldiers expelled by the RSF from other parts of Darfur, leading the RSF to believe the army was using the ceasefire as an opportunity to reorganize.

On April 14, the RSF captured the strategic town of Malit, northeast of El Fasher, linking North Darfur to Libya, allowing them to open a supply route to Libya. During this campaign, they attacked and burned several villages inhabited by non-Arab tribes, leading to the encirclement of the city.

In May, the inevitable conflict over control of El Fasher erupted, with both the RSF and the Sudanese army exchanging accusations of igniting the battle.

  1. The Parties Involved in the Battle of El Fasher
    Multiple parties with varying strengths, weaknesses, and alliances participate in the battle for El Fasher. The main actors are analyzed below:

a. The Sudanese Armed Forces
The Sudanese army has amassed large numbers of fighters in the state, with forces stationed there after withdrawing from the four other Darfur states last year in the face of RSF advances, alongside soldiers from the 6th Infantry Division based in El Fasher.

Compared to the RSF, the Sudanese armed forces have the advantage of an air force, enabling them to conduct air raids and supply their troops via air drops, and benefiting from a more organized structure and command system.

However, the army’s main weakness is its isolation, surrounded by RSF forces, making ground logistics challenging and heavily relying on air support, risking supply shortages and aircraft vulnerability if the RSF obtains anti-aircraft weapons.

Internally, the Joint Force is a key ally of the army in El Fasher, with local community support against the RSF, and potential backing from regional powers concerned about the RSF’s rise and its supporters. The recent developments in Russia-Sudan relations might also influence the battle of El Fasher and the broader Sudanese conflict.

b. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF)
The RSF, a paramilitary force consisting of trained fighters and allied tribal militias, has an estimated 13,000 fighters participating in the battle for El Fasher, supported by thousands of vehicles and heavy weaponry.

Compared to the Sudanese army, the RSF excels in mobility and swift, surprise attacks using light vehicles and trucks, with a good understanding of the region’s terrain as Darfur is their primary base. Their motivation to control the city and avoid a scenario similar to Babnousa before a possible military support from the Russian-Sudanese agreement adds to their fervor, along with financial incentives driving fighters to loot captured cities.

The RSF has effectively encircled El Fasher, controlling all access points and cutting off supplies.

Their main weakness lies in their reliance on tribal groups and mercenary militias, which may be hard to control or ensure loyalty. They also face international isolation due to their strategy of ravaging cities and targeting ethnic groups, leading to widespread condemnation and making it challenging to build overt external alliances for support.

The RSF has alliances with several local tribes and forces outside Sudan, with a UN report mentioning the UAE as a major external supporter with funds and arms through neighboring countries like Chad and the Central African Republic, which Abu Dhabi denies.

c. Armed Movements in Darfur
Various armed Darfur groups, comprising thousands of fighters, play a significant role. Key groups include the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement.

Their strengths include experience in guerrilla tactics from years of rebellion against Khartoum, excellent knowledge of the terrain as they hail from the city and region, and high morale fighting to defend their lands and communities against historical RSF animosities. They receive substantial support from these communities.

The diversity of these groups and their leaders might lead to organizational issues, fragmented vision, and resource limitations.

The Sudanese army is their primary ally in the current battle against the RSF, with Chad’s position unclear due to shifts in N’Djamena’s stance on the Sudan conflict.

  1. Military Tactics Used in the Battle
    The RSF employs siege and attack tactics to gain control of El Fasher. They impose a complete blockade, pressuring the Sudanese armed forces and allies by cutting off logistical supplies and civilians by obstructing humanitarian aid and essential goods flow, causing shortages in medicine, food, and water, using starvation as a war tool to weaken the defending forces and their support base, or force civilian evacuation through fear.

Supporting this goal, they also employ tactics like shelling populated areas, attacking service facilities like hospitals, and attempting to control infrastructure like the water tank to manage its flow into the city.

The RSF executes waves of attacks to weaken a specific front and penetrate the city with artillery support.

Conversely, the Sudanese army uses air raids targeting RSF positions in and around the city to weaken their control and disrupt operations by targeting mobile and static targets in El Fasher, while the RSF counters with ground-launched missiles to intercept planes.

The city’s dense population prevents the widespread use of artillery by the armed forces.

To counter the siege, the army and armed movements try to draw the RSF outside the city with advanced defenses, sometimes retreating and sometimes advancing.

The key feature of the El Fasher battle is the heavy reliance on urban warfare, involving close-quarters combat, house-to-house fighting, and efforts to control critical infrastructure within the city.

Given the participation of experienced Darfurian fighters in guerrilla tactics alongside the army, the RSF faces opponents familiar with the combat strategies they used to overrun previous cities, complicating their mission.

Before the conflict, all parties mobilized local fighters and militias to support their forces, highlighting the battle’s significance and its decisive role in determining the fate of Darfur and potentially all of Sudan.

5. Scenarios and Consequences

Due to the interplay of numerous factors in the current battle and the fluctuating conditions in El Fasher, various scenarios are anticipated to resolve this conflict. These scenarios are arranged according to their likelihood of occurrence, along with the associated consequences.

A. First Scenario: Prolonged Siege by Rapid Support Forces Ending in External Intervention

This scenario involves the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) completely besieging the city, continuously pressuring the defending forces and the residents. Meanwhile, the Sudanese army supports the fighters via air drops, and the local community endures the siege. Ultimately, this leads to external intervention to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

The main consequences of this scenario include:

  1. Significant Human Losses: United Nations estimates indicate that 800,000 residents are trapped in the city. They will be at the mercy of the urban warfare and crossfire, leading to a high death toll. The situation is worsened by the collapse of the health system, as major hospitals go out of service and medical supplies are cut off. Food security deteriorates as the siege causes food prices to soar.
  2. Displacement: Those able to escape will likely flee the city and seek refuge in safer areas.
  3. Destruction of Infrastructure: Battles and crossfire within the city will severely damage El Fasher’s infrastructure.
  4. Crimes and Violations: The siege may lead to random killings, sexual violence, looting, burning of nearby villages, and ethnic targeting.
  5. Sanctions and Pressure: The prolonged siege and resulting catastrophic conditions will increase international pressure on both sides, especially the RSF, to ease the siege or allow safe corridors for civilians and aid. This pressure may escalate into sanctions later.
  6. Regional Impact: The prolonged siege may cause unrest among the Zaghawa tribe, who have ties to both Sudan and Chad. This could increase pressure on Chad’s President, Mohamed Déby, from influential circles within his tribe and cause rifts within the ruling circles in N’Djamena.

B. Second Scenario: RSF Overruns the City

This scenario relies on the RSF’s ability to gather more troops and equipment through its internal and external support lines, while the Sudanese army cannot keep up due to limited air drops.

The main consequences of this scenario include:

  1. Strategic Shift: If El Fasher falls to the RSF, they will control Darfur and enhance their position in any future negotiations. This will complicate Sudan’s political situation and might alter some alliances.
  2. “Libyan Scenario”: The RSF could establish an independent administration in western Sudan, similar to General Khalifa Haftar’s model in Libya. However, many in Darfur oppose RSF rule due to historical conflicts, making complete control challenging.
  3. Weakening the Sudanese Army: The fall of El Fasher would raise serious questions about the army’s ability to protect strategic cities, echoing the impact of losing Al Jazirah State, which severely damaged the army’s image, only partially repaired by battles in Omdurman.
  4. Widespread Ethnic Violations: The RSF’s invasion may lead to targeting non-Arab residents, driven by past grievances from the Darfur War and the massacres committed by the Janjaweed against African tribes.
  5. Weakening Armed Movements: The fall of El Fasher would deal a severe blow to major armed movements, both in terms of losing a significant stronghold and suffering heavy losses in fighters and equipment due to the siege and fierce battles.
  6. Geopolitical Impact: RSF control over Darfur could turn it into a haven for militias and armed groups from the Sahel’s Arab tribes, negatively impacting security in those countries. The RSF might also be used in international and regional schemes against countries like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which have ousted Western powers in favor of Russia.
  7. Impact on Neighboring Countries: The fall of El Fasher and violations against the Zaghawa could incite movements among the Zaghawa in Chad, supporting their kin in Darfur and resenting N’Djamena’s aid to the RSF. This might lead to an unusual alliance between N’Djamena and the RSF to suppress any rebellion, with such support preventing the return of Chadian fighters threatening the regime.

C. Third Scenario: Negotiation

This scenario assumes that both sides become exhausted without achieving a decisive victory, leading to a stalemate that pushes them to negotiate, possibly under international or continental auspices.

The main consequences of this scenario include:

  1. Improving Humanitarian Conditions: By opening humanitarian corridors for food and medical aid, this scenario could allow for the return of displaced people and the resumption of normal life.
  2. Military Consequences: This includes de-escalation through a permanent or temporary truce and repositioning forces away from the city, reducing risks to civilians.
  3. Escalation in Other Areas: This scenario might lead to intensified battles on other fronts as both sides seek to strengthen their field positions.

D. Fourth Scenario: Sudanese Army and Allies Win the Battle

This depends on the army and its allies enduring until they receive advanced weapons from Russia or Iran, changing the battle’s outcome in their favor.

The main consequences of this scenario include:

  1. Strengthening Control: Victory in El Fasher would enhance the Sudanese army’s and allies’ control over North Darfur and possibly extend to other western states. It would also boost the army’s morale, helping to restore its image.
  2. Strengthening the Army’s Position: This victory would bolster the army’s political stance in any upcoming negotiations.
  3. Weakening the RSF: Given the RSF’s significant investment in this battle, defeat would severely weaken its presence in North Darfur and possibly neighboring states, potentially leading to leadership changes within the RSF.
  4. Improving Humanitarian Conditions: Victory would enable opening humanitarian corridors for food and medical aid and aid distribution, along with the return of displaced people and resumption of normal life.
  5. Ethnic Targeting: This victory might lead to targeting Arab tribes in the region, who are seen as RSF supporters.

In conclusion, the Battle of El Fasher is a crucial step in shaping Sudan’s future. Regardless of the scenario, the risk of ethnic conflict and security chaos in Darfur remains, with the specter of Sudan’s division and its implications for the state and the Sahel region closely tied to El Fasher’s fate.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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