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Sudan’s Mercenary Foreign Policy Repeats the Mistakes of the Past
Sudan has begun to send thousands of soldiers next door to Libya to shore up renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s failing siege of Tripoli. The move, believed to be bankrolled by United Arab Emirates (UAE), marks a new phase in Sudan’s post-Bashir foreign policy that further defines the feared mercenary paramilitary, Rapid Support Forces (RSF), as a bartering chip and proxy army for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, first in Yemen, and now Libya.
The strategy of privateering as foreign policy is a short-sighted measure applied to yet another long-term foreign conflict and suffers from similar international reputational loss and domestic unpopularity, which in Sudanese politics, oftentimes means regime change. Operationally, the move into Libya - if sustained - could result in another collective military failure such as Sudan’s participation in the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Meanwhile, at a time when Sudan’s new transitional government has just begun, any expansions of the war crime-linked and untrustworthy RSF outside of Sudan will likely diminish the chances of new civilian-guided foreign policy initiatives, whose success will hinge on internationally perceived legitimacy.
The Failure of Yemen Stalks Further RSF Deployments
The RSF’s move into Libya may fall prey to the same mistakes of the oft-criticized Sudanese intervention in Yemen. Since its inception in April 2015, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen had depended on foreign mercenaries and armies to fill its ranks. The Saudi monarchy was unable to raise enough manpower from its own population necessary to retake Yemen from Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
Filling this gap, the Sudanese Armed Forces contributed a major land force to the coalition, having initially deployed between 850 and 2,000 soldiers, which expanded to 8,000 and 14,000 Sudanese mercenaries primarily drawing from the militiamen of Hemedti’s RSF. Notably, of all the nations backing the House of Saud—including several Gulf states—Sudan has deployed the most combat-facing infantry, proving an unrivaled commitment within the region and an outsized role as an African nation. Sudan has also endured the vast majority of casualties, many of them child soldiers aged 13-17.
Yemen remains a lost cause for the Saudi coalition, one of the worst humanitarian crises in the past decade, intractable at the ground level between dug-in local actors, and as of 2019, as destructive against Saudi allies as ever. While Libya’s civil war is much less intense than Yemen’s, common driving elements to both conflicts indicate a similarly protracted political impasse in which local tribally-aligned factions are fueled by foreign regional rivals. There is not a political solution in sight, and a military victory is unlikely owing to a lack of serious advantages held by either warring party.
Sudan’s Citizenry are Dissatisfied with Failed Military Interventions and Foreign Arab-Dominated Policies
Sudanese actions in Yemen show a pattern that may emerge in Libya as well. While there are few political items the diverse range of Sudanese political groups agree on, protests against the military and government’s self-serving actions appear to be united sentiments. The nature of the fighting in Yemen—accurately perceived as causing more damage to Sudanese forces than other foreign armies—and the intervention itself as a military overextension despite problems at home contributed to the litany of protests which eventually toppled Bashir. After Bashir, the issue of Yemen was lumped in with protests against Arab interference into Sudanese politics, and the civilian coalition’s declaration listed ending Sudan’s internal wars, as their number one demand.
Simultaneously, among the shadowy world of Nile River politics, the traditional power brokers of Khartoum are not likely keen on letting an ethnic Darfurian militia-army (the RSF) absorb more clout than it already has. Indeed, the rapid ascent of the RSF during Sudan’s post-Bashir phase has been an experience what Sudan expert, Dr. Alex de Waal, calls their “nightmare.” The RSF’s potential achievement of a significant warlord-to-warlord connection with Haftar in Libya (beyond present-ties) could cause some concern.
International Reputation is at Stake During an Opportunity to Reform
The international community, particularly the African Union, the European Union, and the United States, are principally focused on achieving lasting peace between the protesters and the army, as well as a functioning civilian-centric sovereign council capable of outlining the country’s future institutions, including elections. The RSF only serves to destabilize all of this and negatively impact Sudan’s image, particularly as the group internationalizes itself. By leaving large international operations mostly in the hands of the RSF, the regular Sudanese army and civilian coalition are losing out on the advantages that could have been granted in a safer transition environment. Instead of seizing on the opportunity of the April revolution to reform the military and turn away from Bashir-style politics of foreign policy betrayals, the new government has been foist by the RSF’s self-serving goals into a likely unpopular direction, which may strain the concerns of the international community.
Crucially, the country’s new Prime Minister, Abdalah Hamdok, seeks to remove Sudan from the United States’ State Sponsor of Terror List and end Sudan's pariah status in a bid to help alleviate the country’s depressed economy. If Sudan wants to present a stronger case for legitimacy to the United States and the world, the regular army and civilian government needs to negotiate with or challenge the RSF in order to avoid continually deploying alleged war criminals into wider international engagements. Sudan’s foreign policy of warlord-to-warlord (or warlord-to-monarch) support is likely incompatible with convincing more of the world to fully normalize relations.
While it is unclear if intervention into Libya is just one of many more RSF expansions, the overall role of the RSF in Sudan’s foreign affairs will continue to cause more risks than rewards until the public, Hamdok, or the regular army can rein them in. The influence of Arab monarchical ambitions in Sudan and the lack of civilian or even moderate military control over RSF militias is damaging Sudan’s nascent democratic efforts and peace within the country, and the deployment of troops Libya is just one more sign of this.