As War Rages in Sudan, Countries Angle for Advantage

NAIROBI, Kenya — As war consumes Sudan, nations from around the world have mobilized swiftly.

Egypt scrambled to bring home 27 of its soldiers, who had been seized by one of Sudan’s warring parties. A Libyan warlord offered weapons to his favored side, American officials said.

Diplomats from Africa, the Middle East and the West have appealed for a halt to the fighting that has reduced parts of the capital, Khartoum, to a smoking battlefield.

Even the leader of Russia’s most notorious private military company, Wagner, has gotten involved. Publicly, he has offered to help mediate between the rival generals fighting for power, but American officials say he has offered weapons, too.

“The U.N. and many others want the blood of the Sudanese,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner founder, said in a statement. Without a hint of irony, Mr. Prigozhin, who is waging a brutal military campaign on behalf of Russia in Ukraine, added: “I want peace.”

The rush of international activity may seem sudden, but it reflects a dynamic that loomed over the country well before its two leading generals turned on each other last week: Sudan has been up for grabs for years.

The revolution of 2019 — in which tens of thousands of protesters ended the three-decade dictatorship of President Omar Hasan al-Bashir — was supposed to usher in a bright and democratic future. But it also spelled new opportunities for outside powers to pursue their own interests in Africa’s third largest country — a nation strategically perched on the Nile and the Red Sea, with vast mineral wealth and agricultural potential, and which only recently emerged from decades of sanctions and isolation.

Russia sought naval access for its warships in Sudan’s Red Sea ports. Wagner gave armored vehicles and training in return for lucrative gold mining concessions. The United Arab Emirates paid one of the warring Sudanese generals, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, to help it fight in Yemen, officials say. Egypt backed the other general, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, sending soldiers and warplanes in a highly contested show of support.

Israel, long shunned in the Arab world, saw a chance to gain something it coveted from Sudan: formal recognition.

And Western countries pushed what may have been the most difficult idea of all — the transition to democracy — while also hoping to counter the expanding influence of China and Russia in Africa.

“Everyone wanted a chunk of Sudan and it couldn’t take all the meddling,” said Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese analyst at the Rift Valley Institute, a research group. “Too many competing interests and too many claims,” he added, “then the fragile balance imploded, as you can see now.”

As some foreign powers picked sides, and even delivered weapons, they weakened Sudan’s pro-democracy forces and helped tilt the country toward war by bolstering the military rivals now fighting it out on the Khartoum streets.

In the past week, more than 400 people have died and 3,500 have been injured, according to the United Nations, in pitched battles between the two sides — the regular army led by General al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries led by Lt. General Hamdan.

Among the most important foreign players in Sudan is the United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich Persian Gulf country that has aggressively expanded its influence in the Horn of Africa in recent years.

Its interest in Sudan goes back over a decade, starting with the country’s vast agricultural potential, which the Emiratis hope can ease their food supply worries. But the Emiratis fell out with Mr. al-Bashir after he refused to back them in their dispute with their neighbor, Qatar. Once he was ousted, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia announced $3 billion in aid and investment to help Sudan onto its feet.

Publicly, the Emiratis have not taken a side in Sudan’s power struggles, and are part of a diplomatic group known as the Quad. The group, which includes the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia, had until recently tried to push Sudan back to civilian rule.

But at the same time, officials say, the Emiratis also helped shore up General Hamdan, the leader of a feared militia accused of atrocities in Darfur. Over the years, he has expanded his war chest through business dealings channeled through Dubai.

In 2018, the Emiratis paid General Hamdan to send thousands of troops to fight in Yemen — a conflict which, Sudanese officials said, enriched the general. The Emirati foreign ministry declined to comment.

General Hamdan also grew rich from gold mined in Sudan and shipped to Dubai. He visited Russian officials in Moscow at the start of the Ukraine invasion and partnered with Wagner in return for a license to mine gold in Sudan.

General Hamdan’s wealth includes livestock, real estate and private security firms, several Western officials said. That money, much of it held in Dubai, helped him to build up his paramilitary forces, which are now better equipped than the regular Sudanese military — yet another point of friction between the two sides.

The leader of the U.A.E., Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, is one of just three heads of state that have publicly met General Hamdan, most recently in February, conferring the statesman aura he evidently craved. (The others are the leaders of Eritrea and Chad.)

But General Hamdan’s closest ally in the Emirates, according to diplomats in Sudan, is the country’s vice-president, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, owner of Britain’s Manchester City soccer club, who has longstanding contacts with armed groups in Darfur, General Hamdan’s home region.

Still, the Emiratis like to hedge their bets, and other princes have sided with General Hamdan’s rivals. In 2020, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan, now the deputy ruler of Abu Dhabi, invested $225 million with Osama Daoud, a Sudanese tycoon close to the military, in an agricultural project stretching across 100,000 acres of the country’s best farmland.

Since the fighting started last weekend, several foreign officials said U.A.E. diplomats had joined in the frantic scramble to stop it. One Western official said the Emiratis appeared to have a case of “buyer’s remorse.”

But even as fighting has raged, some weapon supplies have continued to flow.

American officials say that General Hamdan has been offered weapons from Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan warlord who has also been armed and funded by the U.A.E. Officials say it is unclear if those weapons are from Mr. Hifter’s own stocks, or from the U.A.E.

Egypt, a much bigger, if poorer, Arab nation, is on the other side of Sudan’s military divide.

As tensions grew inside Sudan in the past year, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, openly sided with the army chief, General al-Burhan. The pro-democracy revolution that toppled Sudan’s president is inimical to Mr. el-Sisi, a military general who has ruled with an iron fist since coming to power in a coup in 2013.

He is also deeply suspicious of General Hamdan, a onetime militia leader, preferring to see Sudan ruled by a formally trained officer like himself. There is also a personal connection: Mr. el-Sisi and General al-Burhan attended the same military college.

Earlier this year, Egypt launched a political initiative in Cairo to bring together the Sudanese factions. But foreign diplomats in Khartoum, who were trying to work out a compromise between General Hamdan and General al-Burhan, saw the Egyptians as spoilers, acting in favor of the Sudanese military — and against General Hamdan.

“Egypt has made it clear that it will not tolerate a militia leader on its southern border,” said Cameron Hudson, a former C.I.A. analyst, now an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Tensions over Egypt’s role in Sudan helped propel the generals to war. On April 12, three days before the fighting erupted, General Hamdan’s paramilitaries surrounded a military base in Merowe, 200 miles north of Khartoum, where Egyptian soldiers and about a dozen Egyptian warplanes were stationed.

The move set off a public riposte from the Sudanese military, which insisted the Egyptians were there on a training exercise. General Hamdan evidently feared the Egyptians had come to provide air support to his enemy, Sudan’s military, in the event of a fight.

When the conflict erupted, General Hamdan’s forces captured at least 27 Egyptians from the Meroe base — prompting an intensive effort by Western officials to defuse the crisis and avoid the prospect of a widening, regional conflict.

That drama appeared to end on Thursday, when General Hamdan’s forces handed over the Egyptian detainees. But the risk of Egypt being sucked into Sudan’s conflict remains, Western officials said.

As the battle for the capital has escalated in recent days, General Hamdan’s paramilitaries have been pummeled by warplanes firing rockets and dropping bombs on Khartoum, a densely populated city with millions of people.

But in recent days the Rapid Support Forces have received an offer of powerful weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, from Mr. Prigozhin, American officials said.

General Hamdan has not decided whether to accept the weapons, which would come from Wagner stocks in the Central African Republic, the officials said.

Russia has a longstanding relationship with Sudan’s military and, since 2019, Wagner has expanded its activities in the country, mining for gold, exploring for uranium and supplying mercenaries to the restive region of Darfur.

Israel, too, has a stake. With American backing, it signed a deal to normalize relations with Sudan in 2020. Last year, a delegation from Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, visited Sudan for meetings with security leaders including General Hamdan, who offered counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation, according to Western and Sudanese officials familiar with the talks.

The least successful foreign project in Sudan is the one championed by Western countries — the shift to democracy. This month, the two generals, who had shared power, were supposed to hand it over to a civilian-led government. Now, with that goal in tatters, they are pushing Persian Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to use their leverage to force the warring generals to stand down.

“Are they going to freeze assets if they don’t listen?” said Alan Boswell, an expert at the International Crisis Group, raising the idea that the Gulf states could pressure Sudan’s generals by targeting their wealth. “No one wants a failed state in Sudan.”

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington; Edward Wong from Karuizawa, Japan; Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Ahmed Al Omran from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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