Six months after civil war broke out in Sudan, its warring parties have restarted peace talks in Saudi Arabia, although cracks are already beginning to appear in the process. In a statement on Sunday, the US Department of State urged both sides to “approach the talks constructively”.
The Jeddah talks which began on Thursday, are being steered by Saudi and United States officials. The two countries helped broker short ceasefire deals in May between the opposing sides: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Thousands of people have died and more than 5.7 million others have been displaced within and outside Sudan, leading to a situation that United Nations officials have called a “humanitarian nightmare”. Still, deadly fighting continues in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, and other parts of the country.
Previous talks yielded modest results.
This time, representatives of the regional East African IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) bloc – of which Sudan is a member – are joining the peace talks. The bloc will act on behalf of the African Union (AU). Here’s a breakdown of how things got to this point.
Who are the two sides fighting in Sudan?
The SAF is led by General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, the Sudanese Army chief and de facto leader of the military-led government.
In 2019, al-Burhan became the head of the Sovereign Council following a popular uprising that removed former president Omar al-Bashir. Al-Burhan was supposed to oversee a civilian-military transitional government with then-Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
But in October 2021, a few months before al-Burhan was to concede power to a civilian government, he spearheaded a military coup and dissolved the civilian-military partnership.
The RSF, on the other hand, is a paramilitary force headed by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and operating independently of the army. It’s a formalised version of the feared Popular Defence Forces, or “Janjaweed” militias that al-Bashir outsourced to fight mostly non-Arab rebel groups in the western Darfur region in the early 2000s. Human rights groups accused the militias of ethnic cleansing, mass rapes and even genocide.
After al-Bashir’s exit from power, Dagalo became al-Burhan’s deputy in the Sovereign Council. The RSF leader is considered one of Sudan’s most powerful men, controlling several gold mines and gold export businesses. Thousands of Dagalo’s forces also fought for Saudi Arabia, alongside Emirati troops, in the 2016 Yemeni civil war.
After six long months, analysts say the fighting, which has now attracted other militias and armed tribal groups, is at an impasse. US officials told Reuters both sides had privately reached out for the latest talks.
While the RSF appeared to have the upper hand in Khartoum early in the war, it’s unclear now which side has seized more territory, according to Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Khartoum.
SAF forces control some territory outside Khartoum, including the important Port Sudan in the east. But recent offensives by the RSF have put the army on the back foot.
RSF seized Nyala, Sudan’s second-largest city and a major SAF stronghold, early on Thursday, the same day the Jeddah talks were scheduled to start. Now, SAF is threatening to pull out of the talks, according to Morgan.
“It’s where the army has one of its largest military bases,” Morgan said, referring to the overrun city following two days of heavy fighting. “And that’s the reason why the army is intending to withdraw from the talks, as per sources.”
What do the two sides want?
A power struggle between the two strongmen is at the heart of the crisis, as forces loyal to either side vie for ultimate control of the country.
Tensions reportedly rose following the UN-backed framework agreement inked by both parties and a coalition of civilian groups in December 2022.
The agreement aimed to restore a civilian government more than a year after al-Burhan’s coup, which Dagalo also supported. But then, with Dagalo’s ambitions growing, a rivalry developed between them.
Then the matter of jumpstarting the process of security sector reform before the transition to civilian rule became a subject of contention.
Western diplomats attempted to accelerate the complex process in just a couple of weeks by overseeing talks over how the RSF would integrate into the Sudanese army. However, disagreements arose over proposed timelines: the RSF sought autonomy for another 10 years while the SAF wanted the paramilitary forces to dissolve in two years.
Questions of hierarchy, of who would answer to whom, spiralled into war.
It is less clear what each side now wants for a negotiated peace in Sudan. For talks to move on, the SAF has previously demanded that RSF forces embedded in civilian homes and institutions in Khartoum leave, in line with an earlier agreement. It is not clear if the RSF is now prepared to remove its troops.
The RSF has also painted itself as a freedom fighter, demanding that al-Burhan step down.“The only key to resolving the conflict in Sudan right now is bringing al-Burhan to justice,” Dagalo told Al Jazeera in April.
Are any civilians involved in the peace process?
Last week, Sudanese pro-democracy groups convened as the coalition Civil Front to Stop the War in Ethiopia to chart a vision for post-war Sudan. According to Reuters, the coalition is not expected to be included in the Jeddah negotiations, at least not in the early stages.
Hamdok, who was part of the conference, said in a Thursday post on X, formerly Twitter, that a preliminary meeting had led to an agreement to form a “preparatory leadership body”.
Shaza Elmahdi, Sudanese director of the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), one of the groups at the Addis Ababa talks, told Al Jazeera that a bigger conference in two months would seek to formalise plans to merge civilian representatives, all behind Hamdok. Ex-rebels who signed a peace agreement in Juba in 2020 also participated. “The aim is to unify the civilian front, stop the war, and get back to a democratic transition,” Elmahdi said, speaking from Addis Ababa.
The US State Department in a statement recognised the meeting and praised the conveners. Whether the warring factions have paid any attention to it is yet to be seen.
Alan Boswell of the Crisis Group, who told Al Jazeera that “the world has responded to Sudan’s collapse with an astonishing lack of diplomatic urgency” said there was still “no clarity on how the ceasefire talks in Jeddah will connect with a theoretical political process in Addis Ababa”.
What is on the agenda in Jeddah?
The Jeddah talks will mainly be about ceasefires, facilitating humanitarian access and conditions for a broader peace process. It builds on an earlier agreement in May termed the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan.
Political talks are reportedly off the table, as the US appears to favour a return to civilian rule.
The conflict has resulted in huge numbers of casualties from what many say are indiscriminate shelling campaigns on residential areas. At least 58 hospitals have been hit. Videos on social media show medical staff being tortured by RSF fighters.
In addition to the high number of fatalities and displacements, Sudan is also facing a cholera, measles and dengue fever outbreak.
“It is not clear that we will yet see a serious push to try and end the fighting or if mediators will focus instead on smaller humanitarian wins,” Boswell said.
Is this meeting expected to make a difference?
Attempts by the US and Saudi Arabia to come to a resolution allowed aid to get into Sudan, but those talks were also derailed by ceasefire violations from the warring sides.
In June, weekslong talks collapsed after SAF pulled out. After that, the US suspended the negotiations altogether and imposed sanctions on companies and officials linked to both sides for their part in the conflict.
Based on previous developments, expectations are not high for the Jeddah talks.
Egypt has historically allied with the SAF, while the RSF is reportedly supported by the UAE; experts say any lasting peace will depend on these external influences, and remain sceptical.
“To be realistic, I don’t see this stopping any time soon,” Elmahdi of CIPE said, citing how disunited factions of the RSF are, adding that many might not agree to agreements in faraway Jeddah. “I think it will take more than peace talks. It would take effort, peace deals, and time for the war to stop permanently,” she said.