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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 24, 2023

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In the Small-Scale Question threat, user @sickamore raised a question about Sudan. Given that it's more global news, but also tangential to culture war narratives, I figured I might raise it here. sickamore did ask for a good low down. Sadly, please accept a bad one because bad news is the easiest to quibble over, and sharing my newest reason to be depressed is supposed to be helpful or something.

Also, forgive the inconsistent citations, these are intended to be handy, not authoritative.

To start with sickamore's question:

The new conflict that broke out in Sudan - anyone have a good low down on what is happening there, and why? Is this truly a proxy-war between the US and Russia (Rapid Support Forces being Russian proxy, I guess? And Sudan Armed Forces would be US allies..?), or is there something else to this?

To start- this is not a bad question, but it is the wrong question, for a pretty basic reason: this is not about you. Or the US. Or Russia.

What is going in Sudan is a practical demonstration that being a global power does not mean that everything going on in the world is secretly about you. When I've raised in the past in other contexts that a certain sort of American cultural chauvenism that sees everything as an extension of American politics, this is what I refer to. The Sudan crisis has foreign actors and influences, yes, but it is fundamentally an internal political crisis driven by internal actors, with their own interests, their own agency... and their own lack of self-control, because you tend not to shoot at the French diplomatic convoy you already said you were willing to help leave if you have actually good control of your forces.

They don't, because this is Sudan, and Sudan is experiencing the sort of 'the government is the internationally recognized warlords, and the warlords are fighting again' conflict that bedevils foreign policy.

First, to set the context...

For the Americans and others who couldn't find Sudan on a map if they didn't know where to look: Sudan is in Northeast the country between Egypt and Ethiopia at the Horn of Africa, across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. It's part of the not-great part of Africa.

Sudan has basically been a military junta in one form or another since the 90s, and not the western-backed sort, though over the last few years there's been a detente of sort since a new military junta came to power and more or less offered to help normalize relations.

Here's a wiki summary, but the super high level feel free to quibble is-

In 1989, the political system of Sudan was "rigorously restructured" following a military coup when Omar al-Bashir, then a brigadier in the Sudanese Army, led a group of officers and ousted the government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Under al-Bashir's leadership, the new military government suspended political parties and introduced an Islamic legal code on the national level.

In the 2000s and 2010s, there was a war in Darfur you might have heard about due to the various crimes against humanity and horrific humanitarian crisis and stuff. The militia that fought on the Sudanese government side are broadly grouped/affiliated with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and are accused of war crimes. 'Crimes against Humanity' war crimes.

What you might not have known is that there is gold in those killing fields, and naturally the side with the militia to control the gold gets to profit. The RSF starts to take off as a political force, and an economic force, due to control of the gold. It also branches off to other profitable ventures, like mercenary work. Anyone familiar with the international overlap of gold interests and mercenary work may recognize some similarities with certain Russian interest groups. Yes, there is a Russian connection. But back to history.

On April 11, 2019, al-Bashir and his government were overthrown in a military coup led by his first vice president and defense minister, who then established the now ruling military junta, led by Lt. General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. The RSF under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, often known as Hemetti, supported Burhan in the coup and suppressing post-coup protests, including the Khartoum massacre.

After the 2019 coup, Sudan’s government was led by the Sovereign Council, a military-civilian body that is the highest power in the transitional government. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is the civilian leader of the cabinet. This means he is not actually the leader. The Chairman of the Sovereignty Council is General Abdel Fattah Burhan of the SAF, who is backed by Hemetti, leader of the RSF.

In October 2020, Sudan made an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, as part of the agreement the United States removed Sudan from the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

On 25 October 2021, the Sovereignty Council and the Sudanese government were immensely dissolved after being overthrown in the 2021 Sudan coup.

Surprise surprise, the leader to come out on top again is... General Burhan of the SAF, backed by Hemetti and the RSF.

Which brings us closer to present. As part of broader western normalization and diplomatic rehabilitation, the premise of Sudan politics is that it isn't an indefinite permanent military junta, but a transition government that will, eventually, place the military under civilian rule.

This will naturally be a long and arduous process, but western support actually does demand the military itself to be consolidated, so that things like the Darfure crisis and the humanitarian castrophe that supports mass migration not happen. Which means that the Sudan Armed Forces would need to reign in and control the paramilitary militia of the Rapid Support Forces, who have a nasty history of suppressing. Which means that the RSF, rather than being an autonomous power broker with great autonomy, would be controlled by the Sudanese military, and General Burhan. Who- if he controls the RSF- would also control what the RSF controls. Like, say, gold mines.

Naturally, RSF Commander Hemetti is a patriot and a self-admitted supporter of civilian government rule, which is why earlier this month he allegedly* attempted to coup General Burhan.

I say allegedly here, because Hemetti claimed it was really Burhan and the SAF who did dirty first, but I will note that the RSF took a couple hundred Egyptian soldiers prisoner in the first day(s) of the war, which tends not to be the sort of thing that you do on accident if you're just responding.

(It does, however, make quite a sense if you have pre-meditated intent to coup the close ally/partner of the regional military partner, and thus throw one of the few military powers capable of intervening against you into a decision paralysis that keeps them from intervening against you.).

Note that this is all very western centric, and doesn't include things like how Egypt and Sudan are oriented against the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, only mentioned the gold and russian connection when I went off script, and doesn't even touch the various arab world implications. This is just a really, really ugly history.

Here's the Dean Summary:

In 1989, there was a coup. The military junta styled itself in islamic theocracy.

In the 2000s/2010s, Sudan was a pariah state that made itself infamous in the Darfur conflict, where the RSF was a tool of suppression and humanitarian atrocities using paramilitary militia.

In the 2010s, the RSF got rich and powerful off of using its paramilitary militia to seize control of gold and other economic interests in Darfur.

In 2019, there was a new military coup led by General Burhan of the SAF, who was supported by Dagalo, leader of the paramilitary RSF. The new government ingratiates itself with the west by relaxing from the pariah policies.

In 2021, General Burhan of the SAF launches another coup, again with the support of Dagalo and the RSF. The new new government sustains western toleration/acceptance by going through negotiations of a transition to civilian government.

In 2022, western attention / negotiations for negotiation focus on consolidating the military under future civilian control. This includes consolidating the RSF under SAF control, which in turn means control of the gold and economic interests Hemetti had built up.

In April 2023, a week and a half ago, Hemetti and the RSF attempted a coup against General Burhan and the SAF with an attempted takeover of the capital of Khartoum. It failed to oust him, and the conflict looks ready to go into a sustained civil war with massive humanitarian implications.

That was an ugly history. I'll give an even worse response to the original question next.

To revisit the question and break it apart-

The new conflict that broke out in Sudan - anyone have a good low down on what is happening there, and why? Is this truly a proxy-war between the US and Russia (Rapid Support Forces being Russian proxy, I guess? And Sudan Armed Forces would be US allies..?), or is there something else to this?

The new conflict that broke out in Sudan - anyone have a good low down on what is happening there, and why?

The proximal cause is a breakdown of negotiations over the integration of the paramilitary RSF under the SAF. The SAF wanted this in a short time frame, within years. The RSF wanted a longer time frame, like a decade, but practically never.

These negotiations have been western backed, and in a sense western pushed, since the 2019 but especially the 2021 coup, as a sort of condition for international legitimacy / foreign support. One of the key western interests / some background reasons for their role is the negotiation is the context of Darfur. On top of being a massive humanitarian tragedy in and of itself, it's humanitarian crisis like this that can drive regional instability to collapse governments and see migration flows from Africa towards Europe. Consolidating control of all the military forces under a single military, and that military under the civilian government, is a key point in reigning in warlordism that fuels these conflicts, where profit-maximizing warlords continue their wars without state backing.

In practice, however, Hemetti and the RSF are the warlord being reigned in, since the paramilitary militia are more of a threat to stability than the formal military, and the consolidation of the RSF under the SAF would have decisively subordinated control of his personal economic interests (the RSF-controlled gold and other things) under Burhan and the SAF.

This is the fundamental crux of the current coup / civil war: the RSF Warlord had his interests under threat. A coup attempt makes sense here, because if it succeeds, Hemetti gets even more power and wealth, and if it stalls, then in the negotiations that follow Hemetti can secure concessions that protect his interests.

IF you want to frame this as the west's fault, then having negotiations that put Hemetti's interests at risk is the western contribution to the crisis. The inevitable tankie framing will be that the US forced Hemetti's hand, and that the US drove the crisis, and that the crisis would end if the US used it's great power and influence to force a ceasefire for the good of the people, and only American/western greed and amorality prevents it.

This is generally where I tell people to stop being cultural chauvinists and thinking it's all about the West.

The West was not issuing ultimatums. The West does not control the military autocrat who couped the previous military junta who couped the previous military junta. All negotiations put people's interests at stake- that's what negotiatiosn are. But Hemetti and the RSF were not in a 'coup or die' situation. There was no ticking clock or irreversible end to negoations. Burhan was not, to my knowledge, actually about to militarily move against his Deputy. This is a conflict of choice between two men with their own motives and interests. There is an ambitious warlord who made his wealth and power inflicting great misery and suffering who wanted to not just protect, but expand, his personal power and wealth, in a conflict with another ambitious warlord who made his wealth and power inflicting great misery and suffering in the process of expanding his personal power and wealth.

Neither is an American puppet. They are their own men. And they are causing a mountain of misery in the foreseeable future, as they have supported in the past to varying degrees. They are both quite willing to inflict more for their own advantage, and the logic of the conflict- and factors in it to date- suggest a sustained civil war, not the ever-optimistic 'we can compel negotiations that will end the conflict in our favor' that the RSF seems to have been betting on.

I have, many times, said I have a dim view of any war strategy that rests on the premise of 'and then the enemy will lose the will to fight.' Nothing I see from the SAF suggests that Burhan intends to give up, or that other powers can make him. Multiple announced cease fires have failed, and each failure decreases the chance for the next.

The coup will likely continue into a civil war. There are factors that could limit it, and with the grace of god may they prevail, but if the SAF can retake the capital, the obvious next step for them is to take the gold mines and RSF economic interests, and those interests can pay for a lot of mercenaries and such to resist that. It will be bloody and expensive, but that's a cost both men are likely willing to pay, over American objection.

Is this truly a proxy-war between the US and Russia (Rapid Support Forces being Russian proxy, I guess?

The russian-gold connection, and reported Wagner ties, are not central / drivers of western policy in Sudan. That is a red herring.

There are certainly RSF-Russian ties that the US and the West does not like, but there are many things about the SAF and its ties that the West does not like. The SAF-junta is not a US-backed government in the sense that any alternative to it is a zero-sum loss of American interests. The SAF is a US-backed government in that it is the government, effectively, and in negotiations with the US and other international parties for international acceptance. The US is not Sudan's political/military/economic guarantor. If anything, Egypt is- and while Egypt is a US ally, it's not a Russian foe.

There are some definite RSF-Russian elements that are worth noting here- the RSF opening phase of the conflict has some obvious (though not exclusively) Russian strategic thinking influences, from the role of opening misinformation for information space disruption, the opening targetting/capture of Egyptian forces to create a decision paralysis to delay/disrupt/prevent external intervention, and the overarching strategy of a smaller military power trying to use first-mover advantage and a selective call for negotiations/cease fire from a position of advantage. The RSF timing, down to the point of the Eid Holiday at the end of the first week of fighting, when the pre-planned operations would climax, but the counter-attacks wouldn't have time to marshal, and the foreign diplomatic pressure and religious Eid holiday would increase chance for a natural compellence of cease fire, are all characteristic of how the Russians hybrid warfare theory suggest things should go, and the Wagner ties are absolutely a vector to support that.

But at this time, there's no real indication the Russians, or Wagner, or directly involved or orchestrating or anything else. Framing this as a Russia-US proxy war overestimates the relevance of both sides.

It also overstates the attachment other parties have to either side. If the SAF wins, the US continues relations with the military junta that launched a coup. If the RSF wins, the US would... likely continue relations with the military junta that launched a coup. The US, and western, interest isn't in who rules the country, it's what who rules the country does, and Hemetti would quite likely continue the charade of a military-backed transitionary government in indefinite negotiations for an eventual transition to civilian government that patriotic military leader would oh-so-happily lead.

Whether that person is Hemetti or Burhan really doesn't matter to the west, though Hemetti's personal ties to Russia might be an irritant, and the RSF is a bit more detestable to western sensitivities than the SAF due to the involvement in Darfur and the ill-discipline with how western diplomats have been treated. However, the west cares far more that Sudan doesn't generate a humanitarian crisis that causes regional instability and migration flows.

And Sudan Armed Forces would be US allies..?), or is there something else to this?

Sudan is generating a humanitarian crisis that will cause regional instability and migration flows.

The immediate Western and most foreign nation priorities priorities is getting diplomats and citizens out of what is rapidly becoming a humanitarian disaster zone. Fighters (allegedly, but not necessarily exclusively, from RSF) have been robbing diplomats or attacking refugee convoys as the leave the capital. Diplomatic evacuations have been in the scale of hundreds; thousands to tens of thousands of foreign nationals are in the country. Diplomatic evacuations are ongoing, but the risk to thousands of citizens is quite possibly going to generate calls for foreign intervention in some form.

And risk is real, because infrastructure is contested or failing. The Khartoum capital airport has been shut by fighting since the coup, and it's a 800km / 500 mile drive to the port, which means if you don't have the gas for that there's a good chance you're escaping the war-torn capital on foot. Internet is failing across the country, and foreign aid groups already in the country say they're not able to get humanitarian supplies in, which means there's both less to feed people AND less ability to coordinate it.

And, of course, there's that minor thing about the civil war, where one side was THE designated force for organizing militia to terrorize the country side and steal everything of value. Including, allegedly, robbing evacuating diplomats, kidnapping non-involved soldiers of foreign militaries, and other charming examples of care.

It's liable to be bad. Really, really bad. And I have no faith or confidence in the ability of the West to compel a ceasefire and return to negotiations, and every fear that failure to do so will see the SAF grind the RSF out of the capital and then go for the RSF's economic heart, even if it takes them years of humanitarian crisis to do so.

And reports that Ethiopian cross border forces were defeated- did the RSF or the SAF do that?