Ufuk Necat Tasci
Since 15 April, hundreds of people in Sudan have been killed while more than 4,000 have been injured due to fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
After being ruled for decades by Omar al Bashir, pro-democracy protests in 2019 created a democratic opening that was eventually filled by military strongmen.
A coup in 2021 saw the army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, take control of the country and oust the transitional government with the help of the RSF, headed by Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo.
Now the two generals are fighting each other for control of the country.
“[Haftar and Hemedti] both covertly reject subordination to civilian leadership and have cultivated a ‘parallel’ military structure in Libya and Sudan”
On Sunday, both sides agreed to extend a humanitarian ceasefire by 72 hours. Despite lulls in fighting and international mediation, none of the previous ceasefires have been fully observed.
The strategic location of Sudan has attracted power plays by multiple regional powers, and further involvement by neighbouring countries is expected if fighting becomes protracted.
Given the close ties between Libyan National Army (LNA) chief Khalifa Haftar and Hemedti, and divisions between their respective regional sponsors, Libya’s influence could be critical.
But what is the link between Haftar and Hemedti? Who is backing whom in Sudan, and how could the conflict split the region and potentially change its political architecture?
Haftar and Hemedti
Since fighting in Sudan began, Haftar has reportedly provided military support to the RSF, dispatching at least one plane of military supplies. The LNA has denied these claims.
However, the relationship between both men dates back to before the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime, and in subsequent years RSF forces are thought to have played a critical role in supporting Haftar in Libya.
Speaking to The New Arab, Emadeddin Badi, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, says a deep relationship exists between Haftar and Hemedti.
“It is partly one that is the result of illicit transactional links via the Fezzan [region] between the LAAF & the RSF, but also the result of a recent history of shared Emirati military support between the two figures,” Badi said.
“That aside, there are similarities between the two characters – in that they both covertly reject subordination to civilian leadership and have cultivated a ‘parallel’ military structure in Libya and Sudan respectively – structures through which they carved themselves political roles,” he added.
According to Sami Hamdi, editor-in-chief of the International Interest, the relationship has less to do with Haftar and Hemedti specifically and is more about the UAE.
“As firm allies of the UAE and as key moving parts of UAE foreign policy, a network has been facilitated in which Haftar has helped train Hemedti’s forces, used soldiers from Hemedti to bolster his position in Libya, and established and benefitted from illicit trade routes that have been facilitated by Hemedti,” Hamdi told TNA.
He argues that Sudanese fighters have often been reported in Haftar’s territories, and these have long been considered to have been sent by Hemedti at the request of the UAE.
“As key moving parts of UAE foreign policy, a network has been facilitated in which Haftar has helped train Hemedti’s forces, used soldiers from Hemedti to bolster his position in Libya, and established and benefitted from illicit trade routes”
The analyst further believes that the aim of this network has been to establish cooperation between them that helps advance UAE aims.
Anas El Gomati, founder and director of Libya-based think tank Sadeq Institute, says Haftar acts as both an individual and as part of a network that is supporting Hemedti.
“As part of the network, Haftar is offering logistical support for the United Arab Emirates and Russia’s Wagner Group to channel weapons and train forces on behalf of Hemedti,” he told TNA.
“In addition, in a personal capacity, Haftar has delivered fuel supplies from Eastern Libya and passed intelligence to Hemedti.”
Although Egypt is officially remaining neutral in the fighting, Cairo has traditionally supported the army in Sudan and is seen as a key backer of Burhan.
Considered one of Haftar’s principal supporters in Libya, Egypt therefore has conflicting interests in Sudan not only with the warlord but also with the UAE, which could have political repercussions.
Going separate ways: Egypt and the UAE
Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says the relationship between Haftar and Egypt “has been unpleasant for years,” and has impacted several key issues, including Sudan.
“And yet, Egypt is not going to walk away from Haftar’s armed coalition. The latter is indeed the only security architecture in the eastern half of Libya, and Cairo cannot tolerate a scenario where that structure collapses,” Harchaoui told TNA.
“It is the only game in town. The second reason is that Egypt is undergoing a severe economic crisis, which means Cairo cannot contradict its potential and wealthy benefactor: Abu Dhabi, known for its organic links to both Hemedti and Haftar. Owing to those reasons, the notion that Egypt might get angry and turn against Haftar’s coalition is ludicrous,” he adds.
Hamdi, on the other hand, thinks that Sisi appears to be treading carefully and trying to find a way to ensure Hemedti does not win while at the same time not jeopardising his relationship with the UAE.
“Haftar will be gambling on this dynamic, that Sisi’s desire to preserve relations with the UAE will guarantee him immunity from any Egyptian backlash regarding his support for Hemedti,” he says.
“Haftar will be gambling on this dynamic, that Sisi’s desire to preserve relations with the UAE will guarantee him immunity from any Egyptian backlash regarding his support for Hemedti”
Sudan’s conflict casts a shadow on Libya
The key actors in Sudan’s fighting have also been involved in Libya’s political deadlock for years, with experts believing that Haftar’s support for Hemedti could lead to a protracted conflict in Sudan that could also negatively impact Libya.
According to Badi, it could affect Libya “either through instability spread from Sudan” or if “Sudanese, Chadians, and Russians with the LNA begin staging operations using Fezzan as a springboard”.
Anas El Gomati says that if the RSF and Hemedti fail, they could use southeastern Libya as a safe haven for their forces, not just a base for training.
“Over the long term, this will not only destabilise a post-conflict Sudan (if we ever get to it), but Libya too, which is awash with weapons and foreign fighters that have refused to leave despite a UN ceasefire deal that called for their exit in 2020”.
Dr Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, academic, and journalist. His research areas and interests include Libya, the foreign policy of Turkey, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict and history.