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BIPR | Civil Unrest Will Escalate to Civil War in Sudan
Global Risk Series

Civil Unrest Will Escalate to Civil War in Sudan

Alexis Sawyer, M.A.I.R. '25

Civil Unrest Will Escalate to Civil War in Sudan

Sudan is witnessing a power struggle between military forces over limited resources and control of the government.

Sudan's ongoing civil conflict between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) will continue. Both forces are heavily recruiting combatants locally and inspiring other armed groups to become more actively involved and choose sides. De-escalation is unlikely as more groups join the war and vie for international legitimacy. Ethnic clashes have led to territorial disputes and the massive displacement of locals. This contributes to a growing humanitarian crisis in the wider region, including South Sudan, Chad, and Egypt. The worsening economy, water scarcity and civil grievances will foment another enduring civil war in Sudan, potentially destabilizing the entire region.


Although the Second Sudanese Civil War ended in 2005, the country has been having a systematic problem with political instability and violence for decades. It is a weak state with a poor economy, has many citizens living in severe deprivation and suffers from civil infighting over limited resources. The current conflict has reached its sixth month with over 5,000 civilian deaths, 12,000 Sudanese injured, and 5.7 million people forcibly displaced. The violent changing of power from one group to another has made it difficult for international human rights and humanitarian organizations to take action and prevent war crimes, most specifically mass civilian casualties, sexual violence against women and girls, looting, and targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals.

Extreme deprivation

Economic deprivation is the main determinant for violent political mobilization. 65% of Sudanese live under the poverty line, 72% of the population does not have access to basic sanitation facilities, and 30% of the population needs to walk one hour or more to reach a medical institution. Individuals living in such absolute deprivation resent the status quo and may see themselves as having relatively little to lose from joining rebel groups.

The latest round of fighting between the RFS and SAF broke out in Khartoum, Sudan, where urban poverty reaches 41%. These dire circumstances have created the opportunity for the RSF and SAF to capitalize on the struggles of citizens and increase the size of their fighting forces.

Resource competition

Resource constraints create violent competition for more supplies. Resource scarcity also affects rebel groups who conduct violent attacks on villages. Large attacks against civilians led to the burning of hundreds of villages and the destruction of means of livelihood. Overall, 370 security incidents (due to localiized conflict and armed attacks) were reported across the country in 2022.

Sudan is extremely vulnerable to climate change and climate-related disasters. Recent drastic changes in weather have impacted Sudan's rainfall year-to-year, inciting floods and severe droughts that have affected harvest, livestock, and income. Floods also affected about 349,000 people and the economy took further turns for the worse. Children are particularly affected by food shortages, urging local populations to clash on behalf of their young. An estimated 7.8 million people will fall short of their minimum food needs. Rebel groups recruit civilians from among those most disadvantaged.

Inequality and ethnic tensions

The RSF and SAF previously joined forces to overthrow Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, but their independent agendas to seize resources and obtain power has pitted the two factions against one another. SAF commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan are in a competitive quest for legal and international recognition. Even fighting under the banner of a unified faction, many participants are joining the war due to collective identities based on ethnicity.

Ethnic tensions resulted in deadly bombings in Darfur and Kordofan. In South Darfur, there are deadly encounters between the Salamat and Beni Halba ethnic militias, competing Arab cattle herders tribes. Ethnic tensions make peacebuilding troublesome as it is difficult to reconcile different, socially-constructed groups. Likewise, in-groups and out-groups are being embedded in social and political processes. A quick, peaceful conclusion to this war is so far unlikely.

Civilian Targeting

Battle dynamics have evolved as bombs are now being utilized to target civilians. Recent fighting has included airstrikes and selling incidents targeting hospitals and civilian infrastructure. On April 24, 2023, a SAF airstrike hit a residential area south of Khartoum, killing several people. Each warring faction is strategically employing these methods to force the other side to capitulate. Shifts in territorial control between warring parties have escalated violence in urban centers, such as the capital city Zalingei. The RSF's indiscriminate shelling of camp centers resulted in high civilian deaths, forcing survivors to flee. This adds to the growing number of displaced persons. Civilian targeting is a critical tactic to impose harsh costs on potential joiners and supporters of the opposing side, and it is an alarming sign of escalation.


The RFS and SAF will continue to capitalize on economic and ethnic tensions to recruit fighters and maintain momentum as the war drags on. The international community has moslty been absent from the region to push for meaningful de-escalation. This increases the risk of conflict spillover to outlying regions and neighboring countries.

Alexis Sawyer is a Master of Arts in International Relations candidate at JHU-SAIS. Her main research interests are American foreign policy in the Middle East and the onset of civil conflicts in the MENA-region. Alexis was a Boren Scholar in Morocco after receiving her BA in Political Science from UCLA.

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