Doha, Qatar – The next major battle in Sudan’s civil war between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) could spiral into all-out ethnic violence that puts entire communities at risk, residents, experts and aid groups told Al Jazeera.
Over the last week, the Joint Protection Forces (JPF) – five mostly non-Arab armed groups – deployed hundreds of reinforcements about 80km (50 miles) northeast of el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, residents told Al Jazeera.
They claim they are there to protect civilians from a possible attack by the RSF, whose fighters mostly hail from Arab tribes.
“Over the last three days…it has become fairly obvious to most people on the ground that [the fight for North Darfur] will most likely turn into an all-out, ethnic-based conflict,” said Nic Pyat, head of mission for the Nonviolent Peaceforce, an NGO dedicated to civilian protection worldwide.
A neutral body at the time, the JPF – former Darfur rebel groups tasked with security in the region after the UN-African Union peacekeeping force left at the start of 2021 – pledged to protect major markets and civilians across Darfur despite their limited abilities when the war erupted in April.
RSF fighters have defeated Sudan’s army in four of Darfur’s five states. During their charge, the group has killed civilians, subjected women to sexual violence and looted neighbourhoods.
North Darfur could suffer a similar fate if the RSF captures it from the army, residents and monitors say.
“Everyone is scared,” said Ibrahim Moussa, a local journalist in the region. “They are scared because there is no official statement [from the RSF] about whether they will attack the army or not.”
A bloody peace agreement
The JPF came into being when several armed groups originally from Darfur signed the Juba Peace Agreement with the army and RSF, who used to be firm allies, in October 2020.
The agreement allowed non-Arab rebel groups to return to Darfur from exile in Libya, where they had been for four years.
The groups included the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Gibril Ibrahim and a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army led by Minni Minawi (SLA-MM) – under the JPA power-sharing, Ibrahim became the finance minister, while Minawi was appointed governor of Darfur.
A year later, both men joined the army, RSF and smaller armed groups to stage a coup on the civilian cabinet that had been sharing power with the security forces since a popular uprising overthrew autocratic President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
They planned to divvy up the spoils of the economy and ministerial positions, but a power struggle between the army and the RSF eventually erupted into a full-blown civil war in April this year.
Ibrahim and Minawi hedged for months, claiming neutrality in the conflict, but they officially declared support for the army on November 16. Four days later, the Gathering of Sudanese Justice and Equality Forces of Abdallah Banda in el-Fasher followed suit.
“These men are sacrificing the positive image of the Joint Protection Forces and their movements to be warlords,” said Suliman Baldo, the founder of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker, a think tank providing policy analysis on the country.
“They are joining forces with the army to preserve their narrow economic interests,” he added.
Both Ibrahim and Minawi are from the Zaghawa tribe, and their fighters comprise a large portion of the Joint Protection Forces that are now outside of el-Fasher.
Since returning to Darfur in 2020, JEM and SLA-MM have been actively recruiting in el-Fasher, attracting young Zaghawa and Fur men from the Zamzam IDP (internally displaced people) camp – which has a population of about 120,000 – aid groups working in the region told Al Jazeera.
“The situation in the camps is quite worrying because we know the JPA forces have been mobilising some of the displaced people, especially in Zamzam,” said one foreign relief worker who requested anonymity.
“On one hand, it means there are more people to defend the camps. But on the other hand, it could mean the camps are seen as the target by the RSF and thus a battleground.”
Ibrahim has struggled recently to retain some senior commanders. In August, JEM fighters created a splinter group after accusing Ibrahim of backing the army in the war.
Aid groups and residents do not feel that will hamper Ibrahim’s recruitment drive since he can pay his fighters handsomely from state coffers.
Meanwhile, Arabs in el-Fasher are joining the RSF for protection, said Hooa Daoud, a journalist who spoke to Al Jazeera from el-Fasher. “[D]uring any emergency or crisis, people hide behind their tribe,” she explained.
Many Arabs in the region had been arrested by military intelligence at the start of the war due to their perceived ethnic allegiance with the RSF, she added.
“For the last three months, many young Arab men have [been] recruited into the RSF from several areas in North Darfur,” Daoud said.
Fresh atrocities and regional spillover?
Residents in el-Fasher believe the RSF wants to capture all of Darfur and that an attack is imminent. But Yousif Ezat, the RSF spokesperson and spin doctor, said he is not aware of plans for a military operation.
“The RSF does not want to get involved in any kind of war with armed movements or tribes,” Ezat added.
However, just two weeks ago, the RSF and allied Arab militias reportedly killed 1,300 non-Arab Masalit civilians in an IDP camp in West Darfur to seize their land and water resources.
Local monitors say the incident may have been the single largest act of mass killing since the war began.
Alan Boswell, an expert on Sudan for International Crisis Group, a non-profit committed to ending and preventing conflicts worldwide, warned that similar atrocities could unfold in North Darfur.
“There is a huge risk of a military fight [in North Darfur] turning into ethnic violence and atrocities like what occurred in West Darfur,” Boswell told Al Jazeera.
“Any fight between the RSF and Zaghawa groups could also reverberate in Chad, where there could be more disquiet about [President Mahamat] Deby’s approach to the war in Sudan within his camp.”
Deby, who is Zaghawa, has maintained an ambivalent stance towards Darfur, but he could come under domestic pressure to defend his kin if they are attacked in Sudan. For now, civilians in el-Fasher just hope to avert an all-out war.
“There is a cautious calm,” said Moussa, the local journalist.
“The RSF hasn’t made a move, and Minnawi and Ibrahim say that they will only react if citizens and the city are attacked. “But there is fear all around.”