Dr. Salem Al Ketbi
Dr. Salem Al KetbiCourtesy

The deathtrap of national armies

By Salem AlKetbi

UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate

What’s unfolding in Sudan regarding field developments isn’t much different from what has transpired for national armies in other Arab countries in the region. These armies find themselves pitted against militias, organizations, and groups, engaging in unconventional warfare where the outcome is often predetermined.

In this context, we won’t delve into the matter of the legitimacy of the Sudanese army’s or the Rapid Support Forces’ (RSF) position in the ongoing military conflict. This issue has an exceptional nature within Sudan itself in contrast to events in other countries, as these forces were once part of the official structure of the country’s institutional regime, with their leader General Hemeti serving as Deputy to the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council. However, following the outbreak of the current conflict, General Hemeti was subsequently dismissed by SSC chief General Burhan.

Hence, these forces cannot be equated to terrorist or rebel militias commonly found in the Arab region. They maintain a distinct organizational structure separate from the Sudanese army, which has remained unchanged even after their leader became part of the official power structure in the country.

The predicament faced by national armies in certain countries in the region lies in their engagement with non-state actors. This predicament didn’t arise out of nowhere nor is it a recent development. It has recurred multiple times in previous instances such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, all of which witnessed the involvement of US forces. They encountered similar situations and ultimately ended up with comparable positions and outcomes. It’s challenging for conventional armies to achieve decisive military victories against non-state organizations and groups.

The fight against terrorism has also witnessed analogous unconventional conflicts that yielded varied results. It is important to highlight that the eradication and defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq were achieved only through the collective efforts of the international coalition against terrorism, consisting of numerous countries.

One evident aspect of the current field problem faced by the Sudanese army is the proliferation of RSF elements in major cities like the capital, Khartoum. These elements are stationed in residential areas and critical facilities such as schools, hospitals, and government institutions. This situation presents a genuine dilemma for the Sudanese army since confronting these elements without causing damage to infrastructure and residential areas is extremely challenging. The aftermath would bring about catastrophic consequences.

A recent example of this was the bombing that targeted the vicinity of the International University of Africa’s headquarters in Khartoum, resulting in the loss of lives among refugees from Congo. The Foreign Minister of Congo commented, “What hurts us very much is that it was the regular army that dropped the bombs knowing there were foreigners there.” This particular incident is not the first occurrence of civilian casualties since the outbreak of the conflict. However, it has garnered more media attention due to the victims’ country of origin.

In this kind of conflict, the position of regular armies seems to be more complex compared to organizations or other non-state forces. This complexity arises from various factors related to the nature of conventional military institutions, including their training, readiness, weaponry, combat strategies, and the regulations and constraints that govern their professional conduct. Unlike non-state entities, which enjoy freedom of movement, ease of deployment and dispersion, and tactical flexibility, regular armies operate within limits.

The crucial distinction lies in the fact that non-state forces can operate without being bound by regulations and constraints. They may carry out field operations that result in human and material losses, while shifting the responsibility onto the regular army, perceived as the accountable party both domestically and internationally for the events unfolding on the ground.

One key takeaway from such crises is that militias and non-state forces remain a deferred threat. There will come a point where it becomes hard to “tame” them or contain their danger, particularly if they possess immense power, weaponry, personnel, and a sense of parity that drives them to pursue their own individual or organizational objectives. The nature, legitimacy, or alignment of these objectives with the national interests of the people or other factors become irrelevant.

What is unfolding in Sudan follows a pattern we’ve witnessed in other Arab countries, some of which are still embroiled in ongoing conflicts. The prospects for regular armies to achieve a definitive resolution to these conflicts appear limited, requiring an extended period of time. This leads to intricate crises for both the armies themselves and the residents of cities that have turned into battlegrounds.

Airplane destroyed during fighting at Khartoum Airport in Sudan
Airplane destroyed during fighting at Khartoum Airport in SudanREUTERS

As a result, a swift resolution to this conflict seems unlikely, not to mention the years, if not decades, it will take to restore normalcy and address the aftermath, especially on psychological and societal levels. Numerous field reports published by the media describe homes and streets as mass graves.

One aspect of the Sudanese crisis is the gradual collapse of the foundations of the Sudanese state. The likelihood of returning to a functioning pre-conflict state is diminishing or, at the very least, becoming increasingly encircled by mounting difficulties and complications as time goes on.

The ongoing conflict is causing the destruction of infrastructure and crucial facilities, while the skilled individuals responsible for managing these resources are being displaced, forced to flee, or losing their lives. In recorded videos, we have witnessed the conversion of hospitals, schools, and even the National Museum in Khartoum into military bases. As a result, the main question no longer is about when the street battles in Sudanese cities will come to an end, but rather when Sudan as a whole will heal.