October 4, 2023

Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo – brother of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and his deputy – has had his assets frozen in the United States, while Abdul Rahman Juma, an RSF commander in West Darfur, was hit with a visa ban.

With that, the paramilitary force has lost hope of acquiring political legitimacy after the duo were sanctioned on September 6, according to analysts and activists.

Both were sanctioned over human rights abuses, specifically atrocities in Sudan’s West Darfur province. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Juma was sanctioned for ordering the June 15 assassination of West Darfur’s Governor Khamis Abdallah Abakar.

“The sanctions really are a blow to the personal brand of the Dagalo family,”  said Kholood Kair, a Sudanese expert and founding director of Confluence Advisory.

A Chadian cart owner transports the belongings of Sudanese people who fled the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region while crossing the border between Sudan and Chad in Adre, Chad [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

The importance of legitimacy

In 2019, the RSF started an extensive, and expensive, effort to rehabilitate its image from a violent militia responsible for numerous atrocities in the Darfur region to a benevolent force defending calls for democracy.

A popular uprising had removed Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir, and the RSF tried to ride the wave of popular discourse, co-opting human rights activists by paying them top dollar and hiring PR firms to transform its image.

The RSF stepped up its reputation laundering after a civil war erupted between the paramilitary and the army on April 15. But with the sanctions, its effort and money may have gone to waste.

“Abdelrahim and Hemedti have been very conscious about being sanctioned because they know that is the kind of thing that follows you around for the rest of your life,” Jonas Horner, an independent expert on Sudan, told Al Jazeera.

“They’ve always known that legitimacy is very important if they want to be relevant politically.”

Beyond rehabilitation?

In West Darfur, the RSF and allied Arab militias have been accused of committing summary executions, sexual violence and burying corpses in mass graves, according to rights groups, witnesses and the United Nations.

Yet Abdelrahim Dagalo denied the reports during an interview with Sky News Arabia on September 7. He claimed the violence in West Darfur was the result of a “tribal war” fuelled by the army.

In this image grab taken from handout video footage released by the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 23, 2023, fighters ride in the back of a technical vehicle (pickup truck mounted with a turret) in the East Nile district of greater Khartoum. A US-brokered ceasefire between Sudan's warring generals entered its second day on April 26, 2023, but remained fragile after witnesses reported fresh air strikes and paramilitaries claimed to have seized a major oil refinery and power plant. (Photo by Rapid Support Forces (RSF) / AFP) / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SUDAN RAPID SUPPORT FORCES (RSF)" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === - === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SUDAN RAPID SUPPORT FORCES (RSF)" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === / BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
In this screen grab from handout video footage, fighters ride a vehicle in the East Nile district of greater Khartoum [File: RSF via AFP]

“The military is behind these crimes [in West Darfur] because it gives weapons to the tribes. The army works with the tribes in the evening and allows them to kill each other during the day,” Abdelrahim claimed.

But Mohamad Sharif, a human rights lawyer who fled el-Geneina to Chad in May, said the Arab militias are being armed by the RSF, not the army.

“It’s natural that Abdelrahim Dagalo and the RSF would deny what they did,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone. “But all the witnesses from West Darfur know the crimes against them are the work of the RSF.”

Sharif referenced the assassination of Abakar, who was killed after saying a genocide was taking place in West Darfur during an interview with Saudi channel Al Hadath.

He added that a number of other human rights monitors and dissidents have been killed.

“All these targeted violations are being ordered by the RSF,” he told Al Jazeera.

Equal treatment?

The army has tried to frame the conflict as a war between the state and a rebel militia, rather than a battle between two sides of the security forces, analysts say.

As such, US sanctions against the RSF help the army’s narrative, according to Alan Boswell, an expert on the Horn of Africa for the International Crisis Group, but that does not mean Western diplomats have decided to assign more legitimacy to the army than the RSF.

An image grab taken from a handout video posted on the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) page on Twitter, rebranded as X, on July 28, 2023 shows its commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo addressing RSF fighters at an undisclosed location. In a five-minute video believed to be his first since the fighting erupted on April 15, Daglo told regular army troops that peace could be restored "within 72 hours" if they handed over their commander General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his top aides. (Photo by Rapid Support Forces (RSF) / AFP) / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SUDAN'S RAPID SUPPORT FORCES TWITTER PAGE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === - === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SUDAN'S RAPID SUPPORT FORCES TWITTER PAGE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === /
A screen grab from a handout video on X, earlier known as Twitter, shows commander Hemedti addressing RSF fighters at an undisclosed location [File: RSF via AFP]

“My understanding is that those debates are unresolved, so I wouldn’t read too much into the sanctions in that regard,” he said.

One Western diplomat, who was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera both sides should be disqualified from governing Sudan and a civilian entity should assume power after the conflict. However, the diplomat said: “I am afraid that US realpolitik will kick in and that they will recognise the army as the government of Sudan.”

Confluence Advisory’s Khair said Washington has two main concerns: they don’t want the RSF to defeat the army nor for al-Bashir-era figures to return to prominence.

The latter hail from Sudan’s political Islamic movement and support the army.

“US officials are trying to balance both of these concerns,” she said. “They are worried about the RSF – a militia – establishing a government or parallel government in Sudan and they are worried about Bashir-era Islamists attracting or inviting Sahelian jihadists to the conflict.”

Emboldening the army

Sanctions against the paramilitary could make the army less amenable to peace talks, said Boswell.

“There is definitely a risk that the Sudanese army … may think the tide of global opinion is turning more and more against the RSF and therefore feels emboldened to seek victory on the battlefield,” he said.

Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan cheers with soldiers as he visits some of their positions in Khartoum.
This picture released on the Sudanese Army’s Facebook page shows army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan cheering with soldiers as he visits some of their positions in Khartoum [File: Sudanese Army Facebook page via AFP]

In recent days, the army has stepped up indiscriminate attacks in Khartoum.

On Wednesday, the US Department of State expressed concern over the growing number of civilian deaths caused by air attacks.

On September 10, an army air attack hit a market, killing more than 40 civilians and injuring about 70. Activists said a few RSF fighters were there, selling looted items, but that hundreds of civilians were also selling juice and tea to earn a living.

Army spokesman Nabil Abdallah did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera about the incident.

Khair said the army clearly has no qualms about bombing residential targets, ostensibly to hit the slightest possible RSF presence. The difference now, she added, is that the army might believe that they have enough internal and external support to evade repercussions.

“I think the army is feeling very triumphant … and that could fuel their bad behaviour,” she said.

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