Next to the Calamity Unfolding in Sudan, the Red Sea Looks Almost Placid

War in the Middle East and Ukraine obscures the level of chaos in what has become a worryingly large failed African state. Now Unesco cultural sites are imperiled, too.

AP/Marwan Ali, file
Sudan's army chief, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, at Khartoum, December 5, 2022. AP/Marwan Ali, file

The United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterras, is apparently more concerned about glaciers receding in Switzerland than he is about the tidal wave of famine and death sweeping steadily over Sudan. In his address to the World Economic Forum at Davos last week Mr. Guterres hit out at global warming but reserved fewer than two words for the latest African country to be wracked by chaos.

There are signs that the situation is getting worse in the country of 46 million people that borders Egypt to the north and the Red Sea to the east. Attacks on cargo ships traversing the Red Sea by Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen, and the logistical repercussions of those attacks, have already sent ocean shipping rates soaring. There is no indication yet that the crisis in Sudan will affect that, but the instability could put indirect pressure on American military assets in the region, including Djibouti-based Camp Lemonnier. That is the main base of operations for U.S. Africa Command in the Horn of Africa, and the only permanent American military base in Africa. 

Fighting has already broken out between a tribal militia and the Sudanese army at Sudan’s main seaport, Port Sudan, though for now it appears to be limited. 

Sudan has for months been involved in the worst  turmoil it has seen since its civil war, which itself eventually tore Africa’s biggest country into two. After the revolution in 2019 ousted the long-time dictator, Omar al Bashir, his former henchmen clung on to power and eventually turned on each other in an explosive confrontation.

Now the country’s army is fighting the second-largest armed faction — Janjaweed militia turned paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces — with shelling, airstrikes, and random violence having killed an estimated 13,000 people and entrapping hundreds of thousands. Large areas of the capital, Khartoum, have already been besieged by the RSF. Those forces overran a strategic city south of Khartoum last month.

Fighting between the government army of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemetti or “little Mohammed,” which began in April 2023, now threatens to destroy an important Unesco World Heritage site in the north of the country.

According to multiple accounts, the RSF has now advanced to the site’s 2,000-year-old ruins. An incursion was reportedly fended off by a unit of the Sudanese air force and for the moment calm has been restored.

Yet Paris-based Unesco is on alert. In a press statement, it said that all parties involved must fully comply with international law, which states that such sites “must not be targeted, nor used for military purposes.”

The ruins include temple structures and  pyramids that while sturdy are hardly indestructible. Looting of antiquities is another concern. The archaeological site is situated on the island of Meroe, which according to Unesco is “a semi-desert landscape between the Nile and Atbara rivers” and formed “the heartland of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The property consists of the royal city of the Kushite kings at Meroe, near the River Nile, the nearby religious site of Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra.” 

The ruins are about 136 miles north of Khartoum. General Dagalo’s rebels now control more than 80 percent of that city.

The push by the RSF northward is new, because until now the conflict between the two camps has been mainly concentrated at Khartoum, in the center, and at Darfur, in the west. In recent days there has been an intensification of fighting in Khartoum. The Sudanese army is holding on to only three bastions in the north of the city, at least as local reports have it. 

Supply chains come from the north, and almost the entire western region of Darfur is also controlled by the RSF.

Humanitarian convoys have been attacked by both sides and millions are struggling to get access to basic necessities. At Darfur, RSF violence has ravaged non-Arab communities as army headquarters have fallen under the RSF’s control. 

In just nine months of war, nearly seven  million people have been forced from their homes, making the situation in Sudan the world’s biggest displacement crisis and putting millions at risk of starvation.

Although the RSF has signaled in recent weeks that it could be open to ceasefire talks with the Sudanese army, so far nothing has come of it. That leaves the country teetering on the brink, with the United Nations characteristically impotent — as the lacunae in Mr. Guterres’s Davos remarks show. For Washington, that leaves Egypt as the only major reliable partner left on the western flank of the Red Sea. 


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