Where does SLM-AW stand in Sudan's new war?
Long-time Darfur rebel group is still neutral—but for how long?
The Rapid Support Forces’ recent takeover of most of Darfur has raised questions about its relationship with the long-time rebel group led by Abdelwahid al-Nur.
Twenty years ago, al-Nur’s Sudan Liberation Movement/Army launched a rebellion that has never really ended. The group, which is abbreviated SLM-AW or SLA-AW to distinguish it from other factions of the same name, controls the Marra Mountains. These mountains are both a military stronghold and the historic heart of the Fur territory for which Darfur is named. The Fur are the largest non-Arab ethnic group in Darfur.
Although fighting died down in recent years between al-Nur’s rebels and the Sudanese security forces, particularly after the 2019 revolution, the movement rejected the 2020 Juba peace deal that brought several other Darfur rebel groups into government.
Abdelwahid instead continued to voice deep skepticism of Khartoum’s political process, its new transitional government, and its security forces. When the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led a coup in 2021, toppling the transitional government, this wrecked the chances of a peace agreement with SLM-AW.
Now, SLM-AW is caught in the middle of a new war that pits SAF against RSF—both of which are its historic enemies.
So where does the movement stand—and will it take a side?
‘The SLM maintains its independent stance’
For now, the political leadership of SLM-AW remains unwaveringly neutral in its stance. But leaders of both the RSF and SAF have recently made overtures to SLM-AW, and there is a risk that the movement could eventually be drawn into the conflict.
Both sides will likely also try to lure defectors to their ranks.
Last week, rumors swirled about whether SLM-AW would enter the conflict after the movement’s chief-of-staff, Yusif Karjakola, led a group of fighters to El Fasher, where he met with leaders of the Juba Peace factions, as well as some figures close to SAF.
This came in the context of preparations by the other movements to jointly repulse an anticipated attack by the RSF on El Fasher, capital of North Darfur and Greater Darfur.
Sources in the Justice and Equality Movement claimed that the SLM-AW commander reached an agreement with them to jointly protect civilians in El Fasher. However, this agreement is likely only informal, and doesn’t necessarily guarantee any concrete forms of cooperation. The spokesman of SLM-AW, Mohammed Abdelrahman al-Nair, told various Sudanese media,
“What has been circulated about the visit of the Chief of Staff of the Movement, Youssef Karjakola, to al-Fasher is not true, the visit is private and has nothing to do with aligning up with the army or the Juba peace movements.”
“The SLM maintains its independent stance and will not collaborate with any military or political party. It remains committed to ending the ongoing conflict not prolonging it by siding with any faction,” he said.
In a separate social media post, al-Nair criticized recent rumor-mongering about the movement, saying, “SLM/A has never been anyone's luggage… when the movement wants to announce a position, it announces it in broad daylight through its respected institutions and its official website, and it does not need volunteers to express on its behalf. Whoever has a thorn in his foot, let him pluck it out with his hands.”
Contacts with the Sudan Armed Forces
Prior his arrival in El Fasher, Karjakola was based in the eastern Jebel Marra region of Tawila. In this area, SLA-AW moves jointly alongside other movements, without tensions. Effectively, they share control of this area.
Formally, however, SLM-AW are not part of the Joint Force formed by the Juba Peace signatories, which is headed by Minni Minawi and based in El Fasher.
Some former leaders of Abdelwahid’s faction belong to the peace factions, while others are now directly working with SAF. Through these channels, SLM-AW has contact indirectly with SAF, particularly with the Sixth Infantry Division in El Fasher.
In effect, there is a truce between the two sides.
At the political level, too, the SAF Commander-in-Chief, Abdelfattah al-Burhan, publicly extended an olive branch to Abdelwahid during a speech at the United Nations in September. Moreover, the two leaders have spoken by phone and met recently in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, according to sources close to the movement.
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Relationship with the RSF
These contacts have not stopped SLA-AW from maintaining generally peaceful relations with the RSF too. Field sources confirmed that the RSF and SLA-AW coexist peacefully in the Nertiti area, which the army’s 86th Brigade withdrew from after the fall of the Zalingei garrison.
Two prominent RSF leaders sent a public message to Abdelwahid just days ago. West Darfur Sector Commander Abdelrahman Juma and Central Darfur Sector Commander Ali Yagoub Jibril appeared in a video filmed at the top of Jebel Asida near Zalingei.
Juma said, “We have a message for Abdelwahid Mohamed al-Nur.: This is your birthplace, you are our brother and friend, and all the residents of Central Darfur are our brothers and friends. We made a visit to this place to affirm our position and achievements, and relations with our brothers in the armed struggle movements. We are not your enemy. Our concern is that all our force will head for Port Sudan.”
He also tried to portray al-Burhan as an historic enemy and oppressor of the Fur, citing something that the SAF commander allegedly said in the Bashir era, namely that he was “king of the Fur”: "In the sky, there is God, in Zalingei (Darfur) there is just me… Nobody should say something like that.”
RSF’s propaganda arm has worked hard to try to shed the paramilitary’s image as an Arab ethnic militia. To that end, it occasionally announces that figures belonging to other tribes have joined its ranks or announced solidarity with the RSF. In the below video November 27, for example, they declared that members of the Fur Native Administration announced their backing for the RSF. However, because the RSF deal brutally with dissenters, it’s difficult to say if such declarations are voluntary.
Historically, the RSF perpetrated racist violence against the Fur—raping, killing, and burning villages. After an offensive into SLM-AW-controlled areas of Jebel Marra in 2014-2015, Human Rights Watch published an 88-page report titled “Men With No Mercy,” in which RSF fighters were quoted saying they “needed to teach the Fur a lesson.”
In the next section of this article, we outline several different scenarios, covering a timeframe of 1-3 years.
Scenario 1: Some SLM-AW troops join the RSF
There is only a very remote chance that SLM-AW, as a whole, will align itself with the RSF, whether politically or militarily, now or in the future. The leadership simply distrust RSF too much, and their history of animosity goes back too far and too deep.
However, some of the movement’s troops could defect to the RSF. Other former Darfur rebel movements have already suffered some defections to the RSF, and the paramilitary could try to lure more defectors with promises of money, loot, weapons—or just the prospect of safety and security.
Defections to the RSF in other areas have sometimes happened under duress.
Such defections could sap the strength of the movement and limit its ability to resist the RSF if the latter continues to dominate Darfur militarily and eventually moves to occupy Jebel Marra. But SLM-AW has endured past defections and breakups without losing control of the central Darfur region.
Scenario 2: SLM-AW stay neutral but come under more pressure
If other Darfur movements are drawn into the conflict, such as the one led by Minni Minawi, the risk of fighting involving SLM-AW increases. Minawi and leaders of several other Juba Peace signatories recently renounced their neutrality, but this has not yet led to an escalation of violence in the field. They have declared that El Fasher is a red line, in effect, and tried to deter the RSF from attacking that city.
If the RSF ignore this warning, then those movements could intervene on the side of Sudan’s army. Fighting would likely spread into other areas of North Darfur where Minawi’s forces and allied factions have troops and popular support.
This does not mean, however, that SLM-AW would automatically intervene. There is a realistic possibility that Abdelwahid would remain on the sidelines, even as other Sudan Liberation Movement factions battled the RSF in other parts of Darfur.
Maintaining neutrality in these circumstances would be difficult because of the political pressure from the other factions, and because RSF combatants might not distinguish between members of the different factions, but instead attack them all.
Politically, SLM-AW would find itself more closely aligned with the anti-war civilian forces, such as the Civil Front led by the former prime minister Abdallah Hamdok, who recently met with Abdelwahid al-Nur to try to persuade him to join the coalition.
The outcome of these consultations is unclear. Hamdok reportedly considered the matter important enough to delay the start of the Civil Front’s recent Addis Ababa preparatory meeting. Nevertheless, Abdelwahid did not participate.
However, SLM-AW recently dispatched a delegate to participate in the recent Cairo Humanitarian Conference. The representative, Dr. Kamal Abdel Aziz Abdel Shafee, said afterwards, “Although the purpose of the conference is humanitarian affairs, the detailed discussions, deliberations, and proposals that came out of the conference confirmed that…there must be pressure to stop the war and enter into a real and comprehensive Sudanese political process, away from hypocrisy and exclusion, in order to preserve what remains from Sudan.”
Scenario 3: SLM-AW go to war against RSF, after delaying
Another scenario involves the opportunistic entry of SLM-AW into the conflict at a later date, perhaps after a year or more. For example, if the RSF were to suffer defeats in certain areas at the hands of the other Darfur movements, Abdelwahid’s men might move to take control of RSF territory.
Historically, Abdelwahid has made reclaiming illegally settled land a key point of his military and political objectives. (After the Darfur genocide that began in 2003, the Arab predecessor militias of the RSF drove many people of Abdelwahid’s Fur tribe off their land, during a campaign often described by the International Criminal Court as genocide).
“A war between RSF and SLA-AW would imperil tens of thousands of vulnerable people already living in conditions of extreme poverty.”
For now, it is unlikely that Abdelwahid’s movement, as a whole, will take a side in the current war. In the longer term, there is a high risk of conflict. RSF have declared that they want to take control of all of Darfur, and SLM-AW stand in the way of that goal.
To achieve this, the RSF would not only have to contend with SLM-AW militarily in its Jebel Marra stronghold, but also in many of the cities of Darfur. Although Abdelwahid’s faction is principally a rural guerrilla movement, it is also an important social and political force in some large Darfur cities, particularly in the sprawling displaced camps on their outskirts.
A war between SLA-AW and the RSF would further damage the social cohesion of Darfur, devastate the rural economy of Central Darfur and parts of other states, and imperil tens of thousands of vulnerable people who were displaced during the previous civil war and now live in conditions of dire urban poverty.