Will the RSF continue their offensive in Jebel Aulia?
Sabotage of key bridge reduces the value of capturing Jebel Aulia
Sudanese military media revealed yesterday the destruction of a strategic bridge across the Nile in Jebel Aulia, which the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been trying to capture. The bridge is part of a one-lane road that crosses the Jebel Aulia Dam.
This complicates the RSF's efforts to regain access across the Nile, following the destruction of Shambat Bridge a week ago. Presently, their forces in Omdurman are cut off from those in Khartoum and Bahri.
The destruction of this bridge reduces the military value of capturing Jebel Aulia. It might therefore discourage the RSF from continuing their offensive and cause them to direct their efforts elsewhere.
There are other bridges further upriver, in White Nile State, including in ad-Douiem, a city that the RSF could attack from both the east and west. Last month, a large convoy of RSF vehicles entered White Nile State along the west bank, reaching within about 90 km of the city. An alternative bridge is in Shendi, north of Khartoum, which is about 75 km from the nearest confirmed RSF patrols.
However, several factors could entice the RSF to sustain the attack in Jebel Aulia.
First, the bridge that was destroyed is a drawbridge across a boat lock on the Jebel Aulia Dam, which is less than 20 meters wide. Military engineers working for the RSF might therefore be able to improvise a replacement for it without great difficulty.
Perhaps they could use captured civilian or military bridging equipment for this purpose, or they could use a crane to pull the partially sunken drawbridge out of the river. If the RSF can repair the bridge, the army would hesitate to bomb it because doing so would damage the dam, releasing a catastrophic flood into Khartoum.
Another reason for continuing the offensive in Jebel Aulia is for the propaganda value of seizing another major urban center. The RSF have already captured large parts of the city, and they have sacrificed many men and equipment for this purpose; they will hesitate to give up their gains.
Understanding the military geography of Jebel Aulia
The city of Jebel Aulia lies along a flat plain east of the White Nile. It is bordered to the east and south by farmland, to the north by suburbs of Khartoum, and to the west by the river and the dam. Immediately east of the dam, a small mountain (Jebel Aulia) rises about 35 meters above the surrounding plain.
North of this, guarding the road to the dam, is a military base that is about 1 km square. Prior to the war, this base was used by the Sudan Air Defense Force, and as a joint training center for the various services. Since then, however, SAF have reinforced it with units from other parts of the country.
These features—the river, military base, and the mountain—make it difficult for the RSF to reach the dam. Although outnumbered, the army should be able to successfully defend this area for a long time. Their success or failure in doing so will depend largely on their ability to resupply their forces—whether by airdrops or by river.
Various large buildings in the same area—including a stadium, hospital, and a college of fish sciences—enhance the defensive qualities of the western part of Jebel Aulia. By contrast, the eastern part of the city consists mostly of simple houses and one-story commercial buildings. RSF have already taken over these parts of the city.
The central and western neighborhoods are now the frontline. The video below, filmed on November 17, shows troops within about 1.5 km of the dam, east of the mountain.
Fires seen in satellite images yesterday also indicate fighting near the market (15.23898,32.50263), 600 km northwest of where the above video was filmed.
Videos filmed from inside the central market demonstrate that SAF still control parts of it, but that clashes have taken place.
SAF may also still have some troops in the western part of the Al Najoumi helicopter base, which is on the south side of the city. Both sides claimed control November 12-13. SAF sources circulated a video of a soldier on the western side of the base, while RSF sources circulated videos of their forces at buildings and hangars on the eastern side. The present situation is unclear.
The most likely scenario in Jebel Aulia is a prolonged stalemate. RSF will launch occasional attacks against the military base and other facilities guarding the road to the dam, and they will shell earthworks on the mountain using mortars and artillery, but they will be unable to achieve a breakthrough.
Due to the damage of the bridge, they will not be motivated to intensify their attacks against the best defended parts of the city. Instead, they will siege the area, as they have done to other army bases in Khartoum State.
The army, in turn, will return fire toward RSF positions in Jebel Aulia neighborhoods. They may retain control of some neighborhoods, and portions of the central market, in which case there will be street fighting in these areas.
In this scenario, all civilians in the city would be at risk due to mortar and artillery battles. But civilians in frontline areas, particularly the central and western neighborhoods and the central market, would be particularly at risk. The Jebel Aulia Hospital is also in a very dangerous location.
A second scenario, less likely, involves a full RSF withdrawal. This could happen if senior leadership decided the offensive was a waste of military resources, given the destruction of the drawbridge across the dam.
This scenario could also be triggered by a SAF counter-attack from the south. The army have enough troops in the south and east of the country to carry out such an operation, but many of them are new recruits without combat experience.
Lastly, the RSF could ignore the destruction of the dam bridge and decide that that the city still has high military and political value. In this scenario, they would sustain or even intensify their offensive. A final frontal attack from the east, perhaps supported by speedboats coming across the river from the north and west, could potentially wipe out the garrison and secure the bridge. This is the least likely scenario.
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Needless to say, heavy fighting in the city is causing another humanitarian disaster. Many of the residents of Jebel Aulia are former IDPs (displaced persons) who moved to the area during earlier Sudanese conflicts, including many South Sudanese. For many residents, their economic situation was already precarious.
The ongoing fighting has disrupted government services, healthcare, and markets, destroying the livelihoods of many people and causing thousands to flee. As the fighting continues, thousands more could continue to flee south or east.
Civilians are also at risk of mass arrests and targeted killings by the RSF. According to some reports, the RSF rounded up civilian men in or near Jebel Aulia and executed some of them. In a statement November 17, the Troika countries—the United States of America, Norway, and the United Kingdom—expressed concern about the situation, saying, “We are concerned by reports of violence in the town of Jebel Aulia, on the White Nile River, where there are reports of targeting of civilians.”
Wounded civilians from Jebel Aulia are likely to be transported south into White Nile State, or east toward Jezira State, straining hospital services in these areas, which are already home to large populations of people who fled from Khartoum. Due to the army’s blockade of surgical supplies to Khartoum, the wounded are unlikely to be brought north. For wounded combatants, the options are limited.
Heavy fighting near the Jebel Aulia Dam also raises the risk of an even larger disaster, namely, a potential dam failure. The dam, constructed by a British engineering company from 1933-1937, holds back the second largest reservoir in Sudan, containing millions of cubic liters of water. Although the risk of a dam failure is probably quite low, I think it is a risk worth flagging, especially after the tragic Derna dam collapse in Libya in September, which killed thousands of people.
Do the RSF even need a bridge?
The destruction of the Shambat and Jebel Aulia bridges has fueled much speculation about the possibility of a Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) offensive in Omdurman, or coordinated offensives in all three sister cities of the capital. The Shambat Bridge had been a crucial conduit for the supply of fuel from Khartoum into Omdurman, for the movement of reinforcements back and forth depending on where they were needed, and for the supply of food and other supplies from Darfur into Khartoum.
The army therefore gained a limited advantage from the destruction of the bridge. However, the extent of this advantage should not be exaggerated. The RSF are already in an advantageous military position in Khartoum and in Bahri, and they can readily reinforce their troops in Omdurman from Darfur.
“The army have gained a limited advantage from the destruction of Shambat Bridge. However, the extent of this advantage should not be exaggerated.”
Moreover, the RSF control about 5 km of river between Fatehab and Ammunition Corps, and about 30 km of river between Ammunition Corps and Jebel Aulia. They can therefore move troops and supplies freely across the river in small boats. Although they cannot move combat vehicles, they already have an adequate supply of combat vehicles on both sides of the river.
SAF do not have enough warplanes to neutralize this riverine supply route.
In light of these factors, the lack of a bridge across the Nile is an inconvenience for the RSF, but it does not cripple them by any means. The army would have to launch major new offensives, coordinated across multiple fronts, in order to exploit this weakness. For example, reinforcements from Sudan’s eastern states could open a new front in East Nile, while troops from the south attacked Khartoum, and troops from the north bolstered the ongoing offensive in Omdurman.
To date, however, SAF have not demonstrated any capacity to sustain a coordinated offensive in multiple regions of the capital, nor have they even effectively cordoned off the capital to effectively besiege RSF in the region.
As the war effort escalates, that could eventually change.
For now, the RSF maintain the initiative. The question is whether they will squander that initiative by attacking heavily fortified areas, or seek a decisive battle elsewhere.