Sudan’s Controversial Rapid Support Forces Bolster Saudi Efforts in Yemen
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 20
The Jamestown Foundation
In late September, the military leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), General Muhammad Hamdan Daqlu (a.k.a. “Hametti”), unintentionally sparked controversy by announcing that 412 Sudanese soldiers had been killed in the war in Yemen, a figure of which most Sudanese people were wholly unaware (al-Sayha [Khartoum], September 27; Akhbar al-Yemen [Sanaa], September 27).
In fact, Sudanese military forces have been participating in the coalition campaign in Yemen since 2015, fighting against the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement and its allies, composed mainly of forces loyal to the former Yemeni president Ali Abd-Allah Saleh (Press TV [Tehran], August 26; YouTube, March 22; YouTube, November 9, 2015; YouTube, October 27, 2015).  They are a core ground component of coalition forces in Yemen, serving in multiple regions of the country (al-Araby al-Jadid, June 13).
Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to create a buffer zone inside northern Yemen have led to the increasing deployment of the RSF (al-Sudan al-Youm [Khartoum], September 29; Sudan Tribune [Khartoum], June 9). Their presence, however, is not without its drawbacks as a Houthi information war has made much of the RSF’s highly problematic past.
The RSF is one of the most powerful components of the Sudanese military. It is deployed mainly for counter-insurgency operations and includes among its troops a significant number of the Janjaweed militias that were linked to systematic human rights abuses in the Darfur region, particularly between 2003 and 2008. These forces have also been implicated in further systematic human rights abuses in Sudan, allegedly carried out in more recent counterinsurgency campaigns (YouTube, August 2; Asharq Alawsat, May 14; Human Rights Watch, May 3; Human Rights Watch, September 9, 2015). 
The force is considered to be a type of “praetorian guard” for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, himself the subject of an International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes and genocide due to the activities of the Janjaweed militias in Darfur. 
Al-Bashir’s decision to deploy the RSF in Yemen reflects the nature of the coalition’s counter-insurgency campaign there, particularly for Saudi Arabia, which has seen its southwestern provinces become the target of debilitating cross-border raids and missile attacks by the Houthis and their allies.  As coalition forces have made gains in central and southern Yemen, generally under the command of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Saudi military has sought to consolidate its position in the north, clearing the border regions and capturing critical Red Sea ports from the Houthi movement and its allies.  Now Saudi Arabia is looking to aggressively clear and hold large areas of northern Yemen and, limited by its own military’s manpower constraints, Riyadh made sure the RSF’s counterinsurgency capabilities were written into its planning for its campaign. 
Sudan’s participation in the coalition campaign in Yemen is also reportedly tied to an effort by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pull al-Bashir away from his previous close ties to Iran (al-Monitor, November 23, 2015). The Gulf States are underwriting the Sudanese military’s participation in Yemen, and that financial support is believed to be crucial for al-Bashir whose government is reeling from ongoing insurgencies at home, the loss of oil revenue from the independence of South Sudan and the imposition of sanctions (al-Jazeera August 10).
Controversial Counterinsurgency Force
The RSF has supported Saudi border security operations, and it is one the lead forces in the Saudi directed campaign to capture several northwestern Yemeni provinces, particularly in Hajjah governorate (al-Akhbar [Beirut], September 30; Sudan Tribune [Khartoum], May 27).
In January, the coalition captured the strategic Red Sea port city of Midi, which was believed to be one of the hubs for arming the Houthi movement via maritime supply lines maintained by Iran’s Republican Guard Corps (IRGC). The wider Hajjah governorate, however, remains the site of ongoing and fierce clashes between coalition forces and the Houthis and their allies (Sudan Tribune, August 23; YouTube, May 21). 
The RSF’s experience as al-Bashir’s lead counterinsurgency force in Sudan, where it also engages in interdicting smugglers, makes it potentially (at least in Saudi eyes) well-suited for this (Ida’at, August 17; Xinhua, May 28; Asharq Alawsat, May 14). However, there is evidence that the RSF is facing difficulties in adapting its tactics to the more treacherous mountain terrain of Yemen, a landscape to which the Houthi movement and its allies are already well-adapted (Arabi 21 [Sanaa], September 28). Indeed, the Houthis claim the majority of the casualties they have inflicted on the RSF over the course of 2017 are the result of ambushes in Hajjah governorate (al-Masdar News [Damascus], June 11; al-Masdar News [Damascus], May 23).
The RSF’s participation in the coalition campaign in Yemen is also raising fears among international non-governmental organizations that the force could commit similar abuses against civilian communities that support the Houthis as it is accused of perpetrating in Sudan (IRIN News, April 25). However, the Sudanese government has not disclosed which RSF units have been deployed in Yemen, and that information has not been furnished elsewhere for public analysis, making it difficult to realistically determine if components of the RSF that committed human rights abuses in Darfur are currently present in Yemen.
To date, the Sudanese military forces deployed in Yemen have not been linked to systematic human rights abuses. Nonetheless, their presence has provided opponents of the Saudi-led coalition with ample ammunition for information operations aimed at shifting the opinion of the international community against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their coalition partners (Yemen Press [Sanaa], March 10).
Anger in Sudan
The Houthi movement and its allies have tried to implicate the RSF in what they claim is the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hajjah governorate (Yemen Press [Sanaa], July 4). Rather than presenting a battlefield challenge to the Houthis, the Sudanese forces may be more of a public relations liability for the Saudis, one exploited by the Houthi movement and its allies (Russia Today, August 4). These propaganda efforts portray the RSF, which is the core component of the Sudanese military contribution to the coalition in Yemen, as atrocity-prone Janjaweed mercenaries, hired out to Saudi Arabia for the profit of Sudan’s war criminal president (Yemen Press [Sanaa], May 13).
The information campaign has further implications for both Sudan’s al-Bashir and the coalition leadership, as the Houthi movement and its allies have focused their information operations on what they describe as the heavy casualties suffered by the RSF and other Sudanese forces in Yemen (al-Alam [Tehran], September 28; al-Masdar News [Damascus], June 11; YouTube, May 12).
Those losses play badly at home, and the outcry in Sudan in the wake of Hametti’s statement that nearly 500 Sudanese had been killed in Yemen, demonstrates just how much anger the topic can spark against al-Bashir and his decision to participate in the Yemen war (YouTube, August 2; Sudan Tribune [Khartoum], June 23; Middle East Monitor, May 25).
As the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition seeks to escalate its operations against the Houthis, particularly in the Red Sea and northern Saudi-Yemeni border regions, the RSF provides an important and battle-hardened force to compliment the coalition’s local Yemeni partners. Its presence in Yemen, however, will continue to be an important subject for use in the information war against the coalition.
Further, the expeditionary deployment of the RSF to the Yemen conflict is significant, as it represents the next stage in the development of a multi-national force, led by the leading Gulf Arab states, to confront Iran and its partner and proxy forces in the wider Middle East region. Meanwhile, the RSF provides Sudan’s al-Bashir with a revenue-generating force that can be used to support allies in conflicts throughout Africa, particularly in the trans-Sahara region, and in the Middle East.
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Photo source: Rapid Support Forces (RSF) near the Daldako area in Sudan. (Source: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin) was published in the original article by The Jamestown Foundation