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The Darfur Rebel Forces

The Situation in Sudan and the Conflict in Darfur

Issue 1, May 2008

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Home Key Internal Players Darfur Rebel Forces
The Darfur Rebel Forces Print

Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M)
Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)


Rebellion against Khartoum finally broke out in 2003 in the form of an attack against a government air field in Darfur under the joint leadership of the non-Arab, black African Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement (SLA/M and JEM).  When rebellion broke out, a familiar pattern emerged.

To combat the rebellion, Khartoum could not mount a conventional military response, since most of the military's foot soldiers came from the Darfur region. In fact, these were the only jobs given to Darfuris in the Khartoum regime.  Instead, Khartoum capitalized on ongoing tribal tensions in the area to respond militarily.  They armed the Arab nomadic tribes, and added a mercenary force, the Janjaweed, to destabilize the region and cripple the insurgency.  Non-Arab civilians sympathetic to the SLA/M and JEM were their targets.  Hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were displaced to Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in Darfur and refugee camps in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic.


By 2004, humanitarian aid began to pour in from the US, EU, and UN, facilitated by international NGOs.  African Union (AU) peacekeepers were deployed to stabilize the region, but were outnumbered and ill-equipped for the task.  International peace talks have been pursued intermittently since 2004, brokered by the AU.  Ceasefires have been repeatedly violated by all sides, and the SLA/M and JEM rebels have begun to splinter and boycott peace talks, rendering peacemaking efforts elusive.  International Crisis Group’s John Prendergast has said that this splintering is actually part of Khartoum’s strategy:  that they have been paying off tribes to split from each other so that the whole mess looks to the world like nothing more than tribal warfare.  There are numerous other factors at play in this splintering, and it has become an enormous problem.

Estimates put the number of distinct rebel factions now in Darfur at around 20-25 different groups, some of them engaged in the peace process, some decidedly not.  Some of the rebels have been criticized for exacerbating the toll on civilians, and have lost credibility in this complex conflict.  Sam Dealey of Time Magazine remarked in mid-March 2008, “their political goals are ill-defined, and their chief concern seems to be maintaining their fiefs against rivals rather than protecting the civilians they claim to represent…(The rebels) sometimes take international outrage over Darfur as a license for murder.”

International Relations

Multiple reports describe rebels limiting access for humanitarian aid workers and peacekeepers in active war zones, especially the western areas of Darfur bordering Chad.  This illustrates how difficult it is to tell the good from the bad among the players in the region.  In response to this and to the rebel movements’ failure to gather at the peace table, Russia has recently taken the lead in proposing sanctions against them in the UN Security Council.  This pits Russia against the UK, France, and the US, who are focused on the actions of Khartoum-sanctioned militias and government forces.

In March 2008, the rebels of the SLA/M (and soon JEM) moved even further away from reconciliation with Khartoum by establishing an office in Tel Aviv, Israel.  SLA/M cited Israel’s provision of asylum to Darfur refugee as justification for breaking with international Muslim sentiment regarding Tel Aviv.  Khartoum’s response was predictably harsh; the Sudanese Junior Minister for Information (quoted in the Ugandan newspaper The Monitor) characterized the move as “treachery and treason,” and accused the rebels of becoming Zionist “tools” against the Islamic world.

In April of 2008, the US expanded its diplomatic efforts to include engagement of distinct rebel factions as well as engagement with the Government of Sudan.  Special Envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson met with both JEM and SLA/M factions in Paris, hoping to pull the factions back together in a singular bargaining position.  The failure of a recent Darfur Ceasefire Commission (CFC) effort to get all parties to the table further demonstrated the obstacles to peace presented by the splintering of the rebel factions.


Next:  Key Internal Players:  Janjaweed Militias