What is at stake for Turkey in Somalia?
Among the international community, Turkey has one of the highest numbers of diplomatic missions in Africa. After Turkey’s engagement in Somalia, it was 2011 before other countries, including the US, the UK and China, opened diplomatic missions there.
Turkey now also has a military presence in the war-torn country. The recent opening of its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, attended by Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and Turkey’s Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, is an attempt to cement bilateral ties and build a strong presence in East Africa.
With the establishment of the military base, where 200 Turkish troops are set to train nearly half of Somalia’s soldiers, Ankara is indicating that its activities in the country will no longer be limited to humanitarian and development assistance.
Today, Somalia needs to strengthen its army more than ever, with Turkish support, in the face of several terrorist threats. Last weekend, more than 300 people were killed and hundreds more injured after two truck bombs exploded in Mogadishu. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab, which has long targeted Somalia, is blamed for orchestrating the country’s deadliest attack in its history.
A Somali intelligence official said the Turkish military base was the intended target due to its strategic importance. Given Al-Shabaab’s hostile actions against Turkey in the past, the statement did not come as a surprise.
In 2013, Turkey’s Embassy in Mogadishu was attacked by a suicide car bomb. One Turkish security officer was killed and three others seriously wounded. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, saying Turkey was targeted due to its support for the Somali government. Ankara’s efforts are welcomed by most Somalis and their government, but not by some external and internal actors.
Turkey’s activities in Somalia include building schools, hospitals and infrastructure, and providing scholarships for Somalis to study in Turkey. In 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Mogadishu, becoming the first non-African leader to visit Somalia in nearly two decades.
Ankara wants to strengthen its geostrategic position in the world by politically, financially and militarily engaging with the Horn of Africa. Indeed, Turkey’s military base in Somalia is very close to the entry point of the Gulf of Aden.
Ankara took a leading role in brokering dialogue between Somalia and the autonomous region of Somaliland. The leaders of Somalia and Somaliland visited Turkey, where they signed the Ankara Communique in 2013. Turkey also brought together intellectuals from Somalia and Somaliland to discuss a solution to tensions in the African country.
Although there is no general framework or policy document regarding Turkish involvement in Somalia, it can be said that Ankara considers the country a strategic base in Africa for its long-term interests due to its geostrategic location. Somalia is also fertile ground for Turkish businessmen.
Ankara wants to strengthen its geostrategic position in the world by politically, financially and militarily engaging with the Horn of Africa. Indeed, Turkey’s military base in Somalia is very close to the entry point of the Gulf of Aden. Ankara is well aware that there is a range of actors and countries engaged in Somalia with differing motivations. But the international community has done little to try to understand the country.
Given its non-colonial past, Turkey has an advantage in winning Somalis’ trust compared to other actors. Ankara also refrains from cooperating with those actors in Somalia. This is criticized in some circles, but considering the international community’s destructive record in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Turkey seems to have a valid reason for such a policy. It seems Ankara will not give up its support for Somalia, despite several challenges.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz