Sizing up the Turkish threat
The tables soon turned. In Tunisia, the Nahda Party lost elections, while in Egypt Muhammad Mursi was removed from power, and Libya sunk into chaos. It was in Syria, above all, where Erdogan and his clique received the harshest blow. Russia intervened directly in the conflict, crushing the hopes of Turkish-backed groups. On the other hand, the US fostered the emergence of a Kurdish military and political power in northeastern Syria linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a long-standing enemy of the Turkish state.
Erdogan’s expansionist aspirations should never be underestimated, but mounting political instability and the growing Kurdish threat closer to home overshadow any attempts by Turkey to operate effectively beyond its immediate surroundings.
Since the abortive coup against Erdogan in July 2016, Turkish foreign policy has been geared toward cutting losses. Seeking rapprochement with Russia, Erdogan forswore his grand schemes for Syria. Turkey’s moves became more territorial and sought to contain, rather than roll back, the growth of Kurdish power. Subsequently, Turkey occupied pockets of land in Idlib and Aleppo to achieve these goals. Erdogan, nonetheless, failed miserably to drive a wedge between the US and the Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria. He continually threatens to invade the Kurdish-controlled regions of Manbij and Afrin, but his moves in Syria are increasingly constrained by Russian and American caveats.
Apart from these territorial interventions in its immediate surrounding, Turkey’s regional maneuvers are symptomatic of weakness rather than strength, and they rely more on fiery rhetoric than well-thought-out policies. It is in this light that the outcomes of Erdogan’s recent visits to Tunisia and Sudan should be read. If in 2012 Erdogan seemed on the verge of forging a Turkish-centric regional order, his recent forays into Africa play more into the internal politics of Turkey rather than any grand geopolitical and economic schemes.
Politically, following the fall of Mursi, Turkey lost the linchpin of its political leverage in northern Africa. In Tunisia, the Nahda Party was soon ousted from power through elections. Despite his outrageous display of the “Rabia” sign during his visit to the Tunisian capital, Erdogan knows he cannot rely on Tunis now as he would have done when the Nahda was in power. Furthermore, Turkey’s political and cultural presence in Africa stands on shaky grounds. For years, the Turkish soft power approach in Africa had relied on Fethullah Gulen’s educational institutions. That approach backfired after Erdogan accused Gulen and his supporters of plotting the coup against him. The Turkish state is now frantically trying to replace Gulenist institutions, present in major African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa, with Ankara-sponsored educational, cultural, and religious activities. Hence, Sudan’s Omar Bashir seems like Erdogan’s only friend in Africa. Yet it is highly doubtful that Bashir would prove to be a reliable political ally to Turkey.
During Erdogan’s visit, Sudan gave Ankara the right to rehabilitate the port of Suakin, in order to re-establish it as a naval base for both civilian and military purposes on the west coast of the Red Sea. Also during the visit, the defense ministers of Sudan, Qatar and Turkey gathered in Khartoum to discuss joint cooperation. With a Turkish base already set up in Somalia, at the southernmost gate of the Red Sea, the threat of growing Turkish military deployment in the region should not be taken lightly. Erdogan had stated a few weeks ago that, following their defeat in Iraq and Syria, Daesh militants are being transferred to Sinai, without further elaborating on how such a relocation is taking place. Given Turkey’s dubious role in the rise of extremist groups in both Iraq and Syria, and its current expanding presence in the Red Sea, such statements should alarm Egyptian officials.
This Turkish “menace,” however, should not be exaggerated. To begin with, Qatar and Sudan are far from reliable partners if Turkey is aiming at a grand regional military alliance, while Turkey’s deployment in Qatar neighbors some of the biggest American military bases in the Middle East. The ability of Turkey to use its Qatari base malevolently with such an overwhelming US presence in close proximity is severely limited. Somalia remains a failed state, and Turkish presence there, under the guise of counter-piracy operations, has done little to improve the situation. Furthermore, Turkey shares that space with much more powerful players. US and NATO fleets roam the area, operating against both terrorists and pirates based in Somalia. China recently inaugurated a military and naval base in Djibouti to protect its expanding global trade network, and Turkey’s economic interests in the region pale in comparison. Therefore, with such scant military deployments, Turkey could do little to influence the established balance of power in the Red Sea
Erdogan’s expansionist aspirations should never be underestimated. However, mounting political instability and the growing Kurdish threat closer to home overshadow any attempts by Turkey to operate effectively beyond its immediate surroundings. And his fiery statements in Khartoum and Tunis, much like his stance on Jerusalem, are intended more for internal consumption rather than expressing reasonable and implementable policies.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.