Somalia and Turkey: Humanitarian success or strategic failure?

23 September 2013

Turkey’s humanitarian interests in Somalia over the past years are not enough to explain why Turkey has become one of the main actors in the country.

In the past few years, Turkey has begun to show interest in the crisis in Somalia. It can even be said that Ankara gained a degree of expertise on the subject during its 2009-2010 temporary membership in the UN Security Council. While President Erdogan’s 2011 Somalia visit drew the attention of many countries to Somalia’s humanitarian tragedy, many great powers and interested parties have also turned their gazes to Turkey’s policies in the Horn of Africa. Undoubtedly, on many platforms Turkey is now a part of the Somalian equation. There are many strategic, political and security challenges that will likely accompany this dynamic.

Security difficulties

The security problem is arguably Somalia’s foremost challenge. The worry now is that the political efforts expended so far have been unfruitful. After the collapse of the state, warlords came onto the scene, followed by a juridical institution called the Islamic Courts. The Islamic Courts decided to start negotiating after Ethiopia’s military intervention into the country in 2006. However, the Islamist Youth Movement, Haraket al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab), resisted the negotiations, as well as any other political solution under the observation of the United Nations or the African Union. From this date onwards, al-Shabaab became the greatest security threat. At the end of 2011, when al-Shabaab was defeated by Kenya, with support from the African Union and Somali central government soldiers, strategic front moved away from the southern Kismayo port.

These tense conditions have exposed Turkey to a number of security problems. The most recent example of these problems was the August attack on the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu. In April, a Turkish aid convoy was the target of a similar attack. Moreover, in October of 2012, an attack was organized on an official from the Turkish Cooperation and Development Organization, Mustafa Hashim Polat.

Al-Shabaab claimed credit for the embassy attack, which it justified by referencing the military agreement signed between Ankara and the Somalian government in April of 2012. The movement saw this agreement as supporting the war being waged against it. Despite the organization’s explanation, Somalia’s ambassador to Turkey, Muhammed Mursel Shaikh Abdul Rahman, declared in a statement to the Anatolian Agency, “al-Shabaab’s explanation regarding the attacks on the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu are not sufficient,” and this statement of ambassador seems to thicken the shadow over the incident..

Problems stemming from the military agreement

An examination of the text of the agreement reveals problems liable to result from the military training Turkey plans to give to Somalia. For example, the election process in the Somali army may be overshadowed by soldiers’ tribal allegiances. That is to say, it is difficult to determine whether or not the loyalties of all soldiers comply with the Somalian government. According to a report by the United Nations, some soldiers have even engaged in activities directly against the government. This demonstrates that the election process within the army as well as training programs must be treated with the utmost care. The most important points here are that national elections are conducted in a manner that includes all of Somalia’s different regions, that a consciousness which prioritizes the nation over the tribe is cultivated, and that through the training process the army is persuaded to strive to reconstruct the state and state institutions. In other words, they shouldn’t settle to just have certain combat operations supported.

On the other hand, there are items within the agreement’s text that touch on domestic and foreign sensitivities. For example, the article of the agreement mentions “national guard and coastguard training,” “participating in joint exercises,” “making ports calls and docking,” and “support for peace, humanitarian aid, and the struggle against piracy.” Despite all of these items being important to the Somali government, their implementation will inherently trigger big problems. For many years the Somali government has not been in control of its own territorial waters and ports. During the international campaign against piracy, the subject of halting illegally trawling foreign — especially European — vessels was not raised. Moreover, reports submitted to the UN on this subject were manipulated. As for Turkey, the country has supported the Somali fishing industry by procuring fishing vessels. However, the fishermen are complaining about the boats capsizing and their fishing being obstructed by foreign ships. Turkey’s role will be against those with interests exploiting Somalia’s marine resources.

Besides this, Kenya has a border dispute with Somalia originating from changes made in international maritime law. Before this, if Kenya had pressured the Somalian government to have their sea boundaries redrawn, such an agreement would have been rejected in the Somalian Parliament. Somalia’s Kismayo port, which Kenya had expended great effort to bring under its own control, is one of Somalia’s most strategic ports. In this respect, the “making port calls and docking” clause of the Turkey-Somalia military agreement brings Ankara up against Nairobi on the axis of strategic interests. Kenya has helped establish a local authority in the south of Somalia in order to obstruct the Somali central government’s influence on the region. Thanks to this, Nairobi is able to intensify its dominance of the region and justify its actions through the federal constitution.

The Kismayo port’s importance is not only due to Kenya’s concerns with its borders and trade benefits. The region is host to a great amount of oil and natural gas exploration is also a subject of consideration. Moreover, the islands across from the port are in quite a consequential position in terms of Kenya and its allies’ military strategy.

The Berire Port in the Republic of Somaliland is of utmost importance to landlocked Ethiopia. This region is also rather significant for the UK and China: China, the government of Somaliland, and Ethiopia have signed an agreement to construct a road from Ethiopia to the sea. In the course of its oil exploration activities in Somaliland, China is also investing in Ethiopia’s oil fields and wants to transport that oil through Somaliland. Moreover, regarding the continuing crisis between Sudan and South Sudan over oil transportation to the Port of Sudan on the Red Sea, China is amongst the supporters of the project to extend an oil pipeline from southern Sudan, over Ethiopia and to Somaliland. Turkey also has oil investments in the Somaliland region.

All this data points to the fact that the humanitarian dimension of Turkey’s interest in Somalia is not enough to explain why Turkey has become one of the chief actors in the country. Turkey mustn’t deny the existence of certain redlines in the region. Additionally, countries with deeply-rooted influences in Somalia have recently begun spreading their strategies over East Africa.  The fact that Turkey has not yet begun such an initiative prevents it from turning its traction in Somalia into a strategic gain.

Source: Turkish Weekly

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