Turkey Flexes Military Muscle Abroad, Stirring Concern in Region

Turkey announced at the end of December that it will be building a military base in Sudan. The move is the latest by Turkey to bolster its military presence abroad, to regain its military credibility and deterrence after a sweeping purge that left the armed forces in disarray.

The base will be on an island called Suakin along the Red Sea coast. It is a mere ferry ride away from Saudi Arabia and Mecca. It is a small island, once home to an Ottoman outpost, which now lies in ruins. The restoration of the historic outpost is Turkey’s ostensible reason for taking possession of the island.

“Imagine, people from Turkey wish to go on pilgrimage will come and visit the historical areas on Suakin Island,” stated Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. “From there…they will cross to Jeddah by boat.”

But the deal with Sudan is not just about Ottoman barracks and tourism. Turkey and Sudan signed a series of deals amounting to $650 million.  Deals include giving permission to Turkey use Suakin as a military base, effectively positioning it to assert control over the Red Sea.

It is the latest example that shows Turkey increasing its military footprint abroad. Turkey now has a military base in Qatar, built a base in Somalia worth $50 million. Analysts think Turkey is bolstering its military presence abroad to try and regain clout, as the country steadily lost influence over regional neighbors in recent years.

“In the past, Turkey saw itself as a model and a shining light for the region,” says Dimitar Bechev a fellow at the Atlantic Council and Professor at Chapel Hill University, “The assumption was not just in theory. There were a number of governments dominated by Islamists close to the AKP.”

In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, both Egypt and Tunisia were governed by Islamist parties, and the Assad regime in Syria seemed poised to fall. Turkey, itself governed by an Islamist party, sought to frame itself as the leader of moderate Islamist political movements at the global level. But that dream remains unfulfilled. Turkey has found itself increasingly sidelined, as time has passed.

It is no longer the driving force in the Syria conflict, which has largely been taken over by Russia and Iran. “The idea was that Turkey would shape the region in its own image, but the war in Syria didn’t go the way that they were planning,” Mr. Bechev told The Globe Post Turkey. He explains that since Russia invaded Syria and solidified the Assad regime’s grip on power, Turkey has increasingly been on the backfoot.

“Turkey is feeling encircled with Syria, Greece, and Iraq. It is trying to expand its areas of influence,” said Metin Gurcan, a columnist at Al-Monitor and a professor at Sabanci University.

“Turkey is restoring the balance,” he told The Globe Post Turkey.

The move has both practical potential and symbolic meaning because Suakin is so close to Mecca and has a history as an Ottoman port. Headlines in Turkey emphasize the Ottoman restoration project and how Muslim tourists will be able to use the site as an easy conduit to Mecca. “It definitely is appealing to Erdogan’s constituents at home,” says Bechev. “He can be seen as the leader of the Muslim world. He is throwing his weight around and is respected.”

Mr. Gurcan says the move fits perfectly with the foreign policy narrative Turkey wishes to establish. “It shows Turkey taking a revisionist stance against established regime norms and international norms,” he explains. He also reflects that Turkey already has strong economic ties in Africa, and deepening ties with Somalia and Sudan will only improve bilateral relationships respectively.

Despite these military moves, Turkey is still insecure in its foreign policy position. “With Turkey and most governments – they have a frenemy connection,” says Bechev, “In particular, Turkey and Saudi Arabia cooperate on some issues but they are also rivals. That is also the case with the Iranians.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals and embroiled in a geopolitical contest in the region. Their rivalry has taken the shape of proxy battles in conflict zones like Syria and Yemen. But even though rivalry between the two countries was at times literally on its doorstep, Turkey is remained fairly neutral, even in Syria. “It’s in the middle because it has complicated relations with both of those powers,” explains Bechev. “In Syria it was allied with the Saudis, but it also has been cooperating with the Iranians and the Russians.”

The only country that Turkey has a secure partnership with is Qatar, where it also has a strong military presence. Turkey opened a military base in Qatar in 2015 and it has been steadily sending soldiers there ever since. There are currently 300 Turkish soldiers garrisoned on the base and it holds the capacity for at least 3,000 troops. Even during the Gulf crisis when Turkey was under immense pressure from Saudi Arabia to cut ties with the country, it only increased its military presence.

This paradigm is unlikely to shift in the near future, which is what makes investing in other military opportunities important for Turkey.

Gurcan says that in the case of Suakin, Turkey hopes that if it establishes a significant presence along the port it can use it as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with its neighbors. “Ankara has been feeling weak when it comes to dealing with regional actors like Egypt, Israel and international actors like Russia,” he explains.

Military bases show the world that Turkey is serious, says Gurcan. “Words and rhetoric are not enough. Policymakers want to see you can do what you say and that you have the capacity.”

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