Erdogan moves to expand arc of influence in North Africa, Sahel

Much like China, Turkey is selling its economic ambitions as beneficial to Africa.
Sunday 04/03/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews a Senegalese honour guard during ceremonies in Dakar, on March 1.  (AP)
African ambitions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews a Senegalese honour guard in Dakar, on March 1. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Facing a series of crises in its relations with the West and increasing isolation in the Middle East, Turkey is seeking ties further afield. It has extended military and political associations to Africa in a sign that Ankara is determined to expand its zone of influence.

After establishing a foothold in Sudan and reinforcing his presence in the Horn of Africa, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his sights on North Africa and the Sahel region when he embarked on a visit to Algeria and three West African countries on February 26.

Turkey’s ties with the West dimmed over the refusal by the Czech Republic to extradite Salih Muslim, a leader of a Syrian-Kurdish group that Ankara views as a terrorist organisation. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag accused the West of ignoring terrorism if victims were “Turks or Muslims.”

Turkey also rejected calls by France and the United States to extend a UN-ordered ceasefire in Syria to Afrin. Ankara is at odds with the United States over Washington’s support for Syria’s Kurds and is facing growing criticism from Europe over Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent and a standoff with Cyprus over hydrocarbon rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Instead of turning East, Turkey is going it alone,” Nicholas Danforth, a senior political analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, a Washington think-tank, wrote in an analysis for War on the Rocks, a website on security matters. “The West is in real danger of losing Turkey but this has not resulted from, or been accompanied by, improved relations between Turkey and any of its Eastern neighbours,” Danforth added.

Erdogan’s action in Afrin shows a Turkish leader ready to use military means to achieve his objectives, a fact that is hardly reassuring to the West and regional powers. Only three months ago, Turkey increased its military presence overseas when it reached an agreement with Sudan to modernise a former Ottoman fort on the Red Sea to include new naval base facilities. Turkey already has bases in Somalia and Qatar.

Turkey’s military ambitions are stoking tensions between Ankara and Cairo. The two countries downgraded diplomatic ties following the ousting of Egyptian Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013. Erdogan has avoided all contact with Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and has been greeting supporters at rallies with the four-fingered Rabia sign, used by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest Morsi’s overthrow.

“The Turkish presence in the ports of the Red Sea is bad news not only for Egypt but also for Saudi Arabia,” analyst Einat Elazari wrote in a report for Global Risk Insights, a UK-based risk analysis publication.

Elazari said Qatar’s posture in the Gulf region combined with Turkey’s activity in the Red Sea “represent a potential foundation for a new Turkey-Sudan-Qatar alliance,” especially considering “their mutual support for the Muslim Brotherhood and relations with Iran.”

Elazari added: “It is clear that the Turkish president intends to pursue opportunities for partnerships in Africa that will strengthen the country as a regional and international actor.”

Turkey also sees huge economic dividends to be reaped in Africa. “Over the last 15 years, the trade volume between Turkey and African countries rose six-fold to $17.5 billion,” the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.

Much like China, Turkey is selling its economic ambitions as beneficial to Africa. “Turkish entrepreneurs generated 78,000 jobs in Africa and the value of projects undertaken by Turkish construction firms topped $55 billion,” Anadolu said.