Will Turkey double down in Somalia?

For Somalis, the new year may not usher peace as tensions are high on the eve of a heated parliamentary and presidential elections. The Trump administration’s announcement to withdraw American troops from Somalia by January cannot be worse in timing and will present serious challenges for Somalia where al-Shabab militants seek an opportunity in a tumultuous election season. The recent suicide attack that targeted Prime Minister—and killed three senior commanders— indicate how fragile Somalian security infrastructure. 

The powder keg may explode due to the escalating nature of a regional power play ahead of presidential elections scheduled for early February.  Somalia missed a deadline to hold its parliamentary elections on Dec. 1 which was agreed by the federal government and six regional states earlier in the year. For now, there are no new elections scheduled.

The Somali opposition is worried about Turkish intervention through armed support to special Harama’ad police forces, which recently used live bullets against peaceful protestors in Mogadishu. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo has been supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Ethiopia, whereas the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Kenya back the opposition. International meddling in this sensitive time period may turn disastrous for war-torn Somalia, so does the Turkish government’s plans to send 1,000 G3 assault rifles and 150,000 bullets to the Harama’ad. Accusing Kenya of meddling in its internal affairs, the Somalian government recently cut its diplomatic relations with Nairobi despite the fact that Kenyan peacekeeping forces have been strategically important for Somalia’s border security. 

Turkey maintains its largest military overseas base in Somalia. The Turkish government has increased its investment in Somalia as a part of its Red Sea power projection, which is a result of a deepening crisis in the Gulf following the Qatar blockade in 2017. A Saudi-led quartet—comprising Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt—has become alarmed with Turkish military expansionism in the Horn of Africa. 

Because of its strategic location, Somalia is perceived as a critical country to protect the “Arab homeland,” thus Turkey’s show of its muscles has deeply disturbed the quartet. The regional competition over the Horn of Africa resulted in the 2019 Sudanese coup, ending the 30 years rule of Omar al-Bashir, a close ally of Erdogan. The loss of Sudan was a major blow to Ankara, and yet, Turkish government emerged victorious in securing Tripoli against the same regional rivals by doubling down its military engagement. Taking advantage of normalization in Israeli-Sudanese relations, Egypt has increased its military activism against what it called “malicious Turkish moves in Somalia” to control the Red Sea. 

Compared to its rivals, Turkey has some advantages in Somalia. Instead of “paycheck diplomacy” that is pursued by newcomer Gulf nations, Turkish engagement was built through a soft power touch over the long term. Erdogan was the first non-African leader to visit Mogadishu in 2011and Turkey has offered humanitarian aid, development projects, and education facilities amidst a destructive famine in the war-torn country. As a first in Turkish foreign policy, Turkey appointed a special envoy for Somalia in 2018, tasking him to renew negotiations between the Mogadishu government and breakaway Somaliland region. 

As a gradual shift from soft to hard power, Ankara has started to train the next generation of Somali officers and one-third of the entire Somali military forces receive their education in Turkish after an intensive Turkish language course and take their oath in the language. Some ceremonial rituals of the Turkish Armed Forces are also observed by the young Somali officers such as commemorating the fallen in the Ottoman campaign against Britain in Gallipoli and singing the Turkish military anthem. 

Turkey has also increased its economic investments to the country: The Albayrak group—affiliated with Erdogan’s family— has received operational rights at the Port of Mogadishu and another Turkish company now operates the Mogadishu Airport. Recently, Turkey announced it would pay off $2.4 million of Somalia’s debt owed to the International Monetary Fund.  

Turkey, however, faces a real challenge this time. Forcefully betting on Farmaajo’s regime by bolstering the special police may backfire. In the run-up to the major elections, prior small elections in the southwest and in Jubaland, where Farmaajo pushed his candidates, caused violence and almost led to a confrontation with Kenya and Ethiopia. Although Addis Ababa sides with Ankara in supporting Farmaajo, the recent eruption of civil war in the Tigray region has been costly for the Ethiopian army, causing fears of state collapse with ripple effects in the Horn of Africa. In case that election results are not accepted by either side, Farmaajo or the opposition, Somalia may face a real legitimacy crisis. 

Somalia’s security architecture is most fragile and meddling by regional players, whether Turkey or its Gulf rivals, will serve a destabilizing effect that could unravel clan rivalries. 

Such a scenario will only benefit al-Shabab and other extremist groups including the Islamic State in the Horn of Africa.