Turkish overseas bases project power in Red Sea, Eastern Med - scholar

Turkey has amassed several overseas military installations around the Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf that magnify the country’s regional power projection, Hebrew University of Jerusalem fellow Micha’el Tanchum wrote in a report for AIES, likening the Turkish bases to China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean.

With Turkey already at odds with the Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Turkey’s enhanced strategic powers in the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean will lead to volatility, with chances of localised conflicts ballooning into a “wider regional clash”, Tanchum said.

Turkey’s alliance with Qatar is of fundamental importance in this strategy, since the 3,000-troop military base opened in the Gulf state in 2016 set a model of Turkish manpower backed by Qatari wealth that has been used in later expansion.

Next came a $50 million base near the Somalian capital city of Mogadishu, which is expected to train some 10,000 Somali troops as well as accommodating “assets for its own naval, air and ground forces”.

The base is only one recent step in a partnership with Somalia that has lasted almost a decade, and includes aid packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The base gives Turkey a foothold on the Horn of Africa within reach of the Gulf of Aden, a critical point leading to the Red Sea, and places the Qatar-Turkey alliance in opposition to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on a new front, Tanchum said.

The same year Turkey’s Somalian base was opened, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made moves to gain a foothold on the Red Sea through an agreement with Sudan, whose former dictator Omar al-Bashir signed a deal allowing Turkey to rebuild a disused port island in the city of Suakin.

The ouster of Bashir this year has raised doubts over whether Turkish naval forces will be allowed to use the port as a base, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE placing pressure on the new administration to block such a move. However, if they succeed it will not be more than a temporary setback for Turkey, given the momentum behind its drive to expand its blue-water power projection, Tanchum said.

Cyprus, where Turkey maintains a 30,000-troop presence in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the island, is the most important pearl on Ankara’s string, Tanchum said.

It has also been the scene of some of the highest volatility in recent months, as Turkey continues to oppose efforts by the Greek Cypriot administration to tap underwater hydrocarbon resources around the island while attempting to drill these resources itself.

Turkish drillships have been making forays into areas south of the island claimed by the Greek Cypriots’ Exclusive Economic Zone, but Tanchum said any naval response by a NATO member would provide “Ankara with the pretext to build a naval base in Northern Cyprus”.

Turkey is already able to draw on its regional bases to provide a range of responses to challenges posed by its regional rivals, Tanchum said. The completion of Turkey’s new light aircraft carrier TGC Anadolu in 2021 will further magnify its power projection, he added.

“Until a new equilibrium develops in the maritime security architecture, the Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea corridor will be increasingly volatile”, he said.