The significance of Turkey’s overseas military bases
Turkey has established several overseas military bases in both the Middle East and Africa in recent years. This enables Ankara to deploy sizeable air, ground and naval assets to strategically important regions far beyond its own borders and challenge its regional rivals – primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – in several key areas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week insisted that Turkey had never sought to expand or intervene beyond its own borders.
“I would like to underline that the Republic of Turkey has never acted with an expansionist or interventionist perspective,” Erdoğan said during a visit to Sarajevo. “As we always say, we have no eyes on land, sovereignty, internal affairs of anybody, no country.”
Turkey has military forces stationed in several countries beyond its own borders. It has troops in neighbouring Iraq and Syria as well as in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. In most of the countries where it currently stations forces Ankara has done so under agreements with the host governments.
Levent Özgül, a Turkish defence analyst, noted that Turkey has “formal expeditionary bases” in Qatar, Somalia, northern Cyprus and Sudan along with “informal activities in Tripoli, Libya” where Turkey supports and arms the Government of National Accord (GNA) against the UAE-backed Libyan National Army (LNA).
“The Qatar, Somalia and Sudan deployments and Libyan efforts are all against Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Özgül told Ahval.
Turkey has had a military base in Qatar for several years now, giving its troops a foothold in the Gulf. When the Saudis and Emiratis spearheaded a major blockade against Qatar in the summer of 2017, Turkey bolstered its troop presence there in a clear show of support for its ally.
In Somalia, Turkey established a large military base in the capital Mogadishu to train Somali soldiers. It costs an estimated $50 million and can train about 1,500 Somali soldiers at a time to help Mogadishu combat the Al-Shabaab group.
Özgül said Cyprus was “the hottest spot” where Turkey has military forces. Turkey’s drilling of recently discovered natural gas off the coast of the southern Republic of Cyprus is opposed by the European Union, other regional countries and the United States, which has urged Ankara to stop.
Turkey maintains approximately 30,000 troops in the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and there have been reports that it is also contemplating building a naval base there, which would likely be opposed by most of the international community since it would fatally undermine any already remote prospect of Cypriot reunification.
Özgül concluded the main obstacle Turkey faces in maintaining its overseas bases is “accessibility” since the Red Sea and Gulf could easily be closed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Mustafa Gürbüz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington D.C., said it “may be surprising that as Turkey’s soft power in the Middle East is in rapid decline, Turkish military activism is at its peak, leaving a footprint unprecedented since the Ottoman times”.
“Erdoğan’s increasing perception of threat is an important factor for establishing bases in Qatar and Somalia; but, beyond Erdoğan, Turkish military bases in Iraq and Syria is an outcome of deeper, long-term state policy against Kurdish nationalism,” Gürbüz told Ahval.
“It is an important distinction: although Turkish military posts draw local criticism in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s involvement in these bordering countries appear more entrenched and enduring compared to recent ones in Somalia and Qatar,” he said.
Turkey’s military presence in Syria is staunchly opposed by the Syrian regime. The Turkish Army and its militia proxies occupy swathes of northwest Syria they captured from the Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish forces in two separate operations carried out in 2016-17 and early 2018. The Turkish Army also maintains 12 observation posts around the Syrian province of Idlib established under the Astana Agreement with Russia and Iran.
In northern Iraq, Turkey’s presence at a training camp in the Nineveh town of Bashiqa drew the ire of Baghdad in December 2015 when Ankara deployed extra forces without its permission. Turkey also has dozens of forward operating bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, which it uses to support its operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the mountains of that autonomous region. One of these bases was attacked by angry Kurdish protesters in January after Turkish airstrikes against the PKK killed six civilians.
“Turkey's regional ambitions and the geo-strategic rivalry in the Red Sea is a key driver in shaping threat perception of the Erdoğan regime,” Gürbüz said.
He noted that the July 2013 coup in Egypt, the “criminalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Saudi-led coalition and the Qatar blockade have intensified Turkey’s militaristic response.”
“Opening the largest military base in Mogadishu is the most direct outcome of this threat perception,” he said.
“Turkey has long been active in Somalia in the past decade; however, the transformation from economic ties to military ties is a major geo-strategic decision for the Turkey-Qatar alliance in the Horn of Africa power game.”
Turkey has already experienced a setback in that power game. Gürbüz concluded by noting that the recent coup in Sudan coupled with Turkey’s “failing hopes” for its base in that country’s “Suakin Islands indicates that Turkey’s more far-flung military bases stand on shaky grounds, and their future will depend on many geo-strategic factors beyond Ankara’s control.”
Dr. Micha’el Tanchum, a senior associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES), a fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Israel and a non-resident fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara (Başkent-SAM), recently wrote an overview of Turkey’s overseas naval installations. He aptly summed them up as “a string of pearls that directly challenges the power of Egypt-Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates alliance.”
“With the military entrenchment of Turkey in the Horn of Africa, the Turkey-Qatar versus Egypt-Saudi Arabia-UAE competition has created an incendiary fault-line that now encompasses the entire Eastern Mediterranean-Red Sea maritime corridor,” he wrote.
“Turkey's overseas naval and maritime installations are an essential part of Turkey's efforts to expand its soft power influence as well as its hard power projection,” Tanchum told Ahval. “Turkey often develops its military partnerships within the context of aid and development packages.”
He noted that the “size and naval capabilities of these various overseas facilities vary greatly.”
“While Turkey's naval assets are allocated to defend the core areas around Turkey's shores, Turkey has consistently worked to expand its blue-water power projection since 2003,” he said. “So, Turkey's presence overseas is more than token or symbolic.”
Tanchum also noted that “political turmoil in various countries where Turkey maintains a presence could indeed represent a vulnerability for Turkey's activities.”
“We witness this vulnerability in Sudan,” he said. “The Turkey-Qatar bloc’s rivalry with the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-UAE bloc spans a large swath of Africa and the Middle East.”
In this regional cold war, various local actors “are also eager to enlist the help of one side or the other to gain an advantage over their own local rivals.”
“We see this from Libya to Somalia,” he said. “The problem now is that these previously isolated conflicts have become increasingly interconnected in such a way that one flashpoint can affect another.”
“Unless Turkey's policy orientation changes, Ankara will continue to pursue its interest in overseas installations.”
Tanchum concluded by noting that one of Turkey’s main concerns at present is expanding “the market for its quite successful arms industry.”
“Turkey is deepening its relationships with various nations through weapons sales,” he said.
“Some of these relationships may result in more overseas military facilities for Turkey.”