Skylight: Turkey’s African ambitions and its rationale

Archishman is a first-year student studying International Relations. In this article, he analyses the ramifications of Turkey’s increased interest in North Africa from strategic, political and economic perspectives. He focuses particularly on Turkey’s reasons for its actions, as well as the reasons for its growing geopolitical interest in Africa as a whole.

Disclaimer:
This article follows the previous article “A Double-edged Sword: the intertwined risks of Turkish foreign policy”, which discussed the geopolitical risk associated with Turkey’s presence in Libya. This article expands on the discussion the previous article elicited and looks at Erdogan’s broader African strategy and his reasons for expanding in the continent- specifically in North Africa.

 

In April 1980, armed men claiming to be fighting for the independence of ‘Arabistan’ from freshly revolutionary Iran stormed the Iranian Embassy at 16 Princes Gate, London. The six-day long hostage crisis perpetrated by this group was eventually ended by a team of SAS officers, who stormed the embassy from a skylight on the terrace of the building and neutralised the terrorists[1].

 

Turkish President Erdogan’s agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to send Turkish troops to Libya if called upon to do so by Tripoli elicited a flurry of reactions from the international community- mostly negative. The agreement signals Ankara’s intent to fight back with ground troops to protect the GNA against the forces led by General Khalifa Heftar’s who control most of Libya and have their eyes set on the corridors of power in Tripoli. Turkey’s actions appear to signal deeper security engagements between Turkey and North African governments in the near future- a claim which is backed up by Erdogan’s state visit to Algeria on the 26th of January, followed by visits to the Gambia and Senegal[2]. Erdogan’s trips to Gambia and Senegal from Algeria indicates that Turkey aims to expand its military presence in North Africa to find routes into sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons for this are many, and focused at both diminishing the influence of international and regional rivals in Africa while achieving geopolitical objectives elsewhere in the world.

 

Undoubtedly, a Turkish presence in North Africa would be crucial to diminishing the influence of Egypt, its major rival in the MENA region. Turkey’s ties with Egypt have been strained since the overthrow of the extremist leader Mohammad Morsi in 2013, and his succession by the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Responding to Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, al-Sisi’s government has recognised the Armenian Genocide. Relations were worsened by the assassination of Egyptian state prosecutor Hisham Barakat in 2015 by, according to Egyptian intelligence reports, Turkey-based members of the Muslim Brotherhood[3]. On the 14th of January 2020, Egyptian authorities raided the Cairo offices of Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency news channel, causing damage and arresting four employees on charges of terrorism[4]. A Turkish presence in Libya is aimed at sending a message to Cairo that Turkey is willing to use force against Egypt if such a situation arises. More than that however, such a move forebodes a larger Turkish intent aimed at alienating Egypt from its regional allies, Algeria and Khalifa Heftar’s Libyan rebels. Erdogan’s visit to Algeria indicates that Turkey aims to establish itself militarily in Libya and perhaps later in Algeria in order to divert from immediate concerns in Cairo, Algiers and Tunis about issues such as the proliferation of ISIS affiliates. Thus, a military presence in these countries would isolate Egypt, leaving it vulnerable to Turkish demands. Cairo recognises this threat- Tarek Radwan, the chairman of African Affairs in Egypt’s House of Representatives has already acknowledged that Turkey would require access through Algeria and Tunisia to reach Libya[5]. In the light of this, the Egyptian Air Force carried out the Qadir 2020 war games along the border with Libya in January 2020, aimed a signal responding to Turkey’s apparent aggressive behaviour in Libya.[6]

 

A military presence is equally aimed at targeting a major Western power in Africa- France. Stationing troops in Algeria or Libya or both would provide Ankara with easy access to Mali, Niger and Chad- countries rife with terrorist violence currently being tackled by French and American troops. However, the Pentagon has publicly contemplated reducing the American troop strength in these countries- a move which has been criticised by both West African governments such as Togo, Senegal[7] as well as France[8]. Yet a US troop withdrawal would result in a vacuum in Sahelian Africa, which could be filled in with a Turkish covert presence from the north aimed at tying down French forces in Africa. This may prevent France from becoming engaged in other parts of the world where it could directly or indirectly threaten Turkey’s strategic interests. One such example would be in Iraq and Syria, where the French Army’s Operation Chammal, aimed at tackling ISIS, also holds the potential to hamper Turkish military actions. In his New Year’s address to the French People, President Emmanuel Macron declared that France would be sending its only aircraft carrier, the Charles De Gaulle in Middle Eastern waters from January to April 2020 as part of Operation Chammal[9]. Diplomatic tensions between Turkey and France have skyrocketed over the second half of 2019. The comments made by French Ambassador to Greece condemning the Turkey-Libya treaty as a “pseudo-agreement”[10], France’s suspension of arms sales to Turkey after the latter’s invasion of northern Syria in October 2019[11] and Turkey’s ‘threat’ in response to send millions of refugees to Europe highlights the fact that France is viewed as a political and strategic enemy by Ankara[12]. Therefore, Turkey would want to bog down France in a long-drawn insurgency in West Africa, fought alone between France on one side and Turkish intelligence supporting certain insurgent groups against France.

 

It is regarding the question of supporting insurgent groups that the Turkish presence in North Africa and their interests in Sub-Saharan Africa gain a new dimension. As of now, Turkey has no known links to any of the multitudes of militias and insurgent/terror outfits operating in the region. The only potential partner that Turkey may have to use against France is Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) many regional affiliates. The possibility is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Despite Turkey’s military and covert activities against Al-Qaeda in the past, reports indicate what may be a rapprochement between the two. Turkey has on a number of opportunities cooperated with what used to be the Syrian wing of Al Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir al Shams (HTS)[13]. HTS terrorists have in the past aided the transport of logistics for the Turkish Army, and protected Turkish observation posts in northern Syria after Turkey’s invasion of the area late last year[14]. Such a blossoming relationship has the ability to translate into the centralised AQ directing its West African affiliates to coordinate activities against France with Turkish intelligence services. Given the current rise of religious rhetoric and right-wing extremist politics in Turkey, this is not a completely implausible concept. Additionally, to capitalise on this semi-partnership of convenience with Al-Qaeda makes sense for Turkey, especially now. The Barisha Raid in October 2019 which saw the elimination of ISIS chief Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi took place in Syria’s Idlib province bordering Turkey, which is under the control of HTS[15]. The fact that Baghdadi was with found in HTS territory close to Turkey appears to indicate that following the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria in March 2019, ISIS is attempting to make amends with Al Qaeda, which is after all its parent organisation. This is reiterated by the fact that Baghdadi was found in the house of a commander of Hurras al-Din, an HTS splinter group remaining loyal to Al-Qaeda[16]. Such developments would have gravely consequences on Turkey itself, which has been fighting ISIS in Syria. In such a context, it may not be beyond the realm of possibility that Turkey’s military and intelligence services capitalise in their relationship with Al-Qaeda to bring it and its regional affiliates in West Africa under Ankara’s fold before ISIS can.

 

There is also an economic angle to Turkey’s interests in sub-Saharan Africa. In December 2019, the US Senate took steps to impose sanctions on Turkey following its invasion of northern Syria and its purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system[17]. Such an impact would gravely hamper Turkey’s economic growth, which has just been recovering after the country’s currency crisis in recent years[18]. A presence in North Africa provides Turkey with a window to tap into sub-Saharan Africa’s mineral and natural resources, the sale of which could lessen the sanctions’ impacts. This could perhaps explain Turkey’s recent agreement with the government of Niger, a country which borders Algeria and Libya, to conduct drilling and mineral research activities in the nation.[19]

 

To a lesser extent, a more visible Turkish presence in Africa is also aimed at sending a warning to the other global great power operating on the continent. China’s economic and military growth in Africa has been noted by the international community. Sino-Turkish ties are quite complex at present- despite being a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Turkey and China have a number of major disagreements on certain issues[20]. For instance, Turkey has voiced its disapproval of the maltreatment of Muslims in the restive Chinese province of Xinjiang at the UN Human Rights Commission[21]. Turkey has also voiced its intention to send to send a formal observation team to visit Xinjiang and evaluate China’s treatment of Uighurs[22]. Given these disagreements, Turkey’s military presence in North Africa and its growing strategic, economic and geopolitical interests in the Sahel can be said to be aimed at carving out a separate Turkish sphere of influence to compete with the budding Chinese one in East Africa. The development of such a sphere of influence is aimed at signalling to China that Turkey is willing to compete with China economically and perhaps even militarily if China attempts to threaten Turkish interests in any way.

 

All in all, Turkey’s African ambitions symbolise not just the immediate interests of Ankara to solve immediate economic and political problems it faces, but appears to be a focal point of its international grand strategy. Most importantly, however, Turkey’s interest in North Africa is closely tied to its covert and geostrategic interests in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Maghreb is Turkey’s skylight into the heart of Africa.

 

Image Source:

https://see.news/did-turkish-troops-really-arrive-in-libya/

 

Citations:

[1] The Day The SAS Became Famous: Operation Nimrod And The Iranian Embassy, Forces Network, 4th May 2018 (https://www.forces.net/news/day-sas-became-famous-operation-nimrod-and-iranian-embassy) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[2] Visiting Turkey leader: Algeria key in region’s stability, AP, 26th January 2020 (https://apnews.com/3d1931916e1680aa376df3bae10ef26f) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[3] Muslim brotherhood conspired with Hamas to kill prosecutor, Egypt claims, The Guardian, 6th March 2016

[4] Egypt-Turkey tensions continue to rise in wake of newsroom raid, Al-Monitor, 28th January 2020 (https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/01/egypt-security-raid-turkish-anadolu-agency-relations.html) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[5] Nawal Sayed. “Did Turkish Troops Really Arrive In Libya?”. Sada Elbalad, 6th January 2020 (https://see.news/did-turkish-troops-really-arrive-in-libya/) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[6] Egyptian air force performs exercises within Qader 2020, Egypt 2020, 13th January 2020 (https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/79603/Egyptian-Air-Force-performs-exercises-within-Qader-2020) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[7] Diana Stancey Correll. “West African leaders warn it would be a ‘mistake’ to cut back US troops in Africa”. Military Times, 21st January 2020 (https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/01/21/west-african-leaders-warn-it-would-be-a-mistake-to-cut-back-us-troops-in-africa/) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[8] Phil Stewart, Tangi Salaün. “France warns US against pulling troops from fight against Islamists in Africa’s Sahel”. Reuters, 27th January 2020 (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-france-sahel/france-warns-us-against-pulling-troops-from-fight-against-islamists-in-africas-sahel-idUSKBN1ZQ1LV) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[9] France Deploys Only Aircraft Carrier To Anti-IS Mission In Middle East, Radio Free Europe, 17th January 2020 (https://www.rferl.org/a/france-deploys-carrier-middle-east-islamic-state/30382245.html) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[10] French Ambassador condemns Turkey’s provocations, praises Greece-France military cooperation, Greek City Times, 28th January 2020 (https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/01/28/french-ambassador-condemns-turkeys-provocations-praises-greece-france-military-cooperation/) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[11] Colin Drury. “UK urges Turkey to halt military offensive in Syria as France and Germany halt arms sales to Ankara”. The Independent, 13th October 2019 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-invades-syria-kurds-erdogan-france-germany-arms-sales-a9153826.html) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[12] Roland Oliphant. “Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to send ‘millions’ of refugees to Europe in EU calls Syria offensive ‘invasion’”. The Telegraph, 10th October 2019 (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/10/10/turkeys-erdogan-threatens-send-millions-refugees-europe-eu-calls/) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[13] Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria, BBC, 28th February 2017 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38934206) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[14] Sultan Al Kanj. “Reviewing the Turkey-HTS Relationship”. Chatham House, May 2019 (https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/reviewing-the-turkey-hts-relationship) Accessed- 29th January 2020

[15] Bel Trew. “How al-Baghdadi was caught after years in hiding, and who in ISIS will take over”. The Independent, 28th October 2019 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/how-baghdadi-caught-isis-trump-us-syria-leaders-islamic-state-a9175251.html) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[16] Leela Jacinto. “US secrecy on Baghdadi raid exposes distrust of NATO ally Turkey”. France 24, 29th Octiober 2019 (https://www.france24.com/en/20191029-us-secrecy-on-baghdadi-raid-exposes-distrust-of-nato-ally-turkey) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[17] US Senate Committee Passes Bill That Would Impose Sanctions on Turkey, VOA, 11th December 2019 (https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-senate-committee-passes-bill-would-impose-sanctions-turkey) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[18] Olga Rosca. “EBRD sees Turkish economy growing by 2.5 per cent in 2020”. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 6th November 2019 (https://www.ebrd.com/news/2019/ebrd-sees-turkish-economy-growing-by-25-per-cent-in-2020.html) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[19] Turkey to conduct mineral exploration activities in Niger, Daily Sabah, 20th January 2020 (https://www.dailysabah.com/business/2020/01/20/turkey-to-conduct-mineral-exploration-activities-in-niger)

[20] Turkey strong supporter of. Belt and Road, Erdogan tells Chinese press, Daily Sabah, 1st July 2019 (https://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2019/07/01/turkey-strong-supporter-of-belt-and-road-erdogan-tells-chinese-press) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[21] Stephanie Nebehay. “Turkey, Britain raise China’s treatment of Uighurs at U.N rights forum”. Reuters, 25th February 2019 (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-turkey/turkey-britain-raise-chinas-treatment-of-uighurs-at-un-rights-forum-idUSKCN1QE1IC) Accessed- 30th January 2020

[22] Turkey to send observation team to China’s Xinjiang for Uighur Turks, 30th July 2019 (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-china/turkey-to-send-observation-team-to-chinas-xinjiang-for-uighur-turks-idUSKCN1UP17W) Accessed- 30th January 2020

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