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  • Einat Elazari

Turkey’s southern ambitions

While the world is focusing on Turkey’s actions in Syria, President Erdogan’s recent visit to Africa signals Turkey’s intentions to expand its impact on a much larger scale.

[See the original publication on 'Global Risk Insights' here]

Less than a week after the US-led coalition announced it would expand support for its Kurdish allies, Turkey launched a new ground offensive in Syria called “Olive Branch”, advancing into the Kurdish-held region of Afrin, 60 km north of Aleppo. The move increased tensions between the US and Turkey: the two increasingly cannot avoid their growing disagreements over the Kurdish presence and activity in Syria, especially near the borders with Turkey. But while the focus lies on Turkish forces operating within Syria, Turkey is quietly building long-term diplomatic, economic and security plans elsewhere.

At the end of December 2017, President Erdogan travelled to Africa to visit Tunisia, Chad and Sudan. In Sudan, he signed no less than 13 new trade, infrastructure and security deals. These will more than double trade between the countries, from $500m to a projected $1.1b. The strengthening relations between Turkey and Sudan represent President Erdogan’s intentions to increase Turkey’s power in the Middle East and North Africa.

Why Africa, why Sudan?

The timing of this initiative is not accidental. Recent tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the Nile Dam project escalated when Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo until further notice. The project involves the construction of a dam on the Blue Nile River on Ethiopia-Sudan border, and has raised tensions with countries downriver from Sudan. Egypt is particularly worried that the dam will reduce its water supply, and has suggested that Ethiopia cut Sudan out of the project. This tension makes it a convenient time for Turkey to strengthen relations with Sudan, but this is also likely to be a major concern for Egypt. Some Egyptian officials have already expressed their suspicion about Turkey’s intentions for the region.

Turkey has started work at Sudan’s Suakin Island, ostensibly to turn it into a cultural and tourist center. SIgnificantly, as per the recent agreement with Sudan, Turkey received full administrative power over the island, potentially allowing it to host a military presence. The choice of Suakin Island, a significant site from the Ottoman era, is strategic: considering the direct access to the Red Sea, Turkey’s presence on the Island could provide President Erdogan with new economic and geopolitical leverage. A permanent Turkish presence in the Sudanese ports at the Red Sea will provide access to one of the busiest oil transit routes in the world, with over 4.5 million barrels of oil a day making its way from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal. According to the Red Sea foundation, an advocacy group which promotes the sea’s potential, trade in the Red Sea is may increase from $881b to as much as $4.7 trillion over the next two decades. This kind of potential could provide Turkey with an opening in and routes to other markets, further increasing its trading volumes.

The Turkish presence in the ports of the Red Sea is bad news not only for Egypt but also for Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s access to the Persian Gulf on the one side, and Turkey’s new activity in the Red Sea on the other, represent a potential foundation for a new Turkey-Sudan-Qatar alliance. Their mutual support for the Muslim Brotherhood and relations with Iran might create a new opposition to Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea. The combination of warming ties with Sudan and tensions between Egypt and Sudan could allow President Erdogan can gain a better foothold in the region.

Erdogan’s domestic and foreign challenges

The Turkish endeavor in Africa must be understood in the context of upcoming domestic elections in 2019. With his visit to Africa, Erdogan proves to the Turkish people that he still is the strong and strategic leader Turkey needs. The ongoing Turkish involvement in Syria and the uncertainty of the regional balance of power after the Syrian conflict ends is driving Erdogan to identify additional channels for his expansionist foreign policy. However, the ultimate outcome of the Syrian Civil War is not the only concern for the Turkish President.

The French president Macron’s recent statement that Turkey stands “no chance” of joining the EU suggest an unclear future for Turkey and the EU, Turkey’s biggest economic partner. As the probability of a Turkish membership in the EU is decreasing, Mr. Erdogan is on the look-out for other platforms of economic and political influence. It is therefore not surprising that during his visit in Sudan the Turkish President specifically said he is aiming at increasing the countries’ bilateral trade from the current $1 billion to $10 billion in the future.

The road ahead

While struggling for influence on the ground in Syria, with strong competition from giants like the US and Russia, Turkey is identifying additional platforms and regions to increase its economic and military power. The recent visit to Africa is another step in the Turkish President’s ambition to reinforce Turkey’s position in the Middle East and beyond. In his recent New Year’s address, President Erdogan remarked that “Turkey’s recent foreign visits provide us with opportunities to better see Turkey’s true potential.” 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.

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