Turkey’s new foray: The Red Sea and the Indian Ocean

Erdogan Muizzu

Turkey is making in roads as a proxy for Iran and Qatar into the Red Sea and China in the Indian Ocean. The Sultan’s gambit is to keep increasing his sphere of influence at any cost. Will he succeed?

In 2020, I had commented on the rising alliance between China-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey-Qatar, an alliance which allowed both Turkish President Erdogan and then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to dream of leading the muslim ummah. In 2023 the declaration of the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor (IMEC) at the G20 in Delhi created a lot of discontent in most of these countries.

While in 2020 Russia was sitting on a fence, between the west and China-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey-Qatar alliance, it has now firmly joined it. I personally see BRICS and its extension as a battleground between this new Russia-China-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey-Qatar alliance and India, but we will come to that in another blog post.

The Hamas attack on Israel essentially had different objectives. One was the Hamas just driving the point home that any Saudi Arabia-Israel rapprochement could not happen without Saudi Arabia settling the Palestine matter. Another was to consolidate global jihadist group’s under the banner of a Iran led “Axis of Resistance”, for which it was very successful.

IMEC would have led to Saudi-Israeli mutual recognition and the loss of Saudi interest in a Palestinian state would have destroyed any little relevance that the Hamas had left. Russia and Iran had their own agendas. The IMEC essentially expanded the West Asian Quad, I2U2 (Israel, India, USA and UAE), it consigned the Russia-Iran International North South transport corridor (INSTC) to the flames and challenged the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The countries most affected by the IMEC’s announcement were Egypt, Turkey, China, Russia, Iran (coincidentally, all Hamas allies). Erdogan, the Turkish President, was offended at the G20 in Delhi that Turkey was left out of the IMEC. He has fully supported the Hamas terrorist attack of 7th October and now Turkey is trying to make inroads into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Somalia and the Horn of Africa: Turkey’s entry into the Red Sea

Somalia has always been in the news for being a failed state in the past couple of decades. Constant civil war, an Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab along with Islamists continuously challenging the weak federal government and piracy are only some of its problems. The country faces abject poverty and is also in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. It is also located strategically on the African coast as ships exit from the Bab-Al Mandab strait into the Gulf of Aden which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

With Houthi attacks on ships passing the Bab Al-Mandab, Somali pirates seem to have also got energised(and received arms) to attack and capture ships transiting the strait. With the wars around the world, the recent crisis in Somalia has been almost ignored.

The New Somalia-Ethiopia conflict

Ethiopia is one of the largest and fastest growing African economies. It is also landlocked since Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 after a 30 year war of independence and the neighbours started a war in 1998 losing it complete access to the port of Assab in the Red Sea. While a peace deal (supported by the UAE) was signed in 2018, after five tumultuous years, it seems that the neighbours are on the brink of war again. One of the reasons is Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s belief that without its own port, Ethiopia’s development will be extremely hindered.

While both countries en masse troops for war, pragmatic Abiy signed an MoU with the breakaway Somali region of Somaliland for the use of the Berbera port on the Red Sea. While the terms of the MoU are not clear, Somaliland seems to have been offered similar terms Abiy had offered Eritrea for the use of Assab, including a share in the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines. The MoU will allow Ethiopia not obly to use Berbera for cargo but also as a military port and have a Ethiopian navy in the Red Sea. One of the promises that Abiy has made in return is eventual recognition and support for Somaliland’s independence, and this has kicked the hornet’s next in Somalia. While Somaliland has claimed independence from Mogadishu for a while, the Federal government has done its best to maintain national unity.

Enter Turkey…

The current Somali President Hassan Shiekh Mohamud has been strongly supported by the UAE while the previous President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo was supported by Qatar and Turkey. The recent agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia seems to have given Mohamud the opportunity to change his alliances. He is also personally under duress as his son faces manslaughter charges in Istanbul for running over and killed a courier driver. Mohamud’s son fled Turkey since the accident and there is a warrant for his arrest. Turkey expects him to return and face charges.

Turkey seems to beneficiary of this latest round of tension in the Horn of Africa. Mohamud is rumored to be imminently visiting Turkey to meet with Erdogan, to ask for Turkish ships to patrol the Somali coast for anti-piracy as well as guarding against any Ethiopia-Somaliland moves. It seems that it is also being discussed that Turkey will provide ships, arms and equipment so that the Federal Somali Government can finally have its own navy. If this is true, this essentially brings both sides of the Bab-Al Mandab and the Gulf of Aden under the control of the Turkish (Islamic brotherhood run) Erdogan government on the African end, and the Iranian Houthi’s on the Asian (Yemeni) end.

Turkey also seems to be acting as a proxy for China in the Indian Ocean. The new President of Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, is a dedicated Islamist. Traditionally Maldives Presidents visit India on their first international trip, given the position and importance of India to Maldives. Maldives relies on India for medical care, food supplies, tourism and a lot of other important survival issues.

Muizzu was elected instead on an Islamic, “India-out” platform and visited Turkey for his first international trip. His second international trip is scheduled for Beijing. While Sri Lanka denied permission for Chinese research ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 at India’s request, Maldives refused to do so. At his inauguration he requested the Indian government to withdraw its defence personnel stationed on the island.

If all goes as Erdogan has planned, Turkey will not only firmly have a base in the Red Sea, but also provide some kind of support with China to the Maldives, increasing its area of influence tremendously. The only question is if Erdogan will be able to pull this off.