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.

The second chapter of the Great Game: Kazakhstan

Barely five months into the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, central Asia is again in the news. The rapid rising tensions in Kazakhstan with violence on the street and the seeming sidetracking of longstanding Kazakh strongman and Putin ally Nursultan Nazarbayev, has left the world perplexed. Kazakhstan’s lack of human rights and Nazarbayev’s iron rule have been long ignored by the world, in a country which has known a single leader since the fall of communism. 

While the inspiration behind Kazakhstan’s revolution is uncertain, what is worrying global leaders and markets is the uncertainty this has created in central Asia. The country itself is strategic to global markets, speaking for 12% of the world’s uranium deposits and is the worlds largest uranium producer producing 40% of global uranium consumption. It is also China’s strategic ally and a key pawn and member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China General Nuclear (CGN), a China state owned company on the US sanctions list, is one of the biggest players in the uranium mining industry in Kazakhstan. 

More importantly, Kazakhstan borders China and Russia by land and shares a sea border with Iran on the Caspiansea. The country also has key interests in the stability of Afghanistan and has been a strong Indian ally on the Afghan situation. Kazakh youth also are at risk of radicalization, given potential infiltration by Islamic radical groups, who have been attempting at creating a foothold on the borders with China and Russia. 

China and Russia: securing central Asia

The destabilization of Kazakhstan is currently mired in intrigue. Some analysts present a possibility that insiders, part of an elite close to the former President and leader of the nation “Elbasy”, organized the protests in an attempt to take over the Presidency from President Tokayev, who was appointed by Nazarbayev as his successor. The firing of Nazarbayev as the Chairman of the all powerful security council by Tokayev and the firing and arrest of Karim Masimov, a Nazarbayev loyalist, from his position of the head of the KNB (National Security Committee) point to Tokayev buying into the narrative that Nazarbayev and his loyalists were behind the protests.Sources also accuse Masimov of being associated with the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global pan-Islamist, fundamentalist organization whose stated aim is to re-establish the Islamic caliphate globally.

However, with tensions rising between Russia and the NATO on Ukraine and friction between Belarus and the EU which is an extension of the Russian tensions with the US-it is hard to rule out a strong Russian and Chinese hand in destabilizing Kazakhstan. 

Both Russia and China, in the past year, have increased their bilateral cooperation partly due to their increasingfriction with the US. Both share growing concerns on the rise of Islamic radicalization on their borders, also due to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. China worries about Islamic extremism spreading in its Muslimmajority Xinjiang province, where it is accused of trying to eliminate the local Turkic Muslim population and Russia worries about Chechnya.  Despite China’s bonhomie with Pakistan, the country remains a nightmare to manage and China has been so far unable and unwilling to buy-into Pakistan’s control of Afghanistan and its Taliban and Haqqani led Emirate. 

While Nazarbayev has been a Russian and Putin ally for the past several decades, using him to destabilizeKazakhstan allows Russia to step in. His last reportedmeeting with Putin was on the 28th of December on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg. 

This intrigue, moreover, offers additional insight into what may have moved Tokayev to appeal to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, to provide assistance in ending the ongoing unrest. As of January 7, thousands of elite troops from Russia, as well as a smaller number from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have been pouring into Kazakhstan, ostensibly with the task of guarding key strategic facilities, such as airports and important government buildings. This puts Russia and its allies in firm control of Kazakhstan-with it its resources of Uranium, oil and natural gas, all key for the west.

The role of China in this is still to be cleared. President Xi Jinping has been on an year long crackdown against Chinese oligarchs and the Chinese financial system. In an attempt to exert state control over the economic apparatus, Xi has conducted a massive crackdown against bitcoin and bitcoin mining. Most of this had moved to Kazakhstan with Chinese companies and individuals continuing to control the mining. Now thanks to the revolution, Kazakhstan is without internet and at times electricity, causing uncertainty for around 20% of bitcoin’s mining globally causing a crash in bitcoin prices with market cap of over $1 trillion being wiped off in a few days.

The Great Game: the second chapter, Kazakhstan

While the first chapter of the great game was Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul, the second chapter is being written in Kazakhstan. All this reduces the west’s and the US’s role in central Asia.

Italy has large petrochemical investments in Kazakhstan though ENI and in 2019 imported over $7 billion of crude and minerals from the central Asian country. It has tried to keep a strong relationship with the central Asian republics and Pakistan-also given its G20 presidency. With Russia primed to take direct control of strategic sites in Kazakhstan, Italy walks into a minefield, on one end with its alliance with the US and NATO which have issued ultimatum’s to Russia on its military buildup with Ukraine and on another end its investments in Kazakhstan and the importance the country has for the Italian role in Central Asia. Italy itself enters a period of political instability with its Presidential elections which may cause Mario Draghi, Italy’s savior and Prime Minister, being elevated to the ceremonial Presidential role. Mr. Draghi, enjoys broad-based political support in the Italian parliament and parties are unable to agree on a compromise candidate to replace him in his role as the Prime Minister. This would mean Italian reforms as well as its foreign policy under threat as Italy would go back to short lived coalition governments unable to enact reforms. Mr. Draghi has also been able to pivot Italy away from Chinese influence and firmly back into the US/EU/NATO corner. 

2022 begins with uncertainty in central Asia as the great game continues to write its second chapter. What started with the fall of Kabul on the 15th of August now has spread to Kazakhstan with protests reported also in Iran, putting a shadow on all of Central Asia. Whether Kazakhstan is Russia’s response to NATO’s ultimatum on Ukraine or a joint Russian-Chinese project to increase their strategic depth in central Asia, the next move is now decisive for the Biden White House. The West’s victory or defeat in the Great Game may depend on it.

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