Turkey’s relatively newfound interest in engaging with Somalia was triggered by a combination of different events, from the extension of humanitarian assistance during a time of great famine to the desire to establish a foothold in a strategic location so as to benefit from future trade deals. Not only have a number of Turkish government agencies been actively working on the ground, but also a host of nongovernmental organizations in Somalia are working to bring about positive changes in what many have called a “failed state.”
It is not being widely discussed, but there is another underlying reason behind Turkish involvement in Somalia: to curb Iran’s meddling in the affairs of Somalia and its immediate neighborhood. All efforts expended by Turkey will undoubtedly bring good fortune in terms of political capital, which Ankara intends to spend on countering Iranian influence in the Horn of Africa — a place Iran feels is perfect to act as a fallback position when the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria falls to democratic opposition mostly consisting of Sunnis. For years, Iran has been cultivating relationships in Somalia and the surrounding area, hoping to gain a footing in the geostrategic location of the Horn of Africa.
Considering that one of the main Iranian shipping lines crosses through the Arabian Sea and by the Gulf of Aden, Iran certainly values its presence in Somalia from an economic standpoint. In July 2009, Iran had to send two warships to the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia to protect Iranian commercial and oil cargo ships from piracy. But there is another important rationale behind Iranian interest in this region that weighs in heavily against all other considerations.
From there, Iranians believe they can create or incite schisms within a number of African nations while also keeping Sunni Arab Gulf states occupied with mounting unrest and insurgency among Shiite populations in the southern Arabian Peninsula. For example, intelligence reports detail how the Mullah regime in Iran has been providing arms and munitions to the insurgent groups in Somalia, including al-Shabaab. Tehran has been funneling most of its aid to insurgents through the “Christian” dictator of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, who has been cozying up to Iranian regime for years. This is kind of ironic, yet a perfect case of the convergence of mutual interests.
The Eritrean opposition claimed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards provided training to the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in Eritrea when they were fighting the Yemeni and Saudi governments. According to a Saudi official with whom I spoke last month, classified Saudi intelligence reports detail many similarities between the tactics employed by Houthi rebels and those used by pro-Iranian Shiite groups in Iraq. This footprint shows Iranian involvement in both cases. In 2006, then-Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi publicly accused Iran of providing weapons to Islamic militants who had seized control of much of this country’s south. In the same year, the supply of arms by Iran to radical groups in Somalia was also detailed in UN Security Council reports, which found Iran in breach of a 1992 UN arms embargo on the region.
In the last couple of years, Iran seems to have shifted its tactics away from aggressively supporting armed factions towards using soft-power methods to influence Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. The retreat of al-Shabaab militia from Mogadishu and other places amid intense pressure from African Union troops deployed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has undoubtedly accelerated this Iranian shift. Seeing that Somalia is desperate to get international aid, Iran has been using humanitarian assistance programs as vessels to deliver important cover for illicit Iranian government activities in Somalia. At the moment, the Somalia government does not mind this as long as aid is coming in, which is the first and foremost priority for Somali leaders.
Accompanied by two planes full of many Cabinet members, celebrities, journalists, NGO workers, and businessmen, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Aug. 19, 2011, making him the first head of a government to do so in 20 years. This certainly ruffled the feathers of the Mullah regime in Tehran. The visit came on the heels of an emergency meeting held by the member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Aug. 17 in Istanbul, which secured a pledge of $350 million in aid. On Aug. 23, 2011, just four days after the Turkish prime minister made a landmark visit to Mogadishu, Iranians hastily rushed their foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, to Somalia to hopefully lessen Turkey’s rising clout there. Salehi surveyed the camps set up by the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) and offered to build a hospital and an orphanage in the capital.
Turkey has since opened an embassy, started work on an international airport and on water supply and waste disposal projects, offered Somalis scholarships to study in Turkey, and made plans to build a new hospital and roads. A Turkish fundraising drive among private citizens that was launched during the holy month of Ramadan last year has so far raised $334 million. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates last October, Turkey topped the list of countries that provided aid to Somalia when comparing the amount of aid given with the countries’ gross national income.
Furthermore, Ankara successfully mobilized the rich Gulf nations to extend financial aid to the fragile transitional government in order to build government agencies, including an army. Fearing the Iranian specter looming large over their heads, the Gulf nations have been forthcoming in delivering cash to the Somali government. Somalia is happy to receive financial assistance from Turkish and Arab Gulf donors because it comes with fewer strings attached than that supplied by the West. As a result, Turkey was able to translate international political support into concrete financial help to the cash-strapped Somali government — a key to consolidating the transitional government while curbing the appeal of terrorism.
Turkey’s interest in Somalia did not start with the huge famine that exposed some 3.7 million Somalis at risk of starvation last year. Ankara was also involved with the Djibouti Peace Process (DPP) that started in May 2008 under the auspices of the UN and ended with the election of Sharif Sheik Ahmed as the new president of Somalia in January 2009. It hosted a major UN conference on Somalia in İstanbul in May 2010. Now, it also supports a UN political map for the transition from AMISOM to a UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia, provided that a phased approach is adopted by the Security Council that will not be tied to a rigid timetable but rather set by conditions. Turkey has offered to help train and equip the Somali army as well.
In contrast with the Iranian engagement, Western powers seem comfortable with Turkey leading the charge in Somalia. Especially Americans who realized early on that Turkey is perfectly positioned to invalidate the Western imperialism argument the Iranians are using to agitate sensitivities among the Somali Muslim population and to recruit hardcore militants to insurgent groups appreciate the Turkish role very much. The US and its allies do not seem to mind the rhetoric Erdoğan uses to bash the West as long as it does not transform into a policy and helps curb Iranian influence. For example, just two days before the Mogadishu visit, Erdoğan harshly criticized Western arrogance and the failures of capitalism with respect to Somali famine during his address to the OIC. The US and its allies kept silent to the barrage of criticism leveled by Erdoğan. With Ankara in the lead, the involvement of other Muslim nations such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia can serve to curtail radical Iranian Shiite ideology from gaining firm ground in the Horn of Africa.
One senior Turkish Cabinet member told me that Turkey is also in contact with al-Shabaab and other insurgent groups in order to encourage reconciliation among disparate groups in Somalia. For example, Turkish recovery and reconstruction efforts are not limited just to areas controlled by the government but also extend to other areas in order to win over the hearts and minds of most Somalis. He said a smear campaign has been launched there by some powers against Turkish efforts but he affirmed the Turkish commitment, saying the negative campaigning will not deter them from actively pursuing engagement with Somalia. While he did not state so outright, he implied that Iran tops the list of those spreading black propaganda against Turkey in the Horn of Africa, an unexpected place where Turkey and Iran vie for influence.