Why is Turkey sending its navy to Somalia?

Parliament approved a government-backed motion this week to extend the mandate of an anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia for another year, maintaining Turkey’s status as one of only four NATO member countries that have committed naval assets to the defense alliance’s joint counter-piracy task force, called Operation Ocean Shield. The decision follows UN Security Council Resolution 2077, which was unanimously adopted in November 2012 to renew the mandate for another year for international action to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia, as well as a decision by NATO’s North Atlantic Council in March 2012 to extend the operation until the end of 2014.

Now, why is it that Turkey has taken it upon itself to be a part of this mission since 2009 and has had to send its seamen almost 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) away from home? Well, considering that Turkey is a major trading country with a growing economy that is in constant search of new markets, the safety and security of global trade routes is paramount. Since maritime transport is the main artery when it comes to moving trade goods internationally — approximately 90 percent of all global trade by volume and 70 percent by value is shipped by water — undertaking a security operation against piracy in the Horn of Africa, including the critical Gulf of Aden, Western Indian Ocean and all the way up to the Strait of Hormuz, carries a stern warning to potential pirates all over the world.

According to the background information provided by NATO and Turkish officials on the issue, some 95 percent of maritime transports pass through nine major chokepoints, one of which is the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and is located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula on one side and Djibouti and Eritrea, north of Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, on the other. Approximately 22,000 ships per year pass through the Gulf of Aden, and half of the world’s containers pass through the Indian Ocean. If you add together the number of commercial ships using the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Suez Canal, some 20 percent of world trade with a value of $2 trillion transits this area.

The share of Turkey’s trade in this traffic is also significant. In 2012, more than 918 Turkish-flagged ships and 19,317 ships with connections to Turkey used the narrow shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali shore. Some 20 percent of Turkey’s foreign trade, amounting to $57.8 billion, was realized by commercial traffic that used the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, approximately 40 percent of the world’s crude oil exports and 30 percent of the oil destined to Europe, valued at $315 billion, use this route.

The security of strategically important oil and gas is important for Turkey because Turkey, completely dependent on oil and gas imports to meet its energy needs, has its own share in this supply that is destined for Europe.

The Turkish shipping industry has spent an estimated $42 million on enhanced security measures it has had to adopt against piracy. According to estimates, Somali piracy cost the world economy nearly $7 billion in 2011.

Looking at NATO’s scorecard, Operation Ocean Shield has succeeded in curtailing piracy incidents in this area. The latest data for last year (excluding the month of December) indicates that there were only seven hijacking incidents, as opposed to 24 in 2011 or 45 in 2010. The number of attacks dropped to 19 in 2012 from 129 in 2011, and NATO forces disrupted 34 attempts made by pirates in 2012 as opposed to 96 in 2011. Turkish naval forces conducted four operations against pirates in 2012, killing 30 of them. Since July 2009, the Turkish navy has completed 24 operations that resulted in the deaths of 165 pirates.

The restoration of security in the coastal waters off Somalia is also important for Turkish efforts to help stabilize and rebuild the war-ravaged country, starting with its capital, Mogadishu. As Turkey has mobilized government and private assets to aid Somalia over the last couple of years, it needs Somali ports and shorelines to be secure for the delivery of humanitarian and developmental assistance. Turkey has been providing food and medical aid valued at hundreds of millions of dollars as well as heavy construction equipment to build in Mogadishu and help with the resumption of municipal services in the city. A Turkish frigate stationed in the region often accompanies Turkish-flagged civilian ships delivering humanitarian aid to Mogadishu.

Political stability, a functioning economy and a strong government supported by the national police and army in Somalia would be the ultimate remedy to piracy issues in the region. Instead of just fighting the symptoms, the root causes of piracy should be addressed as well. That is what Turkey is hoping to do by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, by establishing the presence of charity and aid groups on the ground, by opening a full-fledged embassy and by building infrastructure, including roads, schools, hospitals and government buildings. The national carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) is the first and only international carrier to fly to Mogadishu. Turkey has hosted many international meetings on Somalia to keep international partners engaged in that country.

In addition to increasing its cooperation with Somalia, Turkey has adopted a regional approach to strengthening ties with a number of other countries there. It sees Ethiopia as a strategic partner, with $3.2 billion of Turkish investment in this country. It has boosted ties with Kenya as well as with Djibouti. As Djiboutian ports are strategically important and many Turkish naval vessels often make port calls there, Turkey will be opening a new embassy in Djibouti this month. Ankara has also engaged with Eritrea on an approach that seeks to bring the country out of isolation. Turkey has also mediated disagreements Eritrea has with other countries. On the other side of the Arabian Sea, Turkey is closely cooperating with Yemen to bring stability to the country and help develop its ailing economy with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

Taking into account all of these considerations, it makes sense for Turkey to send naval officers and frigates to Somali shores to protect Turkish interests.

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