Turkey May Intervene if Ethiopia-Somaliland Dispute Escalates

The Horn of Africa with notable Turkish projects in dashed red boxes, and key port agreements and military bases of other powers in blue (Clingendael Institute, May 2019).

An international politics expert suggests that Turkey could potentially act as a mediator in the recent contentious port agreement between Ethiopia and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which has the potential to escalate into a regional crisis. This agreement, signed on January 1, grants Ethiopia commercial and military access to the Red Sea in exchange for potentially recognizing Somaliland as an independent nation. Ethiopia’s ambition to secure Red Sea access has strained relations with neighboring countries, raising concerns of regional conflict.

Mehmet Özkan, a foreign policy expert, believes that while the deal may cause tension, it may not lead to a major crisis. He suggests that Turkey, with established relations with all parties involved, could use its diplomatic influence to ease tensions. Turkey already has a Foreign Ministry envoy mediating diplomatic negotiations between Somalia and Somaliland, and it seeks to preserve this process.

Turkey maintains strong economic, diplomatic, and military relationships with Somalia and Ethiopia. Turkish organizations and companies are actively involved in various sectors in Somalia, including education, energy, and finance.

Somalia rejected the port deal, as it considers Somaliland part of its territory. The agreement allows Ethiopia to lease land around the port of Berbera for naval and commercial purposes. Somaliland, in return, expects eventual recognition as an independent nation. Ethiopia justifies the agreement by stating that it won’t negatively affect any party or country.

However, Somalia sees the deal as an encroachment on its territory and a threat to regional stability. It has nullified the agreement and recalled its ambassador from Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian and Somaliland military chiefs have discussed military cooperation, increasing concerns of potential conflict with Somalia, which previously endured Ethiopian occupation during the Somali civil war.

Turkey’s Growing Influence in the Horn of Africa

A CRU policy brief from the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute indicates that Turkey’s foreign policy has increasingly become more active and assertive, with a significant presence in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia and Sudan. This role stems from both domestic motivations and strategic objectives in the region.

With its expanding economy, Turkey has adopted a more forceful foreign policy stance, focusing on the Middle East and aligning with Sunni sectarianism associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Horn of Africa’s growing importance as a geostrategic hub, marked by an increase in foreign military bases and investments, has highlighted its significance.

Turkey’s involvement, characterized by developmental and economic efforts, is largely viewed favorably due to its effectiveness, speed, and comparatively minimal political strings attached. However, it is criticized for its bilateral-focused approach and insufficient oversight.

The shift towards a more assertive geopolitical and security role by Turkey is approached with caution. Its competition with Qatar against Gulf nations is intensifying regional conflicts in the Horn, potentially escalating instability. ■

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