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Turkey set to solidify its power in Somalia with murky naval defence deal

Though Turkish officials are tight-lipped about the pact, the Somali government has suggested Ankara would be protecting Somalia's waters
Youths play on a Mogadishu beach. More Turkish warships may soon be patrolling these waters (Reuters/Feisal Omar)
Youths play on a Mogadishu beach. More Turkish warships may soon be patrolling these waters (Reuters/Feisal Omar)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

When Somali Defence Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur met his Turkish counterpart in Ankara earlier this month, he told officials gathered to meet him that Turkey-Somalia relations were historic, going back as far as the 16th century.

According to sources familiar with the talks, he said: "We were proud to have the Ottoman navy on our own side against the Portuguese ships" - referring to an intervention in the Horn of Africa seen as playing a key role in pushing back against Portugal's colonialist ambitions in the region.

The reference was timely. Days before, neighbouring Ethiopia signed a deal with Somaliland, granting Ethiopian naval forces access to the breakaway state's coastline and a military base.

Turkey expressed concern about the deal, saying that the international community should uphold the law and must respect and recognise the territorial integrity of Somalia after decades of conflict.

In Ankara, Nur asked for help in four areas: increasing the number of Somali special forces that have been trained in Turkey; getting munitions, equipment and logistical support for the ground forces; building up Somalia's air force; and finally assistance in establishing a navy.

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The requests weren't out of ordinary. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has invested a significant amount of money into Somalia since 2011, establishing the largest Turkish embassy in the world in Mogadishu and extending more than $1bn in humanitarian aid to the country in response to a deadly drought.

Turkey now has a large military base in Mogadishu, and Turkish firms operate the city's airport and port. It is estimated that Turkey has trained more than 16,000 Somali forces, an equivalent of one-third of the military, both on Turkish soil and in its Mogadishu base, known as Turksom.

As Nur and Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Guler concluded their talks, they signed a framework agreement on defence and economic cooperation. None of the parties publicly revealed the content.

A 'historic' deal

Then, earlier this week, the Somali government brought the deal to the forefront of the agenda, first approving it in cabinet and then rapidly ratifying it in parliament. The Somali government still hasn't formally revealed the contents of the deal.

However, both Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the deal would permit Turkey to build, train and equip a navy for the country in the upcoming years.

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Barre called the deal "historic", adding that it would help authorities prevent "terrorism, piracy, illegal fishing, toxic dumping and any external violations or threats" to the country's coast.

The president said that the pact would also bolster Somalia's blue economy, develop crucial economic sectors, and create opportunities for Somali people and the region. He stressed that the deal wasn't aimed against Ethiopia, a sentiment that didn't convince regional analysts.

A Somali source familiar with the deal told Middle East Eye earlier this week that Turkish warships would be stationed in Somalia's seas, essentially guarding it against piracy and terrorism.

No formal Turkish statement has come forward since the Somali announcement that first exposed some details of the agreement, despite people asking whether it mandates Ankara to protect Somali waters.

But Turkish defence ministry sources confirmed to journalists on Thursday that Ankara indeed signed a naval cooperation deal with Mogadishu.

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in his office in Mogadishu, 20 February (Reuters/Feisal Omar)
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in his office in Mogadishu, 20 February (Reuters/Feisal Omar)

"Upon Somalia's request, we will also provide the support we provide in the fight against terrorism in the field of maritime security," a defence ministry source said. "Thus, we will help Somalia develop its capacity and capabilities to combat illegal and irregular activities in its territorial waters."

Turkish officials declined to comment on the contents of the deal, awaiting the ratification process to be completed in Turkey. But it isn't clear when that process would even begin. The sense given to Turkish journalists is that it is essentially a continuation of current Turkish aid, which is helping Somalia develop its military capabilities to counter armed groups like al-Shabab.

However, both Somali official statements as well as Somali media reports suggest Mogadishu expects Ankara to protect its territorial waters against infringements. If so, that could put Turkey at a loggerheads with Ethiopia.

'Ankara isn't looking for adventure to go to war against other nations'

- Mehmet Ozkan, professor

Mehmet Ozkan, a professor at Turkey's National Defence University and specialist on African affairs, told MEE that Ankara doesn't have any wish or intention to position itself against Addis Ababa.

"For sure, the Turkish naval presence in the Somali territorial waters would be a deterrent against terrorism, piracy and others," he said. "But Ankara isn't looking for adventure to go to war against other nations."

Ozkan noted that Turkey has already been present on the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden for more than 10 years, as Turkish warships are part of a UN anti-piracy force.

In fact, Turkey's parliament earlier this year extended the force's mandate for another year.

"The Turkish presence in Somalia has many aims, but in terms of direct Turkish national interest, the benefits are limited," Ozkan added. "What Turkey is looking for in the Horn of Africa is power projection and focusing on its prestige, showcasing its capabilities and strength to other regional countries, signalling that it is ready to contribute to their defence in a mutually beneficial way."


Ankara insiders told MEE that the deal could be considered as a counterbalance against the Ethiopian move, but Turkey also enjoys friendly relations with Ethiopia and has no intention to torpedo them.  

"Turkey has armed drones in Somalia that help Mogadishu fight against al-Shabaab. The same drones have been openly sold to Ethiopia, which saved it from a catastrophic defeat in 2022 against Tigray," one source said.

Even though Turkish sources wouldn't acknowledge it, the development of Somali waters for its maritime resources, such as fishing and energy, could be the most beneficial for Ankara.

'Somalia's economic development is as important as its fight against terrorism'

- Turkish diplomatic source

The Ankara insider said establishing a naval base in Somalia would be consummate with Turkish forces' posturing in the area, as Turkey could better supply its Mogadishu base and help better coordinate its military forces. 

"But when it comes to potential underwater resources such as oil and gas, the al-Shabab issue has to be addressed once and for all, and territorial disputes with breakaway states must be addressed," the source added.

Other Turkish diplomatic sources told MEE that the Somalia deal is in line with the six-year security plan that was endorsed by the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States in December in New York.

"Somalia's economic development is as important as its fight against terrorism," one Turkish diplomatic source said.

"This agreement aims to cooperate in defence and security issues, which will ensure the effective and efficient use of Somalia's economic resources."

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