The Suakin Island in Sudan has been strategically important to Turkey for many ways. It is at the crossroads between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and between Saudi Arabia and East Africa. In 2017, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan, and was accompanied to Suakin Island by the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir.
“If you hand over Suakin to us, we will restore it completely and will make it worthy of historical honor again,” Erdogan said
Suakin was used as a port by the Ottoman empire as well as having a mosque built during the era and, hence, holds strategic significance for Turkey. There were fears that post-coup in Sudan, the deal between the two to restore and reconstruct the historic Suakin Island could be cancelled, although such reports were brushed aside by Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hami Aksoy in April this year.
Prior to the coup in Sudan, Turkish navy ships arrived in the port city in March 2019 to boost defense and security cooperation. Turkey, according to reports, was expected to build a land, naval and air base on the port island to exert greater influence in the African region. There is also an agreement to extend the military presence of Turkey further up to the port and its coast. Turkish forces will not only be stationed in Suakin should the deal fructify, but it has also stationed itself in Mogadishu in Somalia.
Prior to the coup, both Sudan and Turkey continuously denied Suakin would be a Turkish military base. Given Ankara’s forces in Qatar and Somalia and its aggression in the Aegian Island, it is difficult to believe Suakin will have no military objective and be primarily based on promoting religious tourism. Considering the tough leader that President Erdogan is, it is hard to believe Suakin will not turn into a military outpost, despite the fact that it was once under the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey is aware of Gulf countries interests in the Horn of Africa region, including Sudan, so does not wish to let its Arab rivals take a leading role in the region. With the strained relations between Sudan and the US, Sudan considers Turkey a “model for the Muslim world and an alternative to a West that has surrendered its moral authority”.
The Turkish military presence in Suakin directly concerns countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – all of whom Turkey has been at loggerheads with due to their fears Ankara is trying to gain a foothold in the Red Sea. A strong Turkish foothold in Sudan would also enable Ankara to deter the US, which has set up a military base in nearby Djibouti again in the Red Sea near the Gulf of Aden.
Turkey has developed sophisticated ballistic missiles. It is also developing Atmaca - the 200kms anti-ship cruise missiles that would strengthen the combat capability of its Navy and also enable it to deny adversaries maritime influence in its own regions of influence, which also includes the Red Sea.
In the recent past, Turkey has used Bora ballistic missiles in Iraq against the Kurdish rebels, and there is no reason to believe it would not use missile systems for its own combat and strategic advantage in the future. In the near future Turkey may also choose to station the S-400 missile defense systems it is receiving from Russia at Suakin as a defense by denial measure. This allows a state to deny its adversaries any offensive advantage vis-à-vis the state by defensive mechanisms such as missile and air defense capabilities.
Despite the coup, it may be possible that Turkey continues with its military developments in Suakin as the deal that was signed pre coup included a 99-year lease to redevelop the Ottoman port island. Hence, Suakin, at the moment, at least according to agreement, is under Turkey’s lease.
Turkey’s expansion to the Horn of Africa will only result in a further tussle for power in the region and is an alarming situation. In future, Turkey could cooperate with Russia in Sudan owing to the fact that Ankara’s faith in its NATO allies has deteriorated, and it is now looking beyond NATO.
Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy Asia Pacific, EastWest Institute.