The Middle East is in chaos, but apparently it’s not enough to stop regional powers in their ruthless fight for hegemony. While Iran has taken the world’s attention, Turkey is stealthily pursuing its goal of developing a military and intelligence infrastructure on the Red Sea.
It has already deployed troops in Qatar to support the embattled emirate in its conflict with the Gulf states and Egypt, a conflict that is effectively preventing the revival of the group of pragmatic Sunni states against Iranian incitement that US President Donald Trump had hoped to bring about during his visit to Riyadh in April.
In Sudan in the last week of December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his host country had agreed to transfer the island of Suakin in the Red Sea to Turkey to rebuild and administer for an undefined period of time.
It seems Erdogan intends to set up naval facilities in this strategic spot. The island is adjacent to the port of the same name and 50 km. south of Port Sudan, situated opposite the coast of Saudi Arabia. Ferries run daily from Suakin to Jeddah .
The Sudanese president confirmed that a memorandum had been signed by both countries to formalize the deal. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour added that military and security cooperation agreements had also been signed during the visit for the construction of facilities for the maintenance of civil and military vessels in the harbor.
He said that the Defense Ministry was open to military cooperation “with our brothers and our friends,” and was ready to enter into such a cooperation with Turkey as stipulated in the agreements.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu, who stressed that they dealt with security on the Red Sea, noted that Turkey already had a military base in Somalia, and declared “our president has instructed us to give assistance to the army and the police force of Sudan.”
It is now obvious that Ankara is busy setting up a ring of military cooperation along the coasts of the Red Sea in East Africa. Suakin Island is most probably going to serve as a strategic observation point overseeing movements in the Red Sea. Turkish naval vessels will be able to drop anchor there as well as in other Sudanese ports.
SUAKIN BECAME the capital of the Ottoman province of Habeş in the 16th century. Handing over the island to Turkey is ostensibly in order to enable the Turks to restore monuments dating from the Ottoman era now badly in need of repair. Turkish specialists are already on the spot and are making plans.
Accompanying Erdogan was Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, who drafted the details of the military cooperation agreement.
While they were there, Qatari Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Ghanim Bin Shaheen al-Ghanim came to Khartoum to discuss military cooperation with Sudan. There was a joint meeting of the three commanders-in-chief. The Qatari received from the Sudanese president the country’s highest distinction, the “Nile Award.” It was announced that a Qatari military attaché would be posted to Khartoum, and earlier in December, Sudan and Qatar had held joint military exercises on the Red Sea.
At the same time, Doha announced that another Turkish military detachment had joined the Turkish contingent in Qatar, which had landed there in June at the height of the conflict between the emirate and its neighbors. These troops were stationed in the Tariq ibn Ziyad Military Base by virtue of the security treaty Qatar and Turkey had signed in December 2014. Joint military exercises are to be held shortly to “enhance common military potential.”
This is an unwelcome development for Egypt, since Turkey is encroaching on an area vital to its defense. Ankara, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, harshly condemned Cairo for the ouster of president Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and diplomatic relations between the two countries have been severed. Turkey then developed closer ties with Qatar, which also supports the Brotherhood, leading to the security deal.
Egypt finds itself threatened by these two countries, which are now cooperating with neighboring Sudan. Though on the whole relations between Cairo and Khartoum are good, there are two preoccupying issues.
The first is the long running dispute regarding the repartition of Nile waters between Egypt and African countries along the river’s basin. Ninety percent of Egypt’s water supply comes from the great river, while Sudan enjoys bountiful rains. Sudan is nevertheless more attuned to the needs of African countries, which complain that present quotas were set during the colonial era, with the British heavily favoring Egypt and awarding it 80% of the waters.
Cairo adamantly refuses any reduction of that quota and also opposes the building of a huge hydroelectric dam in the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
But Sudan, which would also be affected, refuses to support Egypt. That crisis could very well deteriorate into a full-blown war.
The second issue is that of the ownership of the regions of Hala’ib and Shalateen bordering on both countries, which today are under Egyptian rule. Immediately after Sudan declared its independence in 1956, it demanded the return of those areas.
Now it is contesting the recent agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia about the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that the coordinates of the Egyptian maritime border fixed in that agreement wrongfully place those two regions inside Egyptian territory.
IT COULD well be that the new Sudanese and Qatari front along the Red Sea, under the leadership of Turkey, is the key factor behind Egypt’s massive buildup of its navy and air force. Cairo has purchased two helicopter carriers and one frigate from France, three submarines from Germany and dozens of warplanes from France and Russia.
Iran and Turkey, the two great non-Arab Muslim countries, are apparently taking advantage of regional chaos to develop their zones of influence. Russia, rushing into the void left by America’s apparent abandonment of the Middle East, is supporting these two countries and entrenching itself in Syria.
Deprived of American support, moderate Sunni countries are floundering and cannot stop Turkey or Iran. The new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman made an all-out effort to draw the West’s attention to what is going on in the region and especially in Lebanon. The short-lived demission of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was a last-ditch effort to focus public opinion on the growing influence of Iran in Lebanon and the Hezbollah takeover of that country – unfortunately to no effect.
In aligning itself with Qatar, Turkey is effectively blocking the formation of an anti-Iranian front in the Gulf. Its military cooperation agreements along the Red Sea with Somalia and Sudan are a direct threat not only to Egypt but also to Israel, whose vessels and planes transit through that sea on their way to Asia and Africa.
This is a dangerous situation adding to the already volatile mix of the Middle East. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are in ruins but apparently it is not enough to stop regional powers in their ruthless fight for hegemony.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.