EthiopiaHorn of AfricaPoliticsSomaliaSomalilandTurkey

Op-ed: The Turkish-Somali Agreement: A calculated adventure or a step into the unknown?

An expanded agreement provides Ankara with almost complete land, sea, and air military influence over Somalia. (AFP/EPC)

Key Takeaways

  • The Turkish-Somali framework agreement on military and economic cooperation is an exceptional and unprecedented one for Turkey. It grants Ankara an almost complete land, sea and air military influence over Somalia.
  • Turkey’s sizeable military presence in Somalia could serve as a key card in Ankara’s hand in any future negotiations with the U.S., potentially influencing the scope of cooperation or disagreement between Ankara and Washington in the Middle East.
  • The expanded military agreement between Ankara and Mogadishu could hinder Ethiopia’s plans for Red Sea access. However, Turkey believes that Addis Abeba will prioritize maintaining good ties with Ankara in light of its ongoing dispute with Egypt.
  • The effective implementation of the Turkish-Somali military agreement will depend on Turkey’s economic and military capabilities, as well as its ability to navigate related challenges and strengthen its relationship with Washington.

On February 8, 2024, Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler and his Somali counterpart, Abdulkadir Mohamed Nursigned in Ankara a comprehensive framework agreement for economic and military cooperation between Turkey and Somalia. This agreement is an exceptional and unprecedented one for Turkey. It is an expanded agreement that grants Ankara an almost complete land, sea and air military influence over Somalia.

Provisions of the agreement

While the full details of the agreement were not made public initially, portions of its articles were shared. Anadolu Agency said the agreement – which according to the Turkish defense ministry came at the request of the Mogadishu government – aims to support Somalia and help it to protect itself from external threats, terrorism, piracy and illegal fishing. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said “the agreement aims to establish a joint force from both countries to safeguard the coast and territorial waters of Somalia and invest in Somalia’s maritime resources for 10 years. This joint force will be active for 10 years only. After that, Somalia will have its own naval force to perform this task.”

According to additional information leaked to the media, the framework of this initial agreement includes the following components:

  1. The two countries will conduct joint air, land and sea military exercises.
  2. Turkey will construct and sell ships to Somalia. The Turkish navy will have full rights to use existing Somali ports and establish new ports and naval bases.
  3. The two countries will collaborate and coordinate maritime navigation and trade.
  4. Turkey will help Mogadishu to establish Somali coast guard forces.
  5. Ankara will aid Somalia in extracting petroleum and gas resources from its territorial waters.
  6. Turkish as well as joint military bases (air, naval and land) will be established in Somalia.
  7. Turkey will help Somalia to protect its marine environment and combat pollution.
  8. Turkish companies will handle all installations and industries provided for in the agreement; otherwise, Somalia will need Ankara’s permission to cooperate with non-Turkish firms.
  9. Somali airspace will be fully opened for Turkish civilian and military use.
  10. Sub-agreements will follow this framework agreement to regulate the execution of its terms.

After the signing of the agreement, some foreign media outlets reported that Turkey will extract oil and gas from Somali territorial waters for 10 years, with 30% of the revenue allocated to Turkey to fund projects and industries which will be launched by Ankara in Somalia. But the Somali government, which signed an oil and gas cooperation memorandum of understanding with Turkey on 7 March 2024, refuted such reports. Somali Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Abdirisaaq Omar Mohamed said there was no agreement to grant Turkey 30% of any future oil and gas revenue.

Trajectory of endorsing the agreement and developing its terms

On 21 February 2024, the Somali cabinet ratified the military cooperation agreement with Turkey. In Turkey, the agreement is supposed to be submitted to parliament for debate and ratification before getting published in the official gazette.

However, the Turkish constitution allows the president to ratify agreements with secret terms without parliamentary approval. Most likely, Ankara will follow this path to maintain the confidentiality of certain provisions. Alternatively, the Turkish government might delay submitting the agreement to parliament, especially if the agreement contains clauses that could endanger Turkish soldiers, given the context of recent local elections.

Two weeks after signing the Somali-Turkish framework agreement, the Turkish parliament approved the government’s request to permit Ankara to deploy its navy off the Somali coast, as well as in the Bab el-Mandeb, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. This deployment falls within the framework of Turkey’s participation in European forces to protect maritime navigation from piracy and terrorism.

Agreement motives and Turkey’s balancing act between Somalia and Ethiopia 

Several factors motivated the expanded and exceptional agreement between Ankara and Mogadishu. Regional conditions facilitated its realization. The following are some of the key motives:

1. The Somali government felt threatened after Ethiopia signed the Berbera Port agreement with Somaliland in early 2024. This agreement allows Addis Ababa to rent a land route from Ethiopia to the Red Sea along the coastline of Somaliland and use Berbera Port for 50 years in exchange for Addis Abeba’s recognition of the independence of Somaliland. On 7 January 2024, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud issued a law that annuls this agreement, calling it a threat to Somalia’s territorial integrity and describing it as “illegal”. Turkey’s stand was in line with Mogadishu. On 4 January 2024, the Turkish government said in a statement that “Ankara follows with concern the signing of an agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia to establish land roads and build a port. Ankara reaffirms the need to protect Somali territorial integrity, respect of the international law, the settlement of disputes between Somalia and Somaliland through diplomatic dialogue.” In the past, Ankara tried to mediate between the two Somali parties, but Mogadishu stood by its declared position rejecting any foreign mediation on this matter which it considers an internal dispute. However, Mogadishu has approved in 2014 Ankara’s request to open a consulate in Somaliland. A spokesperson for the Somali government welcomed the statement of the Turkish foreign ministry and said that it is “a strong and sincere expression of Turkey’s support for Mogadishu.”

2. For years, Turkey has been trying to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa by cementing its ties with Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Ankara maintains a military base in Somalia for training purposes without having any actual military activity by Turkish troops there. The Red Sea crisis – which started after Houthi attacks against commercial vessels under the pretext of supporting Gaza – has increased international military presence in the region. For Ankara, this means a growing competition over influence in this vital region. Consequently, Turkey has found in Mogadishu’s request for military support a key opportunity to boost its influence in the region without the need to join the American-British coalition and antagonize the Houthis.

3. Turkey’s military role on Somali shores could strengthen future rapprochement between Ankara on the one hand, and Washington and NATO on the other. Ankara realizes that American military presence in the region might not be permanent and that Washington may prefer to rely on its Middle Eastern allies to ensure stability, given its focus on confronting China in the East. Therefore, if this American-Turkish rapprochement happens, Ankara’s military presence on the Somali coast could facilitate cooperation between Washington and Ankara through serving shared interests that include ensuring freedom of navigation and combating piracy and terrorism. On 14 February 2024, the U.S. and Somalia signed an agreement to construct five military bases in Somalia. However, the presence of Turkish troops with greater jurisdiction on Somali territories may either ease the burden on Washington there or provide Ankara with a leverage in case Turkish-American ties weaken. Therefore, Turkey’s substantial military presence in Somalia could be a strategic asset for Ankara in any future negotiations with the U.S. to define the scope of cooperation or disagreement between Ankara and Washington in the Middle East. Moreover, expanding Turkey’s growing influence in Somalia could bolster its position in its competition with China in the Horn of Africa. 

Turkey’s decision to sign a military agreement with Somalia may be viewed as a calculated risk in its relationship with Addis Abeba and with other countries supporting Somaliland, such as the UK.

In spite of all these key motives, Ankara recognizes the need to strike a balance in its relationships with both Somalia and Ethiopia. Turkish-Ethiopian ties have recently strengthened when both countries signed military agreements. While the expanded military agreement between Ankara and Mogadishu may hinder Addis Abeba’s plans for Red Sea access, Turkey believes that Ethiopia prefers not to sacrifice its good relations with Ankara in light of its ongoing dispute with Egypt. Even if the Turkish-Somali agreement leads to the decline of Ankara’s relations with Addis Abeba, Turkey is willing to prioritize its ties with Somalia over its relationship with Ethiopia for several reasons, notably:

  • Somalia’s geographic and strategic position is more important to Ankara than Ethiopia’s position in the Horn of Africa. Somalia has a 3,000-kilometers coastline near the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait.
  • Turkey previously supported Ethiopia in its conflict with the Tigray forces, with Addis Abeba indirectly accusing Egypt of arming and supporting the rebels. Therefore, Ankara’s assistance in challenging times reflects its good faith and willingness to collaborate. Now, it is carrying out a similar role with Somalia for the same reasons rather than for any desire to pressure Ethiopia. However, Ankara thinks that the division of Somali territories through the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement could empower Addis Abeba to partner with other countries to boost its power and diminish its reliance on Turkey. Moreover, Egypt’s expressed interest to establish a military base in Somalia to pressure Ethiopia and counter Ankara’s plan to create a military base in the Sudanese Suakin Island underscores the strategic importance of Turkey’s role in Somalia.
  • Turkey enjoys stronger ties with Somalia than Ethiopia. Ankara supported Washington’s military intervention in Somalia in 1993 and established its largest overseas military base near Mogadishu in 2017 to train Somali troops and support counter-terrorism efforts. Moreover, President Erdogan’s family – particularly his son-in-law Seljuk Albayrak – has important trade interests in Somalia, notably managing of Mogadishu’s port and airport. Ankara has also provided humanitarian aid to Somalia since 2011, and has offered financial grants, such as the $30 million given in 2021 to cover part of public employees and MPs salaries.
  • Ankara perceives the current balance of power between Somalia and Ethiopia as favoring the latter. Therefore, Ankara’s military support for Mogadishu through the military cooperation agreement may encourage Addis Abeba to resolve its dispute with Somalia through diplomacy. Consequently, this would positively impact Somalia’s conflict with Somaliland in the future.
  • Finally, Ankara views its support for Mogadishu as a reflection of its commitment to respecting Somalia’s territorial integrity and international law, which should not, in principle, upset Addis Abeba.

Therefore, Turkey’s decision to sign a military agreement with Somalia may be viewed as a calculated risk in its relationship with Addis Abeba and with other countries supporting Somaliland, such as the UK. Ankara maintains that this step aligns with its respect for international law and its commitment to protecting Somalia’s territorial integrity, and is not intended against any third party. Mogadishu has helped Ankara in this context, with the Somali president stating that “this agreement has no hostile objectives against any other country in the region.”

Turkish military officers parade during the opening ceremony of a Turkish military base in Mogadishu, Somalia September 30, 2017 REUTERS/Feisal Omar – RC1A4BE1FF10

Potential risks, obstacles facing implementation of agreement

At first glance, the expanded Turkish-Somali military-economic cooperation agreement appears to be a positive step based on a win-win formula. Mogadishu has managed to counter Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland’s independence, while Ankara gains a larger military presence in the strategic Horn of Africa region. Moreover, Turkey could reap key economic benefits if oil and gas reserves are discovered along the Somali coast. However, the implementation of this agreement – whose timeline has not been set yet – might place Ankara in front of several challenges and threats, notably:

1. Turkish military presence in Somalia might face terrorist attacks or draw Ankara into a prolonged conflict and agonizing fight with the terrorist Al-Shabab Movement (SM). In a statement, the latter has voiced its rejection of this agreement, deeming it null and a means of expanding Ankara’s domination in the region. In the past, SM has targeted Turkish interests, including the Turkish Embassy, Turkish Airlines offices, Turkish businesspeople and Turkey’s military base.

2. The uncertain future of the current tension between the Houthis in Yemen and American and British forces in the Red Sea and Bab El-Mandeb poses a risk. Ankara has little interest in a military confrontation with the Houthis. However, Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa might prompt Iran to encourage the Houthis to provoke Turkish forces in an attempt to expel them from the region. Additionally, Ankara may also find itself compelled to face the Houthis if their influence grows in the region and if they  target Somali interests in Bab El-Mandeb.

3. Somalia’s extensive coastline requires a substantial naval force for protection. It remains unclear if Ankara can provide this protection effectively until Mogadishu establishes its own naval force in the future. Retired admiral Turker Erturk points out that “sending Turkish warships to protect Somali shores weakens Turkey’s defense capability in the eastern Mediterranean in the face of Greek’s growing ambitions, which are supported by the U.S. and France, and undermines Turkey’s position in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. Sending Turkish exploration ships to Somali shores means an implicit recognition that Ankara has abandoned its exploration efforts in the east Mediterranean and surrendered to reality. Needless to say, this also places the lives of Turkish soldiers at the risk of facing terrorist groups there.”

In conclusion, the expanded Turkish-Somali military-economic cooperation agreement appears highly ambitious and may exceed Ankara’s capacity for implementation. It may represent an incomplete or partial step aimed at achieving immediate political goals, notably curbing Somaliland secession efforts. Whether Turkey can effectively and practically execute the terms of this agreement remains to be seen. Such implementation will depend on Ankara’s economic and military capabilities, its ability to address the aforementioned challenges, and its efforts to strengthen relations with Washington.


Editor’s Note: This op-ed was first published by the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), an independent think tank based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It is republished on Addis Standard website under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed been JAKENN Publishing PLC, the Publisher of Addis Standard tri-lingual publications, and EPC providing shared principles for content sharing.

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