Erdogan’s Turkey has gained a foothold on the Red Sea via Sudan, whose president Omar al-Bashir is challenging both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Bashir is refusing to demarcate maritime borders with the two Arab nations, claiming sovereignty over the Halayeb and Shalatin region on the African coast of the Red Sea. Bashir has now gifted Erdogan concessions in Suakin, an island extremely close to the Bab al-Mandib strait, an international maritime corridor leading to the Suez Canal, under the cover of a Turkish investment to rebuild the port and develop the island over an open-ended period of time. This shift towards strategic alliances with Erdogan, the arch-foe of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, guarantees for Ankara an important position on the Red Sea, at a time when Saudi Arabia and Egypt are building mega projects on the Red Sea, including the Saudi futuristic city of Neom. The Suakin deal was not the only thing that has angered Egypt regarding Sudan’s actions. Indeed, Khartoum has tightened its stance in the trilateral negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia regarding the latter’s Renaissance Dam, and received the Qatari army chief of staff immediately after Erdogan departed Sudan, concluding the first ever visit by a serving Turkish president. At the same time, a new Turkish army contingent has arrived in Al-Rayyan base in Doha. Cairo has considered all these developments to be a hostile Turkish message being sent from across several locations, the last of which was in Tunisia, where Erdogan greeted the public with the Rabia Square hand gesture associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Erdogan’s messages to Sisi intend to say that Turkish influence will reach far and wide, including in Africa which Egypt had considered to be off limits to Ankara. This is why Erdogan launched his tour in Africa, and spoke of a bid to open an embassy in Libya’s capital and expressed support for Tunisian President Essebsi’s initiative for a settlement in Libya. Erdogan’s key stop in Tunis, where the Muslim Brotherhood are a key component of the ruling coalition, was a significant decision. There, Erdogan announced agreements for security and economic cooperation, concluding a deal for a $30 million loan for Tunisia, and praised the Tunisian example in political accord in a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood’s inclusion in government.
The secular elites in Tunisia interpreted Erdogan’s visit as a move to impose Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood influence on the internal landscape, protesting both his explicit and implicit signaling entailed in the security agreements and the Rabia gesture.
Erdogan also chose the Tunisian stop to declare that it would be impossible to make any progress in Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad is still in power. “Bashar al-Assad is a terrorist... We cannot just say this person goes on doing this job. If we do then it’s unfair” to the Syrians who have been killed, he said.
This is a remarkable escalation given the nature of Turkish-Russian ties in Syria, which overlap with Russian, Turkish, and Iranian interests, because Erdogan had avoided declaring his true position on Assad’s fate after his foreign minister suggested Ankara could accept Assad’s participation in the political solution. Erdogan has now reverted to his previous rhetoric, which had marked Turkish official discourse on Assad, highlighting complications in the trilateral accords of Russia, Turkey, and Iran on the political process in Syria.
Syria’s reaction made this clear, saying Erdogan’s statement “misleads public opinion with his political bubbles in a desperate attempt to absolve himself from crimes committed against the Syrian people through providing unlimited support to the terrorist groups in Syria”.
Erdogan may have secured a large part of his goals in Syria, despite the failure of his grand designs there. He made deals against the Kurds there and mended ties with Iran. And he forged a partnership with the Russians, to use it to counterbalance the alliance with the United States and Europe in the NATO umbrella.
Yet none of this means Erdogan is in safe harbors. His relationship with Europe, especially Germany, remains tense, for a multitude of reasons that include the perception that he has been a sponsor of Islamic extremism. The Trump administration does not trust him either, especially that it has included the Muslim Brotherhood in its strategy on Islamic radicalism.
In the Gulf, Erdogan’s policies are not reassuring, although he is trying to balance Turkey’s strategic alliance with Qatar with good relations with Saudi Arabia. The dilemma is that Erdogan’s Turkey wants to lead the Sunni bloc to the exclusion of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, when they in addition to the UAE believe the backbone of the Arab axis in the regional balance of power are Riyadh and Cairo.
Erdogan’s appetite is whetted by the aroma of regional glory and influence and international realignments. However, Erdogan’s own reputation could rein him in, as he is seen as a key contributor to the growth of radical Islamic groups in Egypt and Syria, while his project is seen as controversial and antithetical to moderation.
This does not invalidate the importance of what Erdogan has achieved, in terms of his alliance with Qatar, accords with Iran, partnership with Russia, or engagement of African nations, including the deal for Suakin with Sudan, which has raised concerns it may be intended to establish a Turkish military base on the Red Sea. Rehabilitating Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and extricating him from the International Criminal Court is a process that has been furthered by several Arab and Islamic leaders, including the Turkish and Qatari leaderships now. But Bashir’s gift to Erdogan is not trivial, and will have significant implications in the regional balance of power.