As armed conflict erupts, Erdogan demonstrates his actual priority

If you don’t believe Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has regional ambitions, consider where he is this weekend, as neighboring Syria sinks into chaos and the Turkish military wages a campaign against PKK-related targets in northern Iraq.

Erdogan’s in Somalia.  He arrived on Friday.  Officially, he is representing Turkey and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in recognizing the plight of Somalia’s starving people and arranging for aid.  But that’s not as straightforward as it might seem.  The UN, many individual nations like the US, and various global charities are providing enormous amounts of aid to Somalia – and so is Iran.  It’s in part because of the latter connection that Erdogan has had this sudden fit of humanitarianism.

Iran has been cultivating links in the Horn of Africa for some years now, and regional reporting indicates that Tehran’s support for the Al-Shabaab insurgency in Somalia, brokered through the Afewerki regime in Eritrea, was intensifying through the summer.  Al-Shabaab, meanwhile, has been blocking the distribution of aid from the World Food Program and other non-Muslim sources, while being picky about which Muslim aid it allows through.  Al-Shabaab controls only part of Somalia, but the impact is still significant (especially when combined with the endemic theft and resale of donated goods).

Erdogan’s oddly timed trip comes in the wake of an OIC meeting at which he reportedly addressed his fellow Islamic leaders on the topic of Western arrogance and the failures of capitalism in relation to the Somali famine (this in spite of the literal billions in aid provided by Western governments and private organizations).

But it also comes at the end of a crucial two-week period that started with Al-Shabaab announcing a withdrawal from Mogadishu, and continued with an unprecedented level of success against the insurgency by African Union troops deployed in the AMISOM mission.  It is too soon to say that Al-Shabaab is “defeated,” but the momentum has turned against it – and hence against a strategic line of effort being prosecuted by Iran.

The timing of Erdogan’s visit comes off as doing a victory lap for the success of third parties (the African Union and the US), as well as putting down a stake where Iran has just suffered a reversal.  The location is geographically significant, as it splits the area of the Great Crossroads in which Iran has been diligently pursuing influence.  Eritrea and Sudan lie to the northwest, and Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels, to the northeast across the Gulf of Aden.  (The Horn of Africa is also, of course, a geostrategic hinge point in its own right.)

As indicated in the last link (and in an earlier one from my 15 August post), regional observers are calling Iran’s Horn of Africa/Yemen strategy her “back-up plan” for when the Assad regime falls in Syria.  Erdogan showing up right smack dab in the middle of it, just in time to associate himself with the glory of the US-AMISOM surge against Al-Shabaab – and perhaps seek to demonstrate that he can get aid delivered where others couldn’t – has all the air of exploiting an opportunity.

Consider what else is going on.  Erdogan’s own troops have mounted an assault in northern Iraq after the killing of dozens of Turkish soldiers by the Kurdish PKK insurgency.  The Turkish national security council decided on Friday to turn surveillance outposts in northern Iraq into support bases, in order to sustain continuous operations there – a move Iraq is likely to object to.  The internal situation in Syria becomes more precarious by the hour; thousands of refugees have flooded Turkey, and although Ankara denies imposing a “buffer zone” along the border, reports that precautionary planning is underway are undoubtedly true.

To the south, meanwhile, a guerrilla invasion of Israel has been mounted through Egypt, and Hamas has launched a deadly rocket assault.  An Israeli force pursuing the terrorist raiders killed five Egyptian soldiers, prompting the Egyptian government to announce – and then deny – that it had recalled its ambassador to Israel.

With all these shooting matches going on right in his neighborhood, Erdogan’s heart and vision are with the regional power situation: the larger rivalry with Iran.  The significance of position in this rivalry is evident in his rush to parade past cheering crowds in Somalia when the opportunity suddenly presented itself (not to mention prompting sycophantic opinion pieces in Turkey, with of course, the obligatory Ottoman historical references).  Erdogan is driving down the center of Iran’s once-secondary axis of regional projection.

Michael Ledeen speculates at Pajamas today that if it looks like war – walks and talks like war – we might want to sit up and think about what’s going on.  His instincts are in the right place, I think.  The “next war” isn’t going to start and end like World War II, or even like the Cold War.  But regimes will change, along with alliances and alignments, and schemes of regional order and balances of regional power.

The US at the moment is perilously close to being used for the purposes of others, like a dying and dithering empire.  In spite of the significance of the setback for Al-Shabaab in Somalia, to everything from the piracy problem to dominance in the Middle East, the US is nowhere to be seen in the strategic aftermath of this tactical victory.  We have no idea what to do with it.  But Erdogan does.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.