Turkey’s Strongman Grows Stronger

From the March 2018 Trumpet Print Edition

On Dec. 24, 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first Turkish president to visit the North African nation of Sudan, where he signed $650 million worth of bilateral agreements on trade, tourism, education, forestry, mining, science, technology and strategic and military cooperation.

Sudan agreed to lease its Suakin Island indefinitely to allow the Turks to rebuild it as a hub for tourists and Muslim pilgrims bound for Mecca, Saudi Arabia. But analysts say Turkey’s interest in Suakin goes beyond tourism and religion.

When the Turks ruled Sudan as a part of the Ottoman Empire, Suakin was Sudan’s most important Red Sea port. But according to President Erdoğan, the West “razed it to the ground” and turned Suakin into a “ghost island.” He vowed to “rebuild and reconstruct it in such a way that, like a shaved beard, it will regrow much more abundant.”

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour told reporters that Turkey also agreed “to build a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.” He added that the agreements signed by the two countries “could result in any kind of military cooperation.” His Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said, “[O]ur president has instructed us to give assistance to the army and the police force of Sudan.”

Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden, wrote for the Jerusalem Post on January 6: “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 Island could become Turkey’s third foreign military base, along with bases in Qatar and Somalia.

Ever since the botched coup against him in July 2016, Erdoğan has become more authoritarian. He has given himself more reason to expand the power of the military as well as his own power over the military.

On the same day that he visited Sudan, Erdoğan issued Emergency Decree 696, which places Turkey’s military procurement process industry directly under him. It also grants immunity to virtually anyone who endeavored to suppress the coup of 2016. And it places the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation directly under Erdoğan’s control.

Geopolitical Futures noted on January 4: “To buffer its core from the chaos in the Middle East, Turkey needs to expand its territory.” The former Ottoman island of Suakin appears to be part of that territory. “To expand its territory,” Geopolitical Futures continued, “it needs a powerful, independent military. Turkey’s Emergency Decree No. 696 is a step toward constructing this military.”

It also is a big step toward a more authoritarian Erdoğan.