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Turkey plays catch-up with militarization in Red Sea

A scramble for military influence along the Red Sea could lead to a trade disaster as Turkey also looks to establish a military foothold in the area.

Sudan recalled its ambassador to Egypt and sent more troops to its border with Eritrea on Jan. 15. The move came amid escalating tensions with Egypt and Eritrea, sparked by a Sudan-Turkey deal to build a military base on the Sudanese island of Suakin, a key Red Sea port.

Turkey and Egypt are far from the only countries seeking to establish a significant military presence around the Red Sea. As more and more countries bolster their military presence around the Red Sea, the threat of a regional conflict that could draw in at least seven countries continues to grow.

Alex DeWaal, a professor at Tufts University and an expert on Horn of Africa issues, said the situation involving the United Arab Emirates could be volatile; the UAE has a presence in the greatest number of Red Sea neighboring countries. In Yemen, the UAE has forces in the Red Sea ports of Aden, Mokha and Mukalla and the Red Sea island of Perim; the UAE also has a military base in Assab in Eritrea. Perim is located in the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and then on to the Indian Ocean. The UAE also has a military base on the Gulf of Aden in Berbera in the autonomous northern Somali region of Somaliland. These waters are key to international trade — 4 million barrels of oil pass through the strait every day.

Country after country is joining the scramble for influence in the Red Sea. This is part of the reason Turkey decided to establish the base at Suakin, said Dimitar Bechev, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It really is an area where Turkey can try to balance current affairs in the region,” said Bechev, who added that Turkey has been increasingly sidelined regionally. Turkey was once a key arbiter in Syria, but that role has largely been taken over by Russia. On other key regional issues such as Kurdish independence, Turkey has been overwhelmingly responding to crises rather than leading the region.

Bechev said, “If Turkey wants to be an influential regional player, they should have a presence there [in the Red Sea]. All the more if they have fellow powers allied.”

The ally Turkey is closest to is Qatar. During the Gulf crisis, when Turkey was under immense pressure from Saudi Arabia to cut ties with Qatar, Turkey instead sent more troops to Doha. The Qatari foreign minister was present on Suakin when Turkey signed the deal for the military base with Sudan, although Qatar has no formal part in the agreement.

Turkey and Qatar are linked by their support of the Muslim Brotherhood, while countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are staunchly opposed to the organization. DeWaal said that with all of these actors in the Red Sea, “you see that whole Middle Eastern pro- and anti- Muslim Brotherhood configuration playing out.”

Egypt has accused Sudan of harboring key Brotherhood figures. Part of the reason Egypt is so threatened by Turkey's establishing a military base there is that it represents a solidifying alliance between Turkey, Sudan and Qatar — all pro-Brotherhood countries.

After Turkey announced the Suakin base, Egypt sent troops to its recently established military base in Eritrea, which borders Sudan. In response, Sudan withdrew its ambassador from Egypt, and relations remain fraught between the two countries.

DeWaal said, “With all these tensions escalating, you could see sparks of conflict arising at any number of the fault lines.” He said other key fault lines include tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two countries have been engaged in skirmishes back and forth across their shared border since Eritrea established independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a long and bloody conflict.

DeWaal said that with so many actors involved, it is hard to predict what specific circumstances might lead to military action. “There are all sorts of fault lines that without anyone intending for it to happen could generate a conflict,” he said.

If violence broke out around the Red Sea, it could have disastrous consequences not just for the actors directly involved, but for the global economy. “The Red Sea is really important commercially in view of the Suez Canal,” Bechev said.

All southbound traffic from the Suez Canal must pass through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to reach South Asia. The strait is surrounded on every side by UAE military bases and it is only 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide at its narrowest point.

DeWaal said that if violence occurred in the Red Sea, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait were drawn into the fray, this could effectively put an end to commercial traffic from the Suez Canal to Asia. “They [shipowners] would just have to go all the way around the cape and that would have enormous knock-on effects for South Asia and Europe in particular,” he said.

This could have a domino effect on the international economy. Countries such as Egypt, which depends on the Suez Canal for survival, would be particularly devastated. “Everyone shares an interest in keeping the Red Sea lanes open,” DeWaal said.

He said one reason a conflict has not broken out in the Red Sea is that most countries are aware of the costs. “There is a tacit understanding to keep the sea lanes open. It takes something very dramatic like the [1967] Six-Day War to close the sea lanes,” DeWaal said.

Still, DeWaal warned against taking the Red Sea for granted. He said one reason people tend to ignore the Red Sea is that it “is not squarely in everyone’s sights because part of it is Middle East, part of it is Africa and so at an institutional level at the UN, State Department, etc., the Red Sea is not central to anyone.”

This could mean that a potential dispute would be long and drawn-out without a diplomatic mechanism to either resolve or prevent it.

“There is no strategic cooperation mechanism for all the states,” DeWaal said. He said this problem extends to external actors who have a military presence and interests around the sea such as the UAE and Qatar.

Metin Gurcan, a columnist at Al-Monitor and a professor at Sabanci University in Turkey, said he is concerned about the increase in bilateral military cooperation that has been "occurring in a non-synchronized fashion." He said, “It is destabilizing.”

Gurcan said the decreasing international presence of powerful players such as the United States also worries him because it leads to a power gap. “Saudi cannot fill this gap, so there is no regulator in the region, which could be a sign of crises to come,” he said.

If a naval conflict broke out, this could mean there would be no institutional way to roll it back or to hold talks to resolve it. “There are no mechanisms for managing any conflict that includes players on both sides of the Red Sea,” DeWaal said.

When put into the context of the ever-increasing military bases that pepper almost every country with a Red Sea coast, this makes for a turbulent environment. Bechev said, “If there is no security arrangement for dialogue, and you build up your naval presence and bring your military toward insecure regional powers, it’s bound to create a commotion and a risk.”

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