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Turkey's Erdogan treads cautiously on Sudan, wary of betting on wrong horse

Having avoided a crisis in its ties with Sudan after Bashir’s ouster, Ankara is now refraining from taking sides in an escalating conflict between the country’s military leaders.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) is welcomed by his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir (2nd-L) and diplomats upon his arrival in Khartoum on December 24, 2017, for a two-day-official visit. / AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threading a cautious needle on the power struggle in Sudan, showing that he has learned some lessons from conflicts in Syria, Libya and Egypt. 

Like many other leaders, Erdogan has reached out to both sides of the crisis — Lt. Gen. Abdelfattah Al Burhan, Sudan’s de facto leader and head of its armed forces, and Lt. Gen. Mohammed "Hemedti" Dagalo, the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — since deadly clashes erupted in mid-April. In phone calls on April 20, Erdogan urged the two military leaders to return to dialogue, and offered to mediate.

According to Sudanese media, Erdogan proposed direct negotiations between the two sides in Ankara, but both have refused.  

Ankara's balancing act

Erdogan has sought balanced relations with the military leaders of Sudan since the 2019 ouster of his close ally Omar al-Bashir. Hemedti, the number two of the Sovereignty Council running Sudan, had backed the opponents of Turkey’s allies in Libya, supplying forces to Khalifa Hifter’s siege of Tripoli and working with Russia’s Wagner Group. He has fostered close ties also with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the RSF joined the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war. Hemedti’s alignments were all the more annoying to Ankara in light of Turkey’s extensive humanitarian efforts in Southern Darfur, an RSF stronghold. 

Yet Ankara bottled up its annoyance. After all, Hemedti had supported Bashir, with whom Erdogan forged strategic ties. The Turkish government saw Bashir’s toppling largely as the work of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, whose ties with Turkey were tense at the time. But keen on salvaging the deals signed with Bashir, Erdogan chose to get along with the new rulers of the country. 

Ankara’s pragmatic approach has to do with lessons from debacles in its political and military interventions after the Arab Spring. Also, its recent fence-mending with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as its outreach to Libya’s eastern forces, leave it with no ground to shake its finger at Hemedti.

Turkish interests at risk

Turkish-Sudanese ties had gained momentum with Erdogan’s 2017 visit to Khartoum, culminating in a deal to lease the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey for redevelopment, along with plans to advance military ties and economic cooperation. In 2018, a Turkish company signed a $1.1 billion contract to build a new airport in Khartoum. 

The Suakin deal infuriated Cairo and Riyadh amid reports of Turkish plans to build a naval base on the island, once an Ottoman outpost, to gain a foothold in the Red Sea. 

With Bashir’s toppling, a total of 22 agreements signed with Sudan were thrown into uncertainty. Vice President Fuat Oktay hosted Hemedti in Ankara in May 2021 and then Burhan in August of that year. New deals were signed, including Sudan’s leasing of 100,000 hectares of cropland to Turkey. 

In a further sign of the warming climate, Burhan decorated Turkish Ambassador Irfan Neziroglu with a state order to honor his contributions to bilateral ties. Speaking at the end of his term in Khartoum in September, Neziroglu hailed a smooth transition in bilateral ties after Bashir’s ouster. “We did not meddle in their internal politics and did not take sides. We pursued a patient policy and obtained a positive response,” he said. 

Still, nothing concrete has come out on the Suakin deal and plans for Turkey to build military training facilities in Sudan. This likely has to do with reservations from the Gulf sponsors of Sudan’s military leadership. Bilateral trade, meanwhile, remains limited to $680 million as of 2022 — a far cry from the $10 billion target set during Bashir’s rule.

Turkey-Sudan ties put to test

The flare-up in Sudan poses a new test to bilateral ties. Hemedti calls Burhan “a radical Islamist,” and his long-standing discourse against the Muslim Brotherhood resonates with Turkey’s domestic wranglings. At present, Erdogan and his associates remain inclined to view both sides as friends, but at the end of the day, Ankara might opt to back Burhan to uphold the institutional relationship between the two countries, as Cairo seems to do. 

One unsettling scenario for Ankara is that a failure to reach a compromise could result in the RSF taking control of Darfur and southern states and collaborating with Hifter in Libya. 

Hemedti, however, has been forging pragmatic ties with not only the Gulf, but also the United States and Israel. Much like Erdogan, he has sought to take advantage of Western-Russian rivalry and present himself as a leader who prevents illegal migration to Europe and fights for democracy. And despite Qatar’s reputation as a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has praised the Qatari emir for hosting the FIFA World Cup. Such abundant pragmatism could well accommodate Erdogan, too.

Erdogan has been taking his time on Sudan, careful to not bet on the wrong horse, while gearing up for a crucial re-election test next month. His approach fits the priorities of the Biden administration, namely to prevent Russia from getting bases in Libya and Sudan.

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