By Aisha Ali
Staff Writer

In late February, amid terror attacks and a double-digit drop in tourism, Istanbul hosted representatives from over 50 countries and 11 international organizations for the High-Level Partnership Forum (HPLF). The goal of the two-day event was to discuss the reconstruction of post-war Somalia, with specific emphasis on national security, youth engagement, and women’s empowerment. During his opening remarks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed that “…the stability of Somalia is not only important for Somalia, but for the region and the continent.

Mr. Erdoğan’s belief in the necessity of Somali stability has been evident in Turkey’s relationship with the Somali government, and its citizens, over the last decade. Redevelopment assistance in Somalia has become a prime focal point of Turkey’s foreign policy in recent years, in large part due to their shared religion and friendly history during the Ottoman Empire’s reign. Since the 2011 East African famine, when Turkey was one of few countries providing direct food relief to Somalia, the ties between the two countries have only grown stronger. Turkish schools in Mogadishu offer tri-lingual instruction in Turkish, Arabic, and English at no cost to locals, while buildings flying the Turkish flag cover the capital’s skyline. Throughout their partnership, Turkey has managed to accomplish some ‘firsts’ in post-war Somalia by reopening their embassy in Mogadishu, offering direct flights to and from Istanbul, as well as scheduling repeated visits from their head of state, Mr. Erdoğan. In fact, the popularity of Turkey’s president was so high after his first visit to the country in 2011 that the name ‘Erdogan’ became a top choice for Somali newborns.

Turkish investment, which has now reached over $100 million, has been well received in Somalia because, unlike other sources, the aid is direct. United Nations subdivisions, and Western powers that send aid to the country through them, are notorious for wasting donor funds on high administrative overhead costs. The stringent bureaucracy of international aid organizations doesn’t help projects get off the ground either. Similar to China’s dealings on the African continent, projects initiated by the Turkish government focus on infrastructure as a pathway to development, which is apparent by the recent construction of roads, buildings, and health facilities in Mogadishu. However, the main area where Chinese and Turkish investments differ is in their expected returns; Chinese development groups sign contracts trading infrastructure projects for rights to natural resources. Chinese-led projects also rarely involve a transfer of skills to the local population, while their Turkish counterparts pay for training seminars in Istanbul to help local business owners gain expertise. In an effort to address national security concerns, Turkey has even begun construction on a military base used to train Somali soldiers.

So far, Turkey has yet to cash in on its good favor with the Somali government. But will that change? Some analysts have been suspicious of Turkish investment in Somalia, claiming the country is attempting to use its influence to reconstruct the Ottoman Empire. Former Foreign Affairs Minister, and current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has refuted this claim, insisting that Turkish aid to Somalia comes from a purely humanitarian standpoint. But Turkish investment and aid is no longer confined to Somalia. Over the past two years, Turkey has extended its hand to other countries on the African continent, even going as far to open embassies in places where they previously had no diplomatic ties, like Equatorial Guinea. Indeed, Somalia may have just been a starting point for Turkish involvement in African affairs. Clearly indicated by the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, last held in November 2014, Turkey’s goal is to implement a plan for sustainable development between 2015 and 2019. Additionally, the country’s official development assistance agency, Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), has increased its spending budget to $800 million a year on operations in 28 African nations over the last three years.

Expanding influence in Africa is bound to make people uneasy. The continent has a history of being colonized and exploited for its natural resources without thought given to the political and economic implications. So far, the main argument against Chinese investment and aid stems from this uneasiness. But with the downturn in the Chinese economy in the first half of 2016, many African nations will be looking elsewhere for assistance and partnership on infrastructure projects.  Perhaps, without particularly planning for it, Turkey has secured its place as Africa’s newest main benefactor.

Picture by UNSOM Somalia

Settling Cyprus Talks: Slow Progress

Brian Cox
Staff Writer

Varosha, a portion of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, has been inaccessible since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. This caused the island to be split into two de facto nations, and Turkey has maintained control of the area as a negotiating tool ever since. While the main Cypriot state is recognized as the leader of the entire island internationally, in practice the Turkish backed nation of Northern Cyprus is in fact in control of the northern region of the island. This region has an ethnic Turkish population, but due to the majority ethnic Greek population of Cyprus as a whole, the Greek-Turkish conflict has defined the relationship between Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. In 2004 Cyprus joined the EU, which means that a portion of an EU member state is under armed occupation. As a result of this, as well as concerns about a lack of cultural similarity to Europe, Turkey’s bid to become a member stalled in 2006. Until Turkey changes its policy on Cyprus, it is unlikely they will be allowed into the EU due to the opposition of Germany, France, and several other large EU states. In recent negotiations on immigration, EU membership has remained one of Turkey’s primary goals.

The Annan Plan, which would have provided for a democratic government of Cyprus with representation from both the North and South, was brokered from 2002 to 2004 by the then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. When put to referendum it was supported by a majority of Turkish, but not Greek, residents. Further attempts at reunification largely stalled until 2008, when talks reopened. However, from 2008-2012, talks were largely unsuccessful, with no agreement reached. In 2012 the EU found that there was little hope for a settlement.

However, the election of Nicos Anastasiades as president of Cyprus in 2013 cleared the way for future talks. In February 2014, Anastasiades and his Northern Cypriot counterpart Derviş Eroğlu issued a joint declaration, establishing their intent to establish a “bicommunal, bizonal federation with political equality.” Talks ran from February to October, and while the tone was initially positive and expectations were high, the talks ended when a Turkish warship entered the waters off the coast of Norther Cyprus. This act caused Anastasiades to terminate his participation in the talks.

Mustafa Akıncı’s election in 2015 prompted talks to resume, as Akıncı campaigned on a platform of reunification and reconciliation. As former leader of the Peace and Democracy movement (Barış ve Demokrasi Hareketi), a defunct social democratic Northern-Cypriot political party, he pushed for the acceptance of the Annan plan, as well as EU integration. In May 2015 talks resumed, picking up pace in recent months, though neither side released substantive updates concerning progress. Nonetheless, in July 2015 Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he was “optimistic” after meeting with both leaders. He also alluded to the importance of energy, especially the importance of offshore oil deposits in ongoing negotiations. In December, after meeting with Cypriot officials, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that, “tangible progress is being made.”

Talks markedly intensified in January, with both sides of the negotiation claiming progress. The two leaders scheduled a meeting in Davos at the World Economic Forum to help broker a negotiation. Anastasiades said he was hopeful that reunification could occur in 2016, while on the contrary, Akıncı expressed reserved optimism.

Recently, energy has become a key point of discussion in the region. Cyprus, Greece, and Israel all met in order to improve relations and establish energy projects such as a natural gas pipeline from somewhere in the east coast of the Mediterranean sea to Europe via Cyprus, or offshore drilling platforms off the coast of Cyprus. Many commentators have viewed this meeting as an attempt to push Israel and Turkey to normalize relations. Many of the energy projects require support from both nations to be implemented, as they would go through Northern Cypriot or contested Cypriot waters, currently controlled by the Turkey-backed north. In January, an Israeli company and a Turkish company signed a $1.3 billion gas deal, but the two nations have yet to approve it. Most of these projects revolve around transporting oil from Israel to the EU in an efficient manner.

The importance of Cyprus cannot be overstated. Although the island is one of the smallest EU member states, it continues to voice strong opposition to the acceptance of Turkey. This opposition was integral to the talks over migrants between Germany and Greece in October 2015 because Germany has historically been opposed to Turkish membership. One of the incentives Turkey sought for cooperation with the EU on migrant issues was continued talks on their membership. Although Germany agreed to be flexible with some of the criteria, Cyprus remains a key hurdle to opening these negotiations.

Additionally, the potential for regional negotiation on energy, as well as the importance of Cyprus if Turkey is to join, are both strong motivators for the Turkish government and ethnic Cypriot groups to negotiate a settlement. The Turkish government has refused to allow the usage of ports in Northern Cyprus despite EU trade agreements. With Turkey and Greece both playing key roles in ongoing refugee talks, and Greece seeking additional bailout funds, pressure has mounted on both nations to not interfere in the negotiations between the two Cypriot states. It seems that for the first time both factions of Cypriots, Greece and Turkey all have motivation to reconcile the division that stems from a 40 year old conflict.

Image by Michael Kirian


By Sultan Alkhulaifi
Staff Writer 

Turkey shares a 560 km border with Iran that has not changed for 400 years. The two states share growing economic interests with each other, but different ideological and political backgrounds. Iran is a theocratic republic that was established after a revolution in 1979 that brought Shi’ite religious clergy to power. On the other hand, Turkey is a secular state that looked towards the West since its creation until the election of the Justice and Development Party in November 2002. Although Turkey and Iran have strong economic relations, they have different views on solving crises in places such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Despite stark political differences, both countries are pragmatic and are strengthening their economic relations.

The Houthis are considered an Iranian proxy group by Saudi Arabia as well as by its allies in the region. Saudi Arabia formed an alliance after the Houthis took over the capital of Yemen and were very close to taking over Aden, which became the new capital until the retake of Sana’a. In response to this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered unpredictable support for the air campaign on the Houthis, condemning Iran for supporting terrorist organizations in the region. However, Iran responded by inviting Turkey’s charge d’affaires to express Iran’s objections to the Turkish president’s comments. The foreign ministry spokeswoman said that Iran demands an explanation from Turkey for these comments. Although Turkey supported the Arab alliance against the Houthis, Ankara is not ready to risk its delicate relationship with Tehran in the short run for regional competition that could complicate its internal politics and economy. Turkey has strong economic ties with Iran in sectors such as oil and gas, which gives Tehran leverage over Ankara because Ankara needs the Iranian supply of fossil fuels to continue its strong economic growth it has experienced over the last few years.

Moreover, Iran’s leverage over Turkey in oil and gas supplies affects Turkey’s economic growth and restrains its political maneuvers in the region. Turkey’s president visited Iran on April 7 and prioritized economics over politics. According to the Turkish foreign ministry, “Crude and natural gas dominate Iranian exports to Turkey with 90%.” It also notes that both governments have vowed to double the trade volume that has already reached more than $15 billion. Iran is the second largest gas and oil importer to Turkey after Russia. If Turkey aims to become an energy transportation hub, it will be forced to seek better relations with Iran and Russia. That means Europe may benefit from getting Iranian oil through Turkey, in turn causing it to decrease its dependence on Russian oil by diversifying its oil imports. This option will not be realized until relations are normalized between the West and Iran, which is contingent on signing a deal by June 2015. Iran is also dependent on Turkey since it was hit by sanctions and needs the flow of Turkish money to bolster its economy. Although both countries are interdependent in their relationship, Turkey has the lower hand since it relies on Iranian supplies of oil and gas to meet its domestic demand. The Iranian leverage can will be seen if Turkey is hit by electricity shortages in summer, which could cause domestic unrest. Also, the Syrian refugee crisis, in which Turkey hosts two million out of three million refugees, shows Turkey’s need to engage with Iran to solve the Syrian civil war.

Turkey has disagreed with the U.S. in its approach to the Iranian nuclear program. The U.S. was heavy handed in its dealings with Iran, an approach stemmed from Israeli lobbying efforts on Congress and the administration to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program. Due to this heavy handedness, Iran distrusted the U.S. and a new impartial mediator was needed to facilitate communication between world powers and Iran. As a result, Turkey engaged with Iran and convinced Iran to accept negotiations offered by the international community in 2002. The bargaining continued until 2006 after the U.S. imposed harsher sanctions on Iran. Iran conceded to Western demands after the U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. joined the negotiations in 2008. Turkey believes that a nuclear Iran would irreversibly create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. That would pressure Turkey to acquire nuclear capabilities and pose more concerns to the stability of the region. Moreover, Turkey signaled a turn towards the East in 2009 after a statement by then Prime Minister Erdogan in his visit to Tehran, that Turkey has turned its face to the East. The statement comes after relentless efforts by Turkey to join the European Union (EU), but having its effort are blocked by European resistance. As a result, Turkey needs to offset what it would lose from disengaging from the EU politically by forging better relations with Iran.

Despite historical rivalries between Turkey and Iran, present-day Turkey does not perceive Iran as an existential threat as Saudi Arabia does. While it views the Iranian support to Assad’s regime as destabilizing to the region, it has still cooperated with Iran to keep the Kurds at bay. Iran has a history of supporting Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, which affects Turkey’s Kurdish population and fuels separatist sentiments. In the 1980s and 1990s Iran sponsored Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is designated a terrorist organization in Turkey. Since the Justice and Development Party’s election in Turkey, Iran cooperated with Turkey and it stopped meddling in Turkey’s Kurdish population, allowing Turkey to start a peace process with Kurdistan Worker’s Party. The Kurdish separatist movements gave leverage to Iran since it allowed Iran to meddle in Turkey’s internal affairs and support Kurdish adversaries against the Turkish state.

In conclusion, Turkey is not pivoting away from Iran to the Sunni alliance because it needs Iran for help in the Syrian civil war that is on its borders. Moreover, Iran supports Turkish adversaries inside and around Turkey, as well as the Assad regime against Turkish backed Syrian rebels, creating a refugee crisis on the Turkish border. It could potentially destabilize Kurdish areas by supporting the Kurdish Worker’s Party. Turkey is going to manage its relationship with Iran delicately until it retains leverage in its economic ties with Iran, and prevent Iran from influencing the Kurds in case the peace talks fail.

Image By:  United Nations Photo