GCC should now lobby US over Turkey’s Red Sea military ambitions

Martin Jay

Published: Updated:

How long will Trump’s patience hold out with Turkey particularly with the appointment of John Bolton who is clearly not a fan of President Recep Erdogan? Until now, GCC states, as well as Iraq have all been remarkably despondent to Turkey’s intervention in the region, despite reports that Qatar backed Turkey, with rumours of other neighbours supportive of Kurdish YPG forces in Afrin. Then there is the more recent somnolent stand by Iraq against Erdogan’s forces possibly moving into Sinjar region in pursuit of escaping PKK militants there.

Yet there are other plans by Turkey, which, if they don’t agitate America’s allies in the region, will certainly stir a hornet’s nest in Washington and finally place Turkey on a collision course with the Trump administration.

Since Afrin fell neatly into Erdogan's palm, the Turkish leader is making moves now to go ahead with his dream of being a regional power with its own hegemony - which of course is a dangerous thing – with Qatar as a key partner.

In recent months western press has little mentioned Turkey’s deal with Sudan, to effectively lease the historical Ottoman island of Suakin back to Turkey which has great plans for it to be a Red Sea military base – angering neighbouring Egypt which accuses Qatar of harbouring Muslim Brotherhood members. Qatar, it was always expected, would be a military partner on the Island and has already signed a $4bn deal with Sudan to develop and manage a port on the island, with a naval dock also planned to be constructed by Turkey.

With John Bolton about to take the post of national security adviser, a hawk sceptical about Turkey’s manoeuvres in the region, perhaps it’s time for Suakin Island to be raised

Martin Jay

Flexing its muscle

But this grandiose plan will also, in time, irritate neighbours when Turkey starts to flex its muscles in the Red Sea and starts to act as a regional power. Not only could such a move threaten to destabilize the Red Sea and Egypt’s Suez Canal but it will also create a problem for the Trump administration.

Turkey believes that it can use the location to leverage itself against both Egypt and Saudi Arabia – its regional foes who are weary of Ankara’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet Bolton's appointment of national security adviser might skupper such plans. His hatred of Turkey might push this issue up the agenda.

But equally, one might also ask is it time now for GCC countries to make their case to Washington to stop Turkey preparing to expand in the region? Should Washington intervene and derail Turkey’s plans of building its own military base on Suakin Island (which belongs to Sudan – a recipient of US aid) which can only, once operational, threaten Saudi Arabia and the entire region?

Turkey’s recent tumultuous period of Trump’s period in office has not stood it in good stead. There was the arrest of US consulate employees and the request from Erdogan that the US extradites Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s prime suspect in the July 2016 attempted coup. In New York, a trial reached a guilty verdict against Turkish banker for evading US sanctions on Iran, which some say had Erdogan’s tacit approval. Turkey also leaked the secret locations of US forces in Syria, and when visiting the US in 2017 to meet President Trump, the Turkish leader’s personal guards clashed with protesters in Washington DC. Then there was the veiled threat by Erdogan to give US forces an “Ottoman slap”.

Not exactly a great impression for Trump’s people who never trusted Erdogan from the beginning anyway and now with Bolton – considered an extreme hawk among hawks – will all be aggregated negative collateral, perhaps contributing towards his recent comment against Erdogan.

Of course there are still questions over whether Iran will join Qatar and Turkey in its new foray into Red Sea superpower war games. But Iran and Russia are responsible for Erdogan’s new virility in the region as both allowed Turkish forces to take Afrin so as to tactically prevent Syria’s Assad from capturing one more inch of soil back, in a bid to clip his wings.

That same strategy may well be what is happening now in the Red Sea. Or perhaps Iran and Russia are playing a wait-n-see game. Certainly Russia has huge ambitions in the region and might consider being part of the Suakin gambit, or certainly supporting it as a counterweight to US hegemony in the Middle East in general. Yet Bolton’s admission in earlier articles that the US administration under Trump was confused about the YPG’s role in Syria and not seeing the problem with Turkey (which sees it as the PKK) is a clue that he will be a security adviser who wants to make corrections to Trump’s erroneous first year in office, which in the Middle East had to take on Obama’s strategies. But the Suakin Island was not part of that plan and Arab leaders should not dilly dally and hope Erdogan’s dream of restoring a modern Ottoman state in the region will vanish like mist over the Bosporus.

Martin Jay is a Beirut based journalist who in 2016 won the highest press award given by the United Nations for his reporting on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In Beirut he has worked on a freelance basis for Al Jazeera, DW, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Mail on Line, The National and regularly appears on TV commentating on geopolitics. He can be followed at @MartinRJay.

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