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Somali state returns Turkey’s ‘politicized’ aid

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

A semi-autonomous Somali state tasked five of its ministers with investigating a Turkish ship carrying food aid to impoverished people and concluded that the ship should be sent back because the aid is politically motivated.

The eastern Somali state of Puntland, which borders the Indian Ocean and has been plagued with years of sea piracy, said in a statement on Saturday that the aid ship sent by Turkish Red Crescent from Mogadishu was “intended for specific districts” in Puntland, without elaborating where the aid was supposed to go. Shortly after the statement, Somali activists flooded the head of Turkish Red Crescent Somalia Delegation, Mucahit Salih Duran, with messages on Twitter demanding an explanation. He responded: “It was just a misunderstanding.”

Puntland said the ship arrived in the port of Bossaso but the state government was not notified beforehand by the Turkish charity, nor by the federal government, which has only very limited control in the country restricted to the capital Mogadishu.

Many in Puntland claim that Mogadishu is attempting to foment chaos in the state by supporting rebels, particularly Al Qaeda-linked militants such as Al Shabab. Being a hot political arena, the state is very sensitive to any political move by the federal government, interpreting it as a step to undermine the sovereignty of Puntland. The Somali state has recently suspended its cooperation with the federal government.

In the Middle East, the secret for good diplomacy is to be able to ride two horses at once, something Ankara has yet to learn.

Mahir Zeynalov

The Somali state described the way the shipment was made as “illegal” and underlined that the “intentional bypassing” of the Puntland government is a clear violation by the federal government against the autonomous state.

The Puntland government tasked five of its ministers with studying the situation and making assessment over the shipment. The ministerial committee concluded that “political interests” are involved in the shipment as the federal government didn’t notify the Puntland government. “The committee decided to send the shipment back to the original source,” the government statement said.

Puntland said it is clear that the food aid shipment is part of the federal government’s “political manipulation” in Somalia that violated federal and Puntland constitutions.

The ministerial committee also expressed “disappointment” with the Turkish Red Crescent, which it said requested the federal government to provide security in Puntland while delivering food aid.

It added that Puntland will soon send an official letter to Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish government to provide a clarification on this “politicized violation that Turkey has become part of.”

Ankara needs a measured approach

It is quite unfair to blame Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish government for the incident. It requires, however, caution and sensitivity in foreign policy dealings, including foreign aid that could well be politicized, particuarly for a country such as Turkey that is hoping to cement its role as a leading power in the Middle East.

As an ambitious newcomer in the region, Turkey has bungled some of its foreign policy initiatives by simply failing to grasp sensitivities in the Middle East and the South Caucasus, where decades-old hostilities required a measured approach. In the Middle East, the secret for good diplomacy is to be able to ride two horses at once, something Ankara has yet to learn.

What happened with respect to the Turkish food aid is largely to do with strained relations between Puntland and the federal government in Mogadishu rather than Turkey itself. Yet it is not hard to estimate that coordinating the shipment of aid with only the federal government and ignoring a state that has suspended cooperation with Mogadishu will most likely result in problems in such a politically turbulent region. Working in a federal country of autonomous states, militant groups and boiling political atmosphere requires extra caution even in humanitarian operations that include aid distribution and lifting people out of poverty.

This is also true regarding Turkey’s policies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, where political turmoil and military conflict are increasingly pushing Ankara to side with one group or another. Initially, Turkish diplomats were very successful in building dialogues with rival political forces in these nations, and the country was hailed as the only actor in the region that could talk to everyone. This ability is long gone after Turkey was pushed to choose sides as the Arab Spring transformed from mass uprisings into bloody conflicts.

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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.