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Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Speech / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and a Region in Crisis

The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. Our Director of Communications & Outreach Hugh Pope looks back on two decades of change in a keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace.

The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.

Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.

Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.

All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.

The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.

This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.

But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.

What Went Right?

It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.

Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends.

But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.

Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.

  • The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
  • The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
  • The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
  • Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
  • The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
  • After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
  • For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.

Losing Cruising Altitude

Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s.
  • A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
  • Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
  • The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
  • Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
  • The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
  • Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
  • Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
  • The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
  • War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.

Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?

Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.

There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.

1 – Know what is happening on the ground

There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:

  • Insurgencies;
  • Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
  • Restless police and military forces;
  • Regional or ethnic divisions;
  • Economic strains in the broader public;
  • Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.

Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.

2 – Maintain relationships with all parties

Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.

In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.

3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy

With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.

An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.

For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.

The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.

4 – Strategic planning and communication

This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.

Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.

A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama's demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.

A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.

In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.

5 – Creating pathways to peace

Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.

Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.

Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.

In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints.

Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.

For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.

Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.

Muslims living in Mali's Segou village, receive aid packages prepared with the donations of Turkish people and distributed by Turkey Diyanet Foundation (TDV), in Segou region, Mali on 13 April 2021. Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Commentary / Africa

Turkey in the Sahel

Ankara is strengthening ties with Sahelian capitals, building mosques and hospitals and opening up export markets. Its defence pact with Niamey has led rivals to suspect its intentions. Turkey and other outside powers should do what they can to avoid unnecessary additional competition in the region.

Since labelling 2005 the “year of Africa”, Turkey has built political and economic ties across the continent through aid and trade, part of an agenda to extend its reach around the globe. Spearheading this push, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as Turkish prime minister until 2014 and since then as president, cultivated relations with African leaders, helped Turkish companies gain access to new markets and bankrolled projects casting Turkey as a custodian of Islamic culture in heavily Muslim African countries. In its attempts to gain influence in Africa, Ankara is jockeying with not just Western but also Arab states. The latter competition has transposed the rivalry between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on one side, and Turkey and Qatar, on the other, onto conflict-prone regions like the Horn of Africa, often worsening instability. But it is Turkey’s overtures to another region – the Sahel – that have recently rattled Western and Gulf Arab governments, which fear that Turkey’s presence might threaten their geopolitical interests in a place many view as a crucial battleground in the war with jihadist insurgents.

Already the military-heavy French-led approach in the Sahel is faltering. As Crisis Group has written previously, communal killings, Islamist militancy and popular frustration with governments seen as ill equipped to quell the violence and protect citizens are on the rise. Jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 and intercommunal conflict has surged. The three central Sahelian states – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – struggle to hold territory, let alone assert state authority, in areas contested by militants. Meanwhile, jihadists are entrenching themselves, mounting rural insurgencies, tapping local grievances to recruit fighters and expanding their operations. Disappointment with the failure to stem insecurity has given rise to anti-French sentiment in Sahelian capitals. A big push by Turkey, which has a fraught relationship with France, to present itself as an alternate security partner could aggravate tensions. In November 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey of undercutting France’s West African ties by playing on “post-colonial resentment”. (Separately, in June 2021, he announced plans to halve the number of France’s 5,100 troops in the Sahel by 2023.)

Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection.

In reality, Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection. Ankara’s activities in the region are mostly focused on development support and commercial engagement. True, it has signed a defence accord with Niamey. It is also the case that in Somalia, Turkish aid and business subsequently led to more military engagement, though for the most part Turkish involvement there has been constructive and not in conflict with Western aims. Sahelian states and external powers would be better served by taking the best of what Turkey has to offer rather than seeing it as an inherent threat – especially as Macron and Erdoğan, who held a private discussion on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June, appear to be mending ties. Recent efforts to quell tensions between Turkey and Egypt and between sparring Gulf states suggest a broader rapprochement may be on the cards. Instead of competing in the Sahel, external powers should find ways of cooperating for the troubled region’s benefit. 

Soft Power 

Turkey’s motives in the Sahel thus far appear primarily economic. Indeed, according to Ankara, expanding trade is its main priority in the region. But some observers look at Turkey’s role in Somalia and in the wider Horn of Africa, and wonder how far its engagement in the Sahel might go.

Turkey’s rivals often cast its growing presence in Muslim African countries like Somalia and Sudan as motivated by ideology – in particular the goal of boosting prospects for the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists – or by desire to increase its geopolitical heft. This perception is not wholly inaccurate. Ankara’s extensive support for Somalis facing a devastating famine in 2011 earned Turkey enormous good-will. It then used this clout to bolster the interests of local allies, sometimes drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2017, Ankara opened a military base in Mogadishu, the biggest training base of its kind outside Turkey. It has also established a firm foothold in a Mogadishu seaport it views as critical to its strategy of projecting military power across key nodes of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Turkey is now one of Somalia’s most influential foreign actors, a role many Somalis view in a positive light. It does not coordinate its activities with the Somali security forces, for example, with Western powers, but neither is it at loggerheads with them.

Still, focusing on those angles alone risks overlooking what seems to be a key part of Ankara’s engagement in the Sahel to date – capitalising on shared religious identity to advance its economic interests. True, such engagement could also lead to further bilateral security cooperation, as it has in Somalia, and fuel competition with Turkey’s Gulf rivals. But, for now, Ankara’s main focus seems to be pursuing projects and investments in the Sahel that won public support, paving the way for Turkish exporters in a new market.

As it opened embassies in Bamako (2010), Ouagadougou (2012) and Niamey (2012), Ankara set out to woo religious and political elites as well as appeal to the needs of struggling populations. In Mali, for instance, it built a mosque in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital for the High Islamic Council of Mali, the country’s most powerful religious association, and rehabilitated another in former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s hometown. In Niger’s northern city of Agadez, it restored the Grand Mosque and the Sultan of Aïr’s palace. This allowed it to stress Turkey’s historical links with the region’s sultans, the first of whom oral histories say was born in Istanbul in the 1400s. At the same time, Turkey rolled out much-needed assistance in health care, water and education. It built hospitals in Bamako (completed in 2018) and Niamey (in 2019) and dispatched mobile clinics to provincial Malian towns such as Koulikoro and Sikasso. The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), Turkish charities and NGOs also stepped in to improve rural dwellers’ access to religious schooling and water.

As they have elsewhere in Africa, locals welcomed the projects, helping to open up markets for Turkish consumer goods and boosting Ankara’s efforts to secure contracts for Turkish construction, energy and mining companies. While Turkish trade with the Sahel is still small compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese and French exports to the region annually, it has grown substantially over the last decade. Trade between Mali and Turkey, for instance, increased more than tenfold, from just $5 million in 2003 to $57 million in 2019. Crucial to boosting commerce was the launch of direct Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul to Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou, which opened new trade routes for Sahelian entrepreneurs deterred by Europe’s increasingly strict border policies. Meanwhile, a direct Turkish Airlines flight from Bamako to Jeddah has proven popular with African pilgrims.

Some Turkish projects have done less to win hearts and minds. In 2017, following the coup attempt in Ankara that the Turkish government blamed on the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher self-exiled in the U.S. since 1999, Turkey’s Maarif Foundation signed an agreement with Mali’s education minister enabling it to take control of a network of eighteen Gülenist Horizon schools in Bamako. The heavy-handedness of the takeover alienated some alumni, and the schools’ reputation has suffered.

As elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkish construction in the Sahel typically focuses on infrastructure. In Niger, Turkish companies delivered a range of projects that were key to Niamey’s hosting of the June 2019 African Union summit, including a new international airport and a five-star hotel. With Mali, it signed a tentative agreement for a metrobus system in Bamako.                           

Hard Power

Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments.

As Ankara pursues commercial opportunities in the Sahel, Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments. Turkey first adopted a cooperative approach to security in the region. This approach included providing diplomatic support to multilateral efforts such as Mali’s Algiers peace agreement, signed by the government, a coalition of pro-government armed groups and an alliance of rebel groups in 2015. Ankara also gave $5 million to the G5 Sahel force, a regional coalition which in 2018 began deploying troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger largely to fight Islamist militants in the tri-border area conjoining Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. A more controversial form of military assistance came in July 2020, when Ankara and Niamey signed a defence pact that could – the text remains secret – lay the groundwork for direct operational support from Turkey to Niger in the future. The deal was concluded only a year after reports emerged that France would mothball its Madama base near the Libyan border in Niger’s far north and potentially hand it over to the UAE (any talk of the Emiratis taking over the base has now ended). The Turkey-Niger pact set off alarm bells in Paris and Abu Dhabi. Both capitals saw it as a potential means of extending Turkish influence in neighbouring Libya and a sign that Turkey hopes to establish a base in Niger, as it has done in Somalia.

The Turkey-Niger deal led to a flood of rumours of Turkish regional meddling, all of which Ankara denies and which indeed various sources deem baseless. An August 2020 Emirati policy paper, for example, warned that Ankara was arming militants in the Sahel and West Africa to seize control of natural resources and spread political Islam. The same month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu became the first senior foreign official to meet with leaders of the 18 August coup in Mali, fuelling speculation among some observers that Turkey had been involved in the Keïta government’s ouster. In early 2021, after months of tensions between Turkey and France in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, French politicians and commentators hinted that Turkish-deployed jihadists might be behind an uptick in improvised explosive device attacks on French soldiers in Mali. According to various senior Malian officials, northern Malian armed groups and Western diplomats in the region, such rumours reflect growing anxiety over the scope of Ankara’s regional ambitions. One Turkish official in the region complained that the tensions in the Mediterranean have already made many of the Sahel’s European partners reluctant to cooperate with Turkey.

The Turkey-Niger defence agreement reportedly contains plans for Turkish troops to train and support Nigerien forces fighting the various splinters of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency and to help them secure the country’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Niger’s tense presidential election – the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power that took place despite violent protests, police repression and voting irregularities – appears to have delayed these plans’ implementation. Senior military officials in Niamey have told Crisis Group that the pact will come into full effect at the discretion of President Mohamed Bazoum’s cabinet following his inauguration in April.

In Mali, for years the epicentre of the Sahel’s conflicts, Turkey’s military footprint is limited to a few security assistance programs in the capital. In 2018, Ankara began hosting Malian officers for training in Turkey and supplying Mali’s army with light weapons and ammunition. There are signs that the UAE and Qatar – the latter a close Turkish ally – are vying for influence. A senior political official told Crisis Group that a January 2020 deal with the UAE to sell Mali 30 Typhoon armoured vehicles was intended to sideline a project that would entail Qatar purchasing French helicopters for the Malian military. More Emirati deals, if they are made, might lead Turkey to up its involvement.

Competition or Cooperation?

Although many Sahelians have cheered Ankara’s rapid push into the region, some Gulf Arab and Western states have reacted negatively. Perceptions that Ankara is seeking to extend its military influence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if they prompt Abu Dhabi to scale up its own military presence. For now, however, there is little evidence that Ankara is preparing to be anything other than a bit player in the region’s conflicts.

Western partners ... regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region.

As for Western partners, they worry about Turkey as an economic competitor and regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region. Western diplomats tend to both exaggerate and downplay Turkish influence. One European diplomat, for example, labels Turkey’s activities in the Sahel as an “offensive”. At the same time, this very diplomat notes that Ankara’s interventions have so far been opportunistic rather than part of a bigger strategic plan. In reality, Turkish aid and investments pale in comparison to the substantial sums Western powers with deeper pockets have splashed out. While the European Union and its member states have pumped more than $8 billion into the central Sahel since 2014 in development cooperation alone, TIKA data show that it barely spent $61 million between 2014 and 2019. Another Western diplomat contends that it is too early to say whether Turkey building schools and hospitals as a sweetener for developing export markets indicates modest, primarily economic ambitions, or a broader geopolitical agenda – one that might later entail sending troops or mercenaries or promoting Islamist governance in the region.

Many [Sahelians] have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor.

Among Sahelians, on the other hand, Turkey has amassed good-will. Many have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor with whom they have more in common than Europe, Russia or China and from whom they may have much to gain. They tend to see Turkey as less overbearing than the European Union or France, and as a partner with similar interests. Turkey, for example, is not bent on curbing migrant flows like Europe. Islam is a common bond. Many Sahelian policymakers and businessmen chafe at the region’s reliance on European aid and French military support and say they are interested in diversifying alliances. “Western countries are too visible in our conflicts. We would like to see Arab or Muslim countries like Turkey play a more active conflict resolution role”, a Western-educated Malian academic noted. Niger, for its part, is optimistic about the prospect of Turkey’s defence cooperation. “The intelligence sharing, capacity building and military training that Turkey is offering in the framework of the defence agreement will be of great help in improving security,” a senior Nigerien defence official told Crisis Group.

While Turkey’s push into the Sahel, given its limits, seems for now unlikely to upset regional dynamics, it is critical to avoid another layer of geopolitical competition in the region.

The chief danger is that Ankara continues expanding its presence, thus motivating Gulf actors like the UAE, whose regional engagement has been relatively limited so far, to further enter the fray. The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, and between sparring Gulf states, is still in its early days; it is unclear how far it will go in dialling down the competition among those states that has often played out with destabilising impact across North Africa and the Horn. All sides would be better off avoiding opening up a new arena in the Sahel. Ideally, especially given France’s planned downscaling of bilateral military cooperation, Turkey would continue supporting multilateral efforts in the Sahel and restrict any bilateral military cooperation to security forces training, which would go some way to dispelling rumours about its intentions.

For their part, European partners should overcome their reluctance to collaborate with Turkey. Ankara can contribute to infrastructure, development projects and the multilateral initiatives that Europe supports. Turkey’s regional ambitions may not yet be fully developed, and the defence pact with Niger is understandably seen – by Ankara’s rivals but also more broadly – as a potentially risky new form of regional militarisation. For now, though, European capitals should consider the potential benefits of cooperating in the Sahel with a country whose goals in the region – which thus far entail mostly dispatching aid and trade to support fragile states – largely align with Europe’s own.