Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler (R) poses for a photo with Minister of Defense of Somalia Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur (L) during the signing ceremony of Defense and Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between two countries in Ankara, Turkiye on February 08, 2024. (Photo by Turkish National Defense Ministry / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — A recently announced defense deal between Somalia and Turkey to enhance the African nation’s naval capabilities is as much about Mogadishu’s sense of security as it is about Ankara’s ambition to project maritime power beyond its own shores, according to regional experts.

The two nations inked a defense and economic deal earlier this month, and on Feb. 22 Somalia explained that it had an agreement with Turkey for training and equipment for the Somali navy. Beyond that, few details were shared, but a Turkish defense official told journalists that his nation “will provide support in the field of maritime security, as we did in the field of fight against terrorism.”

“We will help Somalia develop its capacity and capabilities to combat illegal and irregular activities in its territorial waters,” the official said, according to reports.

The announcement appeared to be a direct reaction to an agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland in which Ethiopia, Somalia’s rival, will be granted access to Somaliland coastline. Somalia’s president said that amounted to an attempt to annex part of his country.

But analysts told Breaking Defense that there is more to the naval deal than deterring Ethiopia. It’s also about Turkey’s long-held ambitions to project its power in the Red Sea region and opening the pathway to large defense deals in the future.

“While the agreement is partly a response to recent concerning events involving Ethiopia’s encroachment on Somalia’s territory via Somaliland, it should also be seen as the culmination of over a decade of extensive Turkish involvement in Somalia,” Ali Bakir, professor at Qatar University and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, told Breaking Defense. “This involvement focused on nation-building, security, and humanitarian efforts during a time when Somalia was a forgotten nation by the international community. Cooperation extended across political, economic, and military spheres.”

He highlighted that the agreement aims to secure mutual interests, positioning Ankara “as a significant player in the strategic dynamics of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa in the times ahead. This can be seen also as a part of Ankara’s hard power projection capacity and forward defense policy that started in 2016.”

Describing Turkey’s naval expansion in the Red Sea as the “logical next step,” Norman Ricklefs who leads geopolitical consultancy NAMEA Group, told Breaking Defense that through the deal with Somalia, Ankara “will further enhance its defense ties with Somalia, which will bring benefits for the Turkish defense industry, and presumably other Turkish business interests, while solidifying Turkey’s military presence in the strategic Horn of Africa and Red Sea.”

He added that Turkey “is already a major regional power, active across the southern and eastern Mediterranean, active in Central Asia, Syria, and Iraq. It has the second largest army in NATO, and a very effective diplomatic corps. Expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea is the logical next step.”

Bakir said it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility to even envision a future naval base in Somalia. Bakir stressed that the relationship between Somalia and Turkey is not recent or surprising, since Turkey opened its first overseas military training facility in Somalia in 2017.

“Turkey has one of the most successful training and equipping programs in the world running in Somalia. Compared to the programs of its western peers, this program has been a success story. Hundreds of professional and highly trained military Somali soldiers are graduating annually from this program,” he added. “Given the depth of the ties between Mogadishu and Ankara, and the current regional developments related to both sides in the Red Sea, one cannot rule out the possibility of establishing a Turkish naval base in Somalia in the near future.”

In his opinion, Andreas Krieg, CEO of MENA Analytica, a London-based strategic risk consultancy firm focusing on the wider Middle East region, considered Somalia to be a part or Turkey’s wider strategy to secure supply chains and create strategic depth in the maritime domain.

“Turkey has developed a blue homeland strategy that was announced a couple of years ago. The idea was to reestablish Turkey as a as a maritime middle power with far reach beyond the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond its immediate shores to develop a blue water Navy with a reach and strategic depth that goes beyond the Mediterranean into the Red Sea and all the way down to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean,” Krieg told Breaking Defense.

He added that such a deal with Somalia will like increase the possibility of Mogadishu’s procurement of Turkish naval platforms.

Turkey is one of the few Middle East countries that have a considerable number of shipyards to build locally military vessels and equip them.