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How the Rohingya Crisis Has Revealed Erdogan’s Ambitions to Be a Global Muslim Leader

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The emerging humanitarian crisis that has been rocking Myanmar – where an estimated 370,000 Rohingya have been forced out of the country – has prompted broad international condemnation. But so far it has translated into little concrete action.

United Nations (UN) human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein has called the Rohingya’s plight a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” following a similar statement from UN Secretary General António Guterres. While Western countries have been slow and hesitant to respond, leaders of Muslim-majority countries – particularly Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan – have sought to place as much international pressure as possible on the Myanmar government.

The strongest and most vocal response of all has come from Turkey. Indeed the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, appears to have appointed himself as the international voice of the Rohingya Muslims.

Turkey’s aid response

According to a Turkish government statement, Erdoğan is the first one that managed to get permission for humanitarian aid to enter Myanmar. The Burmese government had, at the peak of the violence, blocked all UN aid towards the Rohingyas.

And so, on September 7, Turkey’s foreign aid agency, TIKA, became the first foreign outfit to deliver an initial shipment of 1000 tons of basic foodstuffs and medicine to the conflict zone in Rakhine state, where the majority of Rohingyas live.

Turkey simultaneously announced plans to distribute humanitarian aid to the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. The move was widely publicised as Emine Erdoğan, the Turkish president’s wife visited the camps at the same time.

Public denunciation

Meanwhile, during a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Erdoğan as the current chief of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) formally condemned Myanmar’s attitude towards Rohingyas, taking the lead on the topic on behalf of the organisation. He had previously called the ongoing violence a genocide.

Since the crisis broke on August 25, the Turkish president has taken several actions to gather Muslim leaders across the world to put pressure on the Myanmar government. On August 31, he spoke with the leaders of Mauritania, Pakistan, Iran and Qatar urging them to join forces to find a way to stop the violence against the Rohingyas.

Alongside Erdoğan, other Turkish politicians have addressed the issue. Remarks by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the foreign minister, garnered global attention. Mehmet Şimşek, deputy prime minister, even tweeted unrelated images to raise the point, creating a bit of an embarassment.

So how are we to explain Turkey’s ambition to take the lead in this current crisis?

Global ambitions

The political vacuum prompted by the Trump administration’s retreat from global leadership has surely played a part. But, more evidently, Turkey’s longstanding pro-Western approach has shifted. Turkey is a NATO member and aspired to join the EU for years, but under President Erdoğan’s lead and the current AKP government, the country’s foreign policy has shifted towards the global south, seeking new opportunities.

Turkey’s foreign policy doctrine now promotes what Bilkent University academics Pinar Bilgen and Ali Bilgiç label “civilisational geopolitics”, “an understanding of culture and civilisation as preordained determinants of international behaviour”.

As Bilgin and Bilgiç argue, this new doctrine aims at placing Turkey at the core of geopolitical issues between the West and the rest of Asia, justifying this global engagement by its political heritage – mainly based on its Central Asian and Ottoman history.

The shift became most obvious at the end of the 2000s. It has been identified most closely with Ahmet Davutoğlu, a scholar of geopolitics and Turkey’s foreign minister from 2009–14. In 2010 Foreign Policy called him “the brains of Turkey’s global reawakening”.

Under Davutoğlu’s watch, Turkey’s global diplomatic footprint expanded dramatically, especially in Asia and Africa. He opened Turkey’s first embassy in Myanmar in 2012 both to take advantage of the potential trade opportunities from the country’s post-2008 liberalisation and because of the Rohingya issue.

A subsequent trip in 2013  saw him tour refugee camps and call on the Burmese government to extend citizenship rights to the Rohingya people. This new foreign policy coincides with Turkey’s decade-long ambition to become a global humanitarian power or what Turkish scholars E. Fuat Keyman and Onur Zakak call a “humanitarian state”.

The Turkish humanitarian approach has been cast by journalist and former Somali Minister of Planning, Abdirahman Ali, as a middle way between the Western aid model and its Chinese counterpart. Whereas the former is highly conditional, bureaucratic and often security-focused and the latter tends to bolster corrupt ,authoritarian regimes, the Turkish approach – Ali claims – typically bypasses bureaucracy and emphasises “a ‘moral’ standard anchored in protecting human rights and helping the weak”.

Turkey has backed this ambition with increased funding for humanitarian assistance over the last five years. Development Initiatives – a UK based NGO – recently reported that now Turkey ranks second in the world for humanitarian aid, having spent around US$6 billion in 2016 (the top-ranked US spent $6.3 billion).

The champion of Muslims’ rights

One of the other factors is domestic politics. Indeed, much of Erdoğan’s public posturing on the Rohingya issue is entirely self-serving. The image of a strong Turkey reaching out to Muslim’s everywhere in the world– plays very well at home. During his 15-year tenure as Turkey’s leader, the country’s once-marginalised pious Muslim citizens have become increasingly prominent in mediabusiness and politics.

Ardent supporters in Turkey – not to mention large segments of public opinion across the Muslim world – thus see him as a champion of Muslim rights everywhere.

Erdoğan has studiously crafted this image throughout other crisis, such as in Egypt’s during the 2011-12 Morsi regime or in Palestine. His very public spats with Israel and the West have led some pro-Palestinian columnists in Arabic newspapers to call him the “new Nasser”.

Competition ahead

Nevertheless, in recent days there has been a modest push back from Saudi Arabia, which appears to be chaffing at Turkey’s leadership on the crisis. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Turkey released a statement emphasising the Kingdom’s strong, decades-long support for the Rohingyas. Iran has followed too, promising shipments to reach Myanmar soon.

Erdoğan has promised to raise the Rohingya issue on September 19, at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly – which Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is avoiding.

His calls to protect Muslims worldwide could be a key moment for Turkey’s diplomatic leadership but whether other Muslim countries would follow or not will tell the limits of Turkey’s so-called “humanitarian politics”.

Briefing Room

Somalia says it requested U.S. air strike which killed 100 militants

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Somalia’s government said on Wednesday it had requested the U.S. air strike which killed more than 100 suspected militants on the previous day to help pave the way for an upcoming ground offensive against Islamist militant group al Shabaab.

The United States military’s Africa Command said on Tuesday it had killed more than 100 of the al Qaeda-linked insurgents in an air strike on a camp 125 miles (200 km) northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

“Those militants were preparing explosives and attacks. Operations against al Shabaab have been stepped up,” Abdirahman Omar Oman, the Somali minister, told Reuters.

“We have asked the U.S. to help us from the air to make our readied ground offensive more successful.”

The United States has ramped up operations in Somalia this year after President Donald Trump loosened the rules of engagement in March.

Africom reported eight U.S. air strikes from May to August this year, compared to 13 for the whole of 2016. Including Tuesday’s air strike, it has reported five strikes in Somalia this month alone.

The Pentagon said the U.S. military would continue to target militants in strikes in coordination with the Somali government.

A Navy Seal was killed in a raid in May and U.S. forces were present at a controversial raid on the town of Bariire in August, in which 10 people were killed.

Al Shabaab has lost control of most of Somalia’s cities and towns since African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops pushed the insurgency out of the capital Mogadishu in 2011. But it retains a strong presence in parts of the south and center.

Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual U.S.-Somali citizen, has taken a harder line than his predecessors against the insurgency since he was sworn in earlier this year.

But his plans have been repeatedly thwarted by the poor state of the Somali military and political infighting.

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U.S. airstrikes kill more than 100 militants in Somalia

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WASHINGTON — Reflecting stepped-up targeting of extremists in Africa, the U.S. military said airstrikes killed more than 100 militants in Somalia on Tuesday and hit Islamic State fighters in Libya days earlier.

U.S. Africa Command, which manages U.S. military operations on the continent, said the airstrike in Somalia targeted an al-Shabab camp about 125 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu, killing more than 100. That is the largest number of reported deaths from a single U.S. airstrike in Somalia since the Trump administration approved expanded military operations against al-Shabab, which is allied with al-Qaida.

Al-Shabab is blamed for last month’s truck bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 350 people.

It’s largest number of reported deaths from a single U.S. airstrike in Somalia since the Trump administration approved expanded military operations against al-Shabab.

A Somali intelligence official said U.S. drone aircraft fired at least eight missiles at al-Shabab bases and training camps in Bur-Eylada, a village situated between the towns of Dinsor and Burhakaba in the Bay region. The official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters on the record and discussed the matter on condition of anonymity, said senior al-Shabab commanders were among the dead.

The U.S. this month also began targeting a small but growing IS presence in northern Somalia.

Separately, Africa Command said it conducted two airstrikes near Fuqaha in central Libya against Islamic State group militants — one Nov. 17 and another two days later. It made no mention of casualties and did not identify the specific targets. It said the strikes were done in coordination with Libya’s interim government, known as the Government of National Accord.

The Trump administration has committed to preventing the Islamic State group from regrouping after losing its grip on significant territory in Iraq and Syria.

AFRICOM STATEMENT

In coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Somalia against an al-Shabaab camp on Tuesday, Nov. 21 at approximately 10:30 a.m. local Somalia time, killing more than 100 militants.

The operation occurred 125 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu.

Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and is dedicated to providing safe haven for terrorist attacks throughout the world. Al-Shabaab has publicly committed to planning and conducting attacks against the U.S. and our partners in the region.

U.S. forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats. This includes partnering with AMISOM and Somali National Security Forces (SNSF); targeting terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world.

Our political and security goals in Somalia are the same: a reconstituted Somali state at peace internally and able to address all threats within its territory.

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Somaliland Ruling Party Candidate Bihi Wins Election

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Ruling party candidate Muse Bihi Abdi has been declared the winner of the presidential election in the breakaway republic of Somaliland.

The electoral commission said Bihi won 55 percent of the vote compared to 40 percent for Abdurahman Mohamud Abdullahi, the opposition Wadani party candidate.

Faisal Ali Waraabe, of the For Justice and Development party (UCID), finished third with about 4 percent of the vote.

Electoral Commission Chairman Abdikadir Iman Warsame, who announced the results in Hargeisa Tuesday, said the election was “peaceful, free and fair”

The announcement came eight days after hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots at more than 1,600 polling stations.

Bihi would replace outgoing President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, who chose not to seek another term. He is Somaliland’s fifth president since the region broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991.

Who is Bihi?

Bihi was born in a rural part of Hargeisa in 1948.

In 1985, as an air force military colonel, he joined the Somali National Movement, (SNM), a rebel group that fought for secession from Somalia.In 1993, after the collapse of the former Somali military government, he became Somaliland’s interior minister.

In 2002, he became a member of the executive committee of the ruling Kulmiye party, where he was named deputy chairman in 2008 and chairman in 2015.

President-elect Bihi will serve a five-year term with an option for a second term. His central agenda is how to win international recognition for Somaliland.

Somalia wants Somaliland to be part of a single Somali state. But Somaliland, which used to be a British colony and broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991, wants to be a separate country.

Since its formation it has been more stable than Somalia and democratic elections have been commonplace.

Post-election tension

Political tension mounted in Somaliland following the election, after the Wadani party candidate Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi said he would not accept what he termed the “massively rigged and corrupted exercise.”

Abdullahi questioned the transparency of the election and accused the current government of arresting his representatives at polling stations to steal votes and commit fraud.

“The election was not [a] free and fair election because members of our party representatives and supporters were arrested on the Election Day and after,” said Abdullahi. “And then we found out that the election was massively corrupted and rigged.”

Wadani party members withdrew from the counting process, saying they had evidence of fake ballots smuggled out of the polling stations in at least three Somaliland regions.

The allegations were later denied by Electoral Commission Chairman Warsame, who said there was no ballot stuffing or other irregularities.

On Thursday, at least two people were killed in protests that followed the opposition party’s claims of alleged election fraud.

Abdullahi then called on his supporters to show calm and asked the leaders of the current government to release party members from jails.

The head of a British-funded team of 60 international observers, who monitored the vote, said last week they saw some minor infringements of voting rules, but agreed the overall voting process met international standards.

“We determined from our observations that there were not [irregularities] of sufficient scale to undermine the integrity of the electoral processes,” said Michael Walls, a senior lecturer in the Development Planning Unit at University College London.

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