In recent years, Turkey has expanded its regional role, first in Syria on its border, then in Libya at the beginning of the year, an intervention affecting the security of the whole Mediterranean region from Israel to Europe, and increasingly in northern Iraq. In fact, Turkey has military positions in nine countries, from Bosnia in Europe to Qatar on the Gulf to Afghanistan. The end result of this activity is the establishment of what some scholars call a “mini empire”.
In accomplishing this goal, the Turkish government has relied significantly on Islamist proxies and mercenaries, and there are indications of the pattern repeating in war-torn Yemen. If Turkey gains a foothold in Yemen, it will have bases either side of the Gulf of Aden, since it already has a presence in Somalia, and will be positioned to threaten the crucial Bab al-Mandeb waterway with a pincer using its port holdings in Djibouti.
The Brotherhood Instrument and Iran
Back in April, it became clear that Ankara was establishing tighter relations with the Reform (Al-Islah) Party in Yemen, the local manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah “is instrumental in giving Turkish institutions and the Turkish government — all masquerading as charity organisations — access to Yemeni cities,” said political analyst Mahmud al-Tahir at that time.
It was also notable that Islah officials had been visiting Turkey, more openly and more frequently, consorting with members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan’s government has long hosted and supported the Muslim Brotherhood and this has been especially obvious since the downfall of the Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013. Much of the Egyptian Brotherhood moved to Turkey, where it was allowed — in a media landscape dominated by conspiracy theories and extremist discourse — free access to incite against the new government in Egypt.
There are strong indications of a flow of Turkish proxies from Yemen to Libya. Reports in June indicated that Turkey had moved several hundred Islah militants from Yemen to Libya to fight on behalf of the Fayez al-Sarraj so-called Government of National Accord (GNA). Interestingly, there are hints that this transfer of Islah forces occurred under a deal, perhaps tacit rather than explicit, between Turkey and Iran’s proxy in Yemen, Ansarallah (better known as “the Houthis”), an extremist Zaidi-Shi’a militia that started the war in Yemen in 2014 with a coup against the legitimate government.
While Turkey might be the premier sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood at the present time, the ideological affinity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Brotherhood is well-documented, as are the operational ties, which are extant. The possibility of an alignment between Erodgan’s Turkey, the Islamist regime in Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood is, therefore, not inconceivable in Yemen and Libya, where, quite apart from ideology, they share similar interests.
Turkey’s actions in Libya, using Syrian Islamist mercenaries, must have an inherent appeal to Iran, which uses proxy militants all around the region to interfere in other countries. Moreover, Turkey, in supporting the GNA in Libya, is supporting the side that is battling the Saudi-backed anti-Islamist cause. A key part of Iran’s foreign policy since the Islamist revolution of 1979 has been to counter Saudi influence in the region.
There were public signs that something akin to a Turkey-Iran-Brotherhood alliance is taking place in the middle of June. First, there was an inexplicable mention of Yemen in a statement from Iran’s foreign ministry after a meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran. Second, the Iranian regime declared its open support for Erdogan in Libya.
A Growing Presence
The evidence of a build-up in the Turkish presence in Yemen continued in May. Sources in the country related news of a cautious, mostly covert, but steady extending of Turkish influence in Yemen, primarily in three coastal areas: Shabwa, Socotra, and Al-Mukha in the Taiz province. Shabwa has fallen under the control of the Brotherhood’s Islah Party, and the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Organisation (IHH), which has been linked to Al-Qaeda in the past, was noted to be operating there.
Turkish media has been laying the groundwork for Turkey’s role in Yemen since 2018, and in June 2020 Turkey’s official media advertised the country’s role in Yemen, albeit framed as a humanitarian effort.
The disastrous economy in Turkey because of the mismanagement and corruption of the Erdogan government, particularly when it came to the coronavirus pandemic, should prevent Turkish meddling, especially in this many places, this far afield. But Qatar has stepped in to provide the cash for Turkey’s adventurism, first in Libya and, so it seems, in Yemen. The boycott of Qatar by its neighbours has curbed its disruptive regional behavior, but it is now apparently outsourcing such things to Turkey.
Similar to the Libyan case, the Turkish escalation in Yemen comes at a moment when peace efforts are showing hopeful signs. Rather than throwing its weight behind these efforts, the Turkish government is bolstering intransigent radicals who promise only further destabilization and misery.