Members of the Turkish Barbaros naval task group before their departure around Africa. (photo: Barbaros Task Group)
A small Turkish naval flotilla is setting out on a three-month, 28-country circumnavigation of Africa. It will be the first time in 148 years that Turkish ships have rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and an ambitious demonstration of Turkey's rising ambitions in Africa. But the timing of the deployment is awkward, coming just as the security situation around the Black Sea is becoming more precarious.
The blog Bosphorus Naval News has a thorough rundown of what is known so far about the expedition. It will include joint exercises with African navies and coast guards in Nigeria, Congo, Angola, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as with the U.S. in the Gulf of Guinea. Turkish doctors will conduct medical clinics along the way, Turkish military bands will play, and Turkish defense companies will put on exhibits of their products in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania and Kenya.
The deployment, in particular its timing, has raised criticism. One former high-ranking admiral, Nusret Güner, told Hurriyet Daily News: "The Black Sea waters are boiling because of what's happening in Crimea and Ukraine. The United States and Russia are playing chess. They make moves one after another. When there is an imminent risk of clash, it's an unacceptable situation that the Turkish Naval Forces are engaged in an African campaign in a way that they weaken their presence in the region."
Given Turkey's interest in stability near its borders and protecting the Crimean Tatars, to whom Turks are related, Turkey's navy should at least be in the area, said Lale Kemal, a prominent journalist and columnist on Turkish military affairs: "[W]hile Turkey should and is avoiding taking any unilateral provocative military measures against Russia, it should reinforce its fleet in the Black Sea region, bringing some of the warships in the Mediterranean and the Aegean to this sea, too, instead of starting a long journey around the Cape of Good Hope for the purpose of prestige."
But Can Devrim Yaylali of Bosphorus Naval News is more positive: "This deployment is one of most meticulous prepared foreign deployments of Turkish Navy and a text book example how nations can use their military to gain affection abroad.... if we cannot spare 2 frigates and one corvette out of our fleet of 16 frigates and 8 corvettes, then something is not correct," he writes. "We have a good fleet of submarines that can creep very close to Crimea and gather very important intelligence. If we have to show the flag in the Black Sea we have many fast attack craft and some long range coast guard vessels that can fulfill the mission even if we cannot spare any of the 14 frigates left."