For the Yemen Post: By Catherine Shakdam
Politicians of the opposition in Turkey are using the discovery of weapons being smuggled to Yemen as proof to support their claims Erdogan’s government - Justice and Development Party – is enabling Sunni radical groups in the region as part of a wider move toward regional hegemony.
Politicians in Yemen close to the Houthis – Shia rebel group long affiliated with Iran – are now echoing such rumors, going as far as alleging Turkish Ambassador to Yemen, Fazli Corman is himself promoting and facilitating weapon smuggling in the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula for political advancement.
And while entities within al-Islah – Yemen Sunni faction funded by Abdullah al-Ahmar, father to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, powerful leader of the Hashid confederation of tribes – chose to remain critical of Turkey’s desire to outweigh Saudi Arabia in terms of political influence, Yemen’s main political faction is rejecting the idea Ankara is plotting to promote instability in Yemen.
The disgruntled General People’s Congress – GPC - sour loser of the Yemeni revolution is finding solace in digging up conspiracy theories; pinning its own Machiavelli’ schemes onto others, if anything to spread confusion and controversy. After three decades of an unrivalled and unchallenged grip on power, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his coterie feel Turkey betrayed them by standing on the revolution’ side. Their perception is that by supporting the popular democratic movement Turkey sided politically with al-Islah, the GPC’s arch enemy.
The argument is that Turkey is supporting the Arab Spring throughout the region and more particularly in Syria, by providing weapons to militia groups to later on claim “ownership” over future governments. There is no denying that “many” fear the return of the Ottoman Empire.” Back in 2011 in an interview with Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Marwan Beshara – Al-Jazeera senior political analyst – quite famously asked if Turkey was indeed looking to “reconstruct” its former empire through clever political alliances and become the main power house in the region. To which, FM Davutoglu responded that while Turkey had not “imperialistic claim” it will however always remain a “player” in the region, if only, by its geography.
And if Turkey indeed expressed its views regarding Syria, declaring that the right of a people to self-determination is inherent and inalienable, it does not equate to supporting terrorism in the region; nor is Turkey’s right to defend its borders against Syrian missiles and mortar shells.
When it comes to Syria, with which Turkey is sharing a 900 km long border, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan never made a secret that he would use whatever force he judges necessary to protect the integrity of the Turkish territory and the safety of his people against the Syrian aggressor. And if Turkey agreed and promised to support the free Syrian Army against President Bashar al-Assad’s heinous crimes, so did many western nations – the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Germany to only name a few.
As instability in Yemen is spreading, the stakes in the Peninsula are becoming ever dire for regional power players -Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
For the past three decades Yemen has lived under Saudi Arabia’ shadow, dwarfed by its oil rich neighbor and more often than not kept in a state of semi-poverty to ease al-Saud fears that their unruly neighbors whose military capacity poses a threat, could one day defy their rule and rise against its regional hegemony, or worse, that Yemen could reclaim lands which once upon a time was “given up” – in rather shady circumstances – by its leaders to the powerful Saudi royals in exchange for large sums of money. As it happens, those lands turned out to hide in their bellies vast reserves of oil.
Back in 2011, Turkey started to tighten its bond with Yemen by offering its political and economic support. A long-standing friend, Turkey shares a common history with the Yemeni nation stretching back centuries; a history which goes beyond the tale of a conqueror and its vassal, and more of two nations whose past and future are intertwined. There is no hiding that Turkey played a massive role in Yemen's social, economic, spiritual and political make up throughout the centuries and helped shape the nation into the modern state it is today.
It is this bond which is now being questioned by politicians. And as often in politics the end game is to discredit Turkey and prevent its growing influence in the Peninsula. One has to remember that only a few months ago many in Yemen were calling to emulate Turkey’s Constitution in its structure and relations with religious entities, hailing it “the perfect middle eastern institutional model.”
And in truth Turkey so far is living proof that Islam and democratic values can cohabitate in harmony with each other and actually grow in strength, without the religious becoming radicalized by political ambitions.
In March 2011, a hidden weapons cargo was seized in the UAE, containing 16,000 Turkish pistols to be delivered to Yemen. At the time of the investigation it was established that the weapons were all “traumatic blank cartridge.” The manufacturer was in July 2011 investigated and it was found the manufactured guns were different from those they received licenses for. The owner of Weapon Industry was jailed for one year and forced to pay a large fine for attempting to bypass the law.
At the time, Ambassador Corman noted how easily smugglers could have used international regulations’ loopholes to go about their trade while throwing countries off their investigative trail. Moreover, he theorized that the cargo could have been destined to another country altogether as Yemen is geographically a regional crossroad. Drug and people smugglers are well-known to use Yemen as a by-country for their illegal activities.
20 months later, in November 2012 when a first shipment of weapons were discovered by the Yemeni authorities in the southern seaport city of Aden, claims accusing Ankara of wrong-doings were immediately issued; without, it is important to note, any real forensic evidence to back them up. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal was quick to retaliate by declaring “Turkey will continue to support the security and stability needed for Yemen’s reconciliation process in various ways, and will firmly oppose any initiative that could negatively affect this process … We certainly have not authorized
such a shipment of weapons. It is not thinkable to OK such arms exports to countries where conflict risks are high and where it could result in more deaths.”
Despite no real proof that the shipment of weapons had actually been sent by Turkey to Yemeni militias, other than the fact the container had been loaded there, no other forensic evidence could establish another link with Turkey, which in any court of law will not suffice to prove guilt of a sinister plot to promote terrorism. However, political factions seized the opportunity to cast a shadow of doubt over Ankara’s real intentions in Yemen and to an extent the whole region.
Leader of the Turkish opposition Faruk Logoglu said back in November 2012, “The government should make a satisfactory statement which shows that Turkey has abided by international law and legitimacy, that it doesn’t interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, and particularly that it definitely does not allow arms smuggling;” hence insinuating that Prime Minister Erdogan’s government was not only meddling within Yemen internal affairs but also promoting instability by supporting armed groups.
After all, the notion that militias are by definition terror groups is something that regime, politicians and groups have long established over the past few decades, especially when it comes to dealings in the Middle East.
One could say that one terror cell is another freedom fighter. But the issue here is not the promotion of terrorism or Turkey's so called support of radical groups – which is in itself a ludicrous statement given Ankara’ stance for democratic values and the fact that Turkey is probably the region’s only well-oiled republican institution –
Sources close to Yemen Defense Ministry said under cover of anonymity they believed the weapon cargo had actually been sent by Iran to support al-Harak in its arm race against Sana’a central government as part of Teheran’s bid to destabilize Yemen’s unity and increase its hold in the region against Saudi Arabia and to a greater extent the United States of America.
If anything, this “conspiracy theory” is as valid as any other since no official report has been issued yet, neither accusing, nor exonerating …. Because really, the truth is not what is at play here; baseless and faceless accusations are serving factions’ agendas much more than the truth ever could.
In December 2012 yet another cargo, containing a reported 7000 guns was again seized by the Yemeni authorities in the western Red Sea port of Hodeidah. Turkish Ambassador Fazli Corman immediately stressed Turkey had never been “a major international producer of weapons nor a primary gun exporter to Yemen, though officially it has delivered guns to Yemen when there had been a request by Yemeni authorities.” He also added that no detailed information on the seized guns was ever provided to him by Yemeni Authorities despite his many requests.
Most puzzlingly, the truck carrying the so-called Turkish cargo was in no way, shape or form associated to or belonging to Turkey or any of its affiliates. It is as if the accusations sprung out of nowhere to fuel anti-Turkish sentiment.
Political Games and Regional Stakes
If anything is to be remembered from Yemen revolution is that in the land of Queen Sheba nothing is ever as it seems and that there are always more than two facets to every coin. For one, Yemen’s homegrown version of the Arab Spring was never organic and instead staged by members of the opposition, al-Islah – Sunni faction led by Sheikh al-Ahmar clan – As 2011 enfolded and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to submit to popular will, or shall we say political will, Yemen’s transitional government was introduced to the Yemeni public as the country next fast track to democratic institutions. But what really the “transition” offered is a way for regional powers to sink their teeth into Yemen and seize control.
Although the poorest, most unstable and unsecure nation in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen holds the keys to regional stability, especially when it comes to the spread of terrorism or for some – Saudi Arabia – democracy.
There is no hiding that Saudi Arabia has no interest in promoting democratic values right at its very door, especially when Bahrain monarchy is inching ever closer to being toppled.
For Iran, Yemen represents a strategic position in the Middle East – an opening to Africa, the Middle East and Asia – Teheran will never be able to claim ownership of the Gulf without Yemen firmly in its fold, not if it is to control the world oil route in its entirety and exert pressure on the West and its favorite nemesis, Israel.
So while Saudi Arabia fails to have Yemen’s best interest at heart, Turkey however has everything to gain by having a stable and economically viable Yemen. The most populous country of the Peninsula could indeed present excellent economic opportunities for Turkish traders and a sizeable market for their products.
And if both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long track record when it comes to providing weapons to their affiliates, Turkey never overstepped such boundary, keeping its dealings with Yemen to diplomatic, political and economic tidings. So one could wonder what Turkey would have to gain by openly providing armed militias with weapons, or better yet, what powers would benefit from the spread of such a belief.
According to the Yemen Observer, Kifah – an obscure Yemeni organization said to be established to combat violence and terror in the country – recently called on President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi to take measure against Turkey, going as far as blaming the kidnapping of westerners on Ankara.
The organization threatened Ankara to seize the ICC – International Criminal Court – if it failed to disclose the names of those responsible for importing the weapons.
“Should it fail to do so, we will petition the ICC to prosecute the Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” the Yemen Observer wrote quoting Kifah. The organization also claims to have in its possession proof of Turkey’s wrong-doings. But again here one need to ponder over one’s motivations as intelligence sources allege Kifah has received funds from the GPC and is part of former President Saleh’s propaganda machine.
What a close alliance with Turkey could entail for Yemen
Despite what many might think or believe; facts are undeniable. Ever since 2011 and the beginning of Yemen descent into economic abyss, Turkey has stood by its ally’ side, always extending a helping hand to the distressed nation.
In 2008, long before Yemen became the focus of the international community, Turkey expressed its support by signing “The Agreement Concerning the Cooperation in the Area of Health between Turkey and Yemen”. In the framework of this agreement, every year 25 Yemeni patients who cannot be adequately treated in Yemen have the possibility to be treated in Turkey. This number is envisaged to be increased to 100 this year. Ankara agreed to treat an added 106 patients in Turkey in 2012 as Yemen medical services were unable to cope.
In January 2011, Turkey and Yemen signed a series of political and economic agreements during Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visit to Sana’a, the first ever conducted by a Turkish head of state to Yemen; sign that Ankara is determined to strengthen its ties with Sana’a. A technical and vocational Institute in Sana'a was furnished and equipped by Turkey to a cost of $2.6 million.
In September 2012, Kimse Yok Mu Dernegi - Turkish relief organization - sent basic foodstuffs to Yemen to help alleviate people’s hardship ahead of the coming winter. The supplies were calculated as to cover the daily requirements of some 11,200 people.
The same month, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pledged $100 million in aid to Yemen to help the nation jump start its economic recovery.
In June 2012 TIKA - Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency Program opened a coordination office in Sana’a. TIKA is an important tool in Turkey’s efforts to help Yemen as the agency will implement programs and ensure funds are used appropriately. Under TIKA management dialysis centers will be set up in three governorates as well as a hospital in Ibb. More than any other country in the region Turkey made a point to provide Yemenis with cheap, reliable and state of the art medical care by opening its hospitals – often at its own cost through various organizations – and making its staff available for training purposes. Such an exchange in expertise, especially in oncology is priceless for Yemen.
In October 2012 Foreign Minister Davutoğlu visited Yemen and on the occasion, three agreements, including the Visa Abolition Agreement, were signed. H.E. Bülent Arınç, Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey - the highest level foreign official ever to visit Yemen since Saleh’s resignation - visited Yemen as the co-chair of Turkey-Yemen Joint Economic Commission - which held its 6th meeting in 24-25 November. Six agreements were signed to boost bilateral trade relations between Yemen and Turkey.
In the summer 2012, Turkey donated two ambulances to Sana’a. Ankara also arranged for a mobile hospital to be delivered soon to serve Sana’a governorate in view of reports showing how remote villages in the highlands and conflict zones were severely lacking medical facilities.
Moreover, Yemen Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basendwa, accompanied by ten ministers visited Turkey in 2012, to discuss ways in which Ankara could further assist Sana’a.
If Turkey was indeed trying to destabilize Yemen, it is certainly spending a lot of money and efforts trying to accomplish just the opposite. More a philanthropist than an arm smuggler, Turkey should not have to justify its intentions toward Yemen, its actions one would think should rise above the clamor of fallacy.