A Dangerous Courtship: Somalia’s Appeal to Russia

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

2016420635967483959851706cumar_lavrov_660Somalia has been on something of a diplomatic tear recently. On April 17, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the side-line of Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia to discuss the potential for a common market encompassing the Horn of Africa region, which would ostensibly include the countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. Two days later, a meeting with a much more practical theme took place in Moscow – on April 19, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (see image above). According to media reporting regarding the meeting, Prime Minister Sharmarke requested Russian assistance in the fight against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has sought to wrest control of Somalia from the internationally recognized government, to which Lavrov responded, “I know that during your visit to Russia, you would like to talk in particular about equipping the Somali security forces with all that is necessary to fight terrorists. Such an approach is fully consistent with the interests of the international community, in line with UN Security Council decisions, and Russia will be ready to consider a request on the matter.”

This form of Russian engagement in the Horn of Africa is not without precedent. In recent years, the Russian Federation has supplied the Eritrean Defence Forces with Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles (80 missiles in 2005 according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database) and 9K38 Igla shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (50 missiles in 1995 and 200 missiles in 1999 according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database). During the Ogaden War in 1977-1978, the Soviet Union and other communist bloc countries, such as Cuba and South Yemen, supported Ethiopia against Somalia with arms and the deployment of approximately 1,500 Soviet “military advisors”.

But the Lavrov-Sharmarke meeting sets into perspective the growing great power rivalry in the Horn of Africa, which carries the potential to fuel regional conflict. China’s engagement in the region has been well-documented, including financing the construction of the African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the potential establishment of a naval base in Djibouti. When South Sudan’s civil war began to interfere with the oil field operations of PetroDar and the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, both of which have China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) as a major shareholder, China committed to deploy a substantial number of its troops to participate in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Source: Monte Reel, "Djibouti Is Hot: How a forgotten sandlot of a country became a hub of international power games", Bloomberg Businessweek, 23.03.2016.

Source: Monte Reel, “Djibouti Is Hot: How a forgotten sandlot of a country became a hub of international power games“, Bloomberg Businessweek, 23.03.2016. Klick on the image to enlarge it!

Already in 2011, Japan established a naval base in Djibouti, intended to support Japanese efforts to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Camp Lemonnier – which is located in the town of Ambouli, Djibouti – is the US military’s only base in Africa, having been refurbished in 2001 after spending quite some time as a base for the French Foreign Legion and later the Djibouti Armed Forces. The French have by no means left the Horn of Africa; one of the French military’s three largest African military bases is located in Djibouti, providing support to approximately 1,900 French soldiers deployed in the country. Even Italy has a naval base in Djibouti, supported by approximately 300 Italian Navy personnel.

This external military presence can potentially, and indeed does, have a stabilizing effect on the region. In 1996 and again in 2008, Eritrean forces attacked Djibouti in an effort to seize disputed lands in the Ras Doumeira area. The presence of so many bases operated by major military powers is no doubt a deterrent for the Eritreans, who might otherwise mount a more vigorous offensive against their neighbour. There are also, of course, economic benefits that this extensive military presence brings to Djibouti, creating jobs for locals in a country that otherwise enjoys an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of just $1.5 billion US. But the Russian involvement in the region is of an entirely different character, which is what makes the Lavrov-Sharmarke meeting in Moscow so worrisome.

The cockpit section of a Belorussian TransAVIAexport Airlines Il-76 shot down over the city in 2007, causing the death of all eleven crew members. The photo was taken in May 2013 by Petterik Wiggers / Panos Pictures / Felix Features.

The cockpit section of a Belorussian TransAVIAexport Airlines Il-76 shot down over the city in 2007, causing the death of all eleven crew members. The photo was taken in May 2013 by Petterik Wiggers / Panos Pictures / Felix Features.

In March 2007, it was reported by international media that a cargo plane (an Ilyushin Il-76), operated by Belarusian company TransAVIAexport, was shot down while departing Mogadishu International Airport in Somalia. Apparently, the plane’s left wing was struck by a missile fired by an aforementioned 9K38 Igla that had been sold by Russia to Eritrea but had somehow found its way into the hands of al-Shabaab. A similar arms deal with Somalia’s new government carries the same risks – arms could flow to the same terrorist organization they are intended to combat. Additionally, a ready supply of Russian arms could embolden the Somali authorities to over-extend in the fight against al-Shabaab. Some areas of southern Somalia remain under the control of the Islamist group, despite the efforts of Somali government forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). An overly ambitious strike against these areas could result in the defeat of Somali government forces and a land grab by al-Shabaab, imperiling the legitimacy of the new government among Somalis. Less likely, but still worthy of concern, Somali government forces could launch a disastrous offensive to annex the secessionist regions of Somaliland and Puntland.

As such, this request for Russian assistance is risky business. A preferable option would be to request an expanded scope for the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Somalia, which is responsible for the development of a professional Somali military force capable of not only combating al-Shabaab but also upholding the rule of law wherever these troops are deployed. Without an adequate investment in the troops and their skills, any arms provided will not be used effectively.

This entry was posted in Djibouti, English, Ethiopia, Paul Pryce, Russia, Security Policy, Somalia.

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