The U.S. Fifth Fleet announced April 24 that it will transfer command of U.S.-dominated counter-piracy operation Combined Task Force 151 to the Turkish navy on May 3. The United States’ vote of confidence in Turkey on the piracy issue is emblematic of a growing strategic bond between Washington and Ankara that is already making Turkey’s neighbors nervous. The move also was likely meant to calm Turkey’s reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments on the killings of Armenians in 1915.
The Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet announced April 24 that the U.S. Navy will transfer command of U.S.-dominated counter-piracy operation known as Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 to the Turkish navy in a ceremony attended by U.S. Rear Adm. Michelle Howard and Turkish Rear Adm. Caner Bener at Naval Support Activity Bahrain on May 3.
Launched Jan. 8, CTF 151 is a U.S.-initiated anti-piracy mission made up of ships from the U.S., Turkish, Singaporean, Danish and British navies. The task force’s mission is to deter piracy off of the Somali coast, though the frequency of pirate attacks in recent months has revealed the limitations of its success. Members of the task force have deterred individual attacks (including a joint Turkish-Danish intervention that prevented a pirate attack on a Vietnamese-flagged commercial vessel March 15), but successful pirate attacks have risen drastically recently due to changing tactics and operating patterns on the part of the pirates.
U.S. ships will still be commanded by their crews and governed by U.S. standard operating procedures. But Turkey will coordinate their deployment along with the other dozen or so ships in the task force. CTF 151 operates in a defensive posture, meaning it maintains a strong naval presence in order to deter pirates from attempting attacks in the first place. In addition, the task force will coordinate to ensure a rapid response to attacks that do occur. The task force was not designed to aggressively pursue pirates in an offensive nature — especially ashore in the lawless Puntland region of Somalia. This defensive operational posture is not expected to shift once Turkey takes over.
The Turks are already a militarily competent member of NATO, and are experienced with international operations under that aegis, but taking command of CTF 151 will also serve as a valuable operational experience for Turkey in terms of command and control and coordinating an international maritime operation. That said, the United States will still play a large role in commanding this task force. The single Turkish ship that has been deployed is the TGC Giresun (F-491), an old Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, is unlikely to have the capacity for command and control of an international squadron of this size, meaning that the United States will be in a position to support and advise the Turkish commander and perhaps even provide the facilities for the coordination.
At the same time, the United States is showcasing Turkey’s navy at a critical geopolitical juncture. Washington already sees that Turkey is a resurgent regional power whose influence spans the Middle East, the south Caucasus, the Balkans and Central Asia. With the United States trying to wrap up a war in Iraq, contain the Iranians, fight a war in Afghanistan and block a Russian resurgence throughout Eurasia, it could find a lot of use for a strategic ally like Turkey. So, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Turkey in early April to make clear that Washington will be the primary supporter of Turkey’s rise.
The U.S. transfer of command of the CTF 151 to the Turkish navy thus carries a great deal of symbolic weight. This is about the United States sharing responsibility with a strategic ally and putting that cooperation on display for U.S. allies and adversaries to ponder. Adversaries like Iran, for example, are already expressing their concern over this shift. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on April 23 warned against meddling in Somalia and called for a more inclusive dialogue to stabilize the region. On a tactical level, Iran could be concerned that an increased foreign naval presence (regardless of its mission) in the Gulf of Aden could endanger one of its arms supply routes to Hamas in Gaza. Such routes allegedly run from Iran by sea around the Gulf of Aden, hit land in Yemen, Somalia and occasionally Eritrea, run into Sudan and then cross into the Egyptian Sinai peninsula to reach Gaza. On a strategic level, Iran is concerned that the Turks will block its intention to fill a vacuum in Iraq as the United States withdraws from the region.
On a bilateral level, the shift in naval command will also be critical in U.S. attempts to rebuild trust with the Turkish General Staff. The Turkish military considers itself to be the secular guard of the Ataturk-founded Turkish state and feels that its prowess has been circumscribed in recent years by the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). Moreover, the Turkish General Staff holds Washington partly responsible for facilitating the AKP’s rise. The United States needs the support of the Turkish General Staff in dealing with its array of foreign policy issues; by handing over responsibility of the piracy issue to the Turkish navy, Washington likely hopes to mend some of these fissures.
It is also unlikely a coincidence that this statement came out the same day that Obama delivered a much-anticipated statement on the anniversary of the 1915 killings of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire, which Armenia claims as genocide but Turkey vehemently denies. Obama avoided the word “genocide,” as STRATFOR expected, but he still referred to the events as “one of the great atrocities of the 20th century.” This language is not as tame as Turkey likely would have wished, but this announcement on transferring naval command of the CTF 151 to Turkey was likely intended to ease any tensions that may result.