Russia and the Middle East: Diplomacy and Security

Should Russia Militarily Assist Somalia Against Al Shabaab?

June 19, 2016

On April 19, 2016, Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdirshad Ali Sharmake held a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. At that summit, Sharmake requested Russian support for his efforts to strengthen the Somali military’s ability to confront Al-Shabaab, an ISIS-allied terror organization based in East Africa. This request caused some Western analysts to speculate that Somalia could be a future theater of Russia’s anti-ISIS campaign.


While a pre-emptive strike against Al Shabaab is a highly risky endeavor that could result in blowback terror attacks on Russian soil, indirect Russian military assistance to the Somali government could be highly beneficial for regional security. It would also bolster Moscow’s international status as a leader in combatting terrorism. Despite these positives, the Somali government’s isolation from international arms markets, and Mogadishu’s close bilateral relations with Turkey remain serious obstacles to deeper Russian involvement in the Horn of Africa.  


How Military Assistance to Somalia Could Bolster Russia’s Security and International Status


While Syria has been the focal point of Russia’s anti-ISIS efforts in recent months, Russian policymakers have become increasingly vigilant about the threat emanating from Al Shabaab. In November 2015, Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Peter Ilichev expressed concern about Al Shabaab’s growing presence in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Al Shabaab’s coordination with Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, an Islamic extremist organization operating out of Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, makes the terror group an increasingly formidable opponent.


According to Ilichev, ongoing political instability in Somalia empowers Al Shabaab and makes its continued diffusion more likely. As Al Shabaab also poses a threat to Middle East security, through its operations in Yemen, Ilichev argued that the UN Security Council should work in tandem with the African Union to restrict Al Shabaab’s military reach and bolster Somalia’s security.


Lavrov’s recent meeting with Sharmake and May 30 Africa Day speech echoed the concerns and claims outlined by Ilichev. Lavrov expressed support for the idea of providing Russian military technology assistance to Somalia against Al Shabaab. He also urged African countries to coordinate on creating a regional peacekeeping force to contain the spread of Islamic terrorism.


Russia’s tightening relationships with African countries that are isolated from the West make Moscow an ideal candidate to assist Somalia against Al Shabaab. Growing US discontent with Somalia’s unwillingness to hold elections as scheduled has heightened Mogadishu’s dependency on Russian support.


Somalia’s trust in Russian security assistance was revealed during the 2010 anti-piracy mission to liberate Russia’s Moscow University oil tanker. Even though Russia’s actions resulted in the detention and subsequent deaths of 10 Somali pirates, Somalia’s ambassador to Moscow, Mohamed Handule, insisted that Russia’s anti-piracy response was appropriate. Handule even praised Kremlin military officials for preventing civilian casualties on the Russian oil tanker. 


Historical experiences also count in Russia’s favor. Somalia was a long-standing Soviet ally as it had a Marxist-Leninist government for much of the Cold War. But the USSR broke with Mogadishu in July 1977 after Somalia’s President Siad Barre invaded Ethiopia to recapture the disputed Ogaden territory. Even though the United States assisted Barre, Soviet forces actively supported Ethiopia, with the assistance of Cuba, South Yemen, North Korea and East Germany, and were successful in stemming Somali aggression.


This military success, combined with America’s dismal track record of military failure in the Horn of Africa ensures that Russia will be able to provide counter-terrorism assistance on its own terms.


As the US has no political will to intervene militarily in Somalia, the conflicting objectives that have plagued Russian and US counter-terrorism efforts in Syria will not be a problem in Somalia. If Russia can play a constructive role in ameliorating political violence in Somalia, Moscow’s international status and soft power in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East will grow tremendously. 


Potential Obstacles to Successful Russian Counter-Terrorism Assistance in Somalia


Despite the security and status benefits described above, two obstacles might prevent Russia from providing Somalia with meaningful counter-terrorism assistance in the short-to-medium term.


The first is Somalia’s isolation from the international arms market. Since 1992, Somalia has been subjected to an UN-sponsored arms embargo, due to fears that weapons provisions to Mogadishu will end up in the hands of militant warlords. Despite measures to temporarily lift the ban on arms shipments to the Somali regime, the embargo remains in effect until at least November 2016 and is strictly enforced.


A senior spokesman for Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation recently stated that Moscow would be open to arming Somalia in the event of the embargo being lifted. Such an outcome remains unlikely, however. Somalia has faced international criticism for the highly authoritarian nature of its regime (the upcoming elections allow only 13,750 people to participate with 135 clan elders holding ultimate sway) and has been described as the archetypical failed state.


Therefore, Russia’s scope for assistance to Somalia against Al Shabaab is limited. If Moscow is barred from shipping arms to Mogadishu, its ability to retaliate against Al Shabaab escalations will also be constrained, compounding the risks associated with intervention.


The second obstacle to durable Russian assistance to Somalia is Turkey’s close alliance with Mogadishu. Turkey under President Recep Erdogan has substantially escalated its diplomatic and economic investment outreach to Sub-Saharan Africa. In the process, Somalia has emerged as a particularly important ally for Ankara. Turkey has acted as a mediator between Somalia’s government and the disputed territory of Somaliland, and has sponsored extensive infrastructure projects and hospital constructions.


Russia’s recent re-establishment of full diplomatic relations with Somalia and appointment of Sergey Kuznetsov as ambassador has caused Moscow to express interest in the economic reconstruction of Somalia. Russian officials regard an improvement of Somalia’s dire economic situation, which has been plagued by political violence and malnutrition, as vital for the country’s security.


As relations between Russia and Turkey remain extremely tense, Erdogan could threaten to withdraw economic assistance to Somalia if Mogadishu engages too deeply with Russia on security cooperation. Such a scenario would likely lead to a humiliating Russian withdrawal, as Turkey remains a far more significant trade partner for Somalia than Russia. Therefore, in order for Russian counter-terrorism operations in Somalia to be successful, a normalization of relations with Turkey is necessary.


Increasing Russian counter-terrorism assistance to Somalia comes with considerable security and status benefits. In the short-term, however, these potential benefits are outweighed by the risks associated with intervention. But if an international consensus can be created on the need to cooperate with the Somali regime against Al Shabaab, and Russia-Turkey relations eventually thaw, Russia’s military assistance provisions to Somalia could play an instrumental role in restoring peace to the Horn of Africa. 

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