ISTANBUL - The recent ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir after decades in power is threatening a key Turkish strategic project on the Red Sea.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's close ties to Bashir lay at the heart of Ankara's goals of expanding its influence and challenging Saudi Arabia in the region, and all could be in jeopardy, analysts warn.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy hastily issued a denial that its redevelopment of Sudan's Suakin Island had been canceled by a transitional military council currently running the country.
Suakin, located in the Red Sea close to Saudi Arabia, was once a key naval base of Turkey's former Ottoman empire.
In 2017, Bashir and Erdogan agreed Turkey would redevelop the island, including a port and dock for civilian and military use.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan's ruling military council, reaffirmed control of Suakin, describing it as an "inseparable part of Sudan." Burhan appeared to rule out any Turkish military use of the island.
"Its value cannot be measured with a material price. Its history cannot be sold," he said. "We emphasize that we care about the sovereignty of our territories. We will not accept the presence of a foreign military existence in Sudan."
While Turkey has never formally announced plans to build a naval base, pro-government media frequently report Suakin is a key part of Ankara's policy of expanding military influence across the region and serving its expanding navy.
Turkey already has established bases in nearby Qatar and Somalia.
"This [Suakin] is concerning Turkey's wider strategic and security interests," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "They just want a military base there [in the region], and Sudan was providing that opportunity.
"But now, the cards are mixed up [with Bashir's removal], and it will be difficult [to build a base on Suakin]," he said. "It [Suakin base] was definitely for Turkey and a big step forward to get a stronger position in Africa. But now, it will probably not be so. There is a big disappointment on the Turkish side, and the [Turkish] president's statements prove that."
Erdogan criticized the overthrow of what he described as the "democratically elected" Bashir; however, Bashir said Bashir's removal "was aimed at Turkey."
Pro-Turkish government media weighed in, with the Islamist Yeni Akit running the headline "Zionist Coup," while Yeni Safak pointed at Riyadh, claiming Sudan's new ruling military council was backed by Saudi Arabia.
Turkish, Saudi tensions
Bilateral tensions between Ankara and Riyadh are on the rise, exacerbated by a rivalry between Erdogan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, analysts say.
Relations hit rock bottom following last year's murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate. Khashoggi was reportedly close to Erdogan.
Ankara's development of Suakin should be viewed through a prism of escalating Saudi-Turkish regional rivalry, said Emre Caliskan of Oxford University's international relations department.
"Turkey thinks that it's positive for Turkish influence to have this island," Caliskan said. "The Turkish opening in Sudan may secure political goals, political gains for Turkey."
Caliskan argues that it's not clear whether Ankara would follow through and build a major naval base on Suakin, but says the threat of a Turkish base near Saudi shores may be enough diplomatic leverage to unnerve Riyadh.
"Turkey wants to control the area [Red Sea]. This is a kind of reaction to Saudi Arabia," he said. "Turkey sees the growing influence of Saudi Arabia or groups supported by the Saudis in Turkey's back yard. So, Turkey is giving a reaction in the Red Sea area — 'I am going to be an influence in your back yard, as long as you are going to be an influence in my back yard.'"
Ankara accuses Riyadh of supporting rival groups in Syria's civil war, including Kurdish forces that Ankara says have links to an insurgency inside Turkey.
'Bloc against Turkey'
Bagci warns that Erdogan's loss of his close ally, Bashir, is a major blow to Turkish foreign policy.
"We have now Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, Israel and Egypt as a bloc against Turkey," Bagci said. "Only Qatar is on Turkey's side and is not enough to play a much bigger role in the Middle East.
"Turkey loses, at the moment, influence in political, economic and security terms. This is not good for Turkish foreign policy as the rivalry is increasing with Saudi Arabia."
In an apparent effort toward damage control, Ankara appears to be seeking to reach out to Khartoum.
"The demands of the Sudanese people are our demands," said Omer Celik, head of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). "Sudan is a friendly and brotherly country. Our hope is that the Sudanese people will achieve their democratic aspirations and that Sudan will never experience an internal conflict."
Some analysts warn, however, that given Ankara's past support of Bashir, any Turkish diplomatic efforts to curry favor with Khartoum will be a struggle, especially given Riyadh's likely opposition.