By Burak Akinci
ANKARA, Oct. 21 (Xinhua) -- Turkey was the first country to respond to Somalia's deadliest truck last week by airlifting wounded to Turkish hospitals and providing immediate medical assistance, reflecting the pivotal role of the war-torn nation for Ankara's strategy towards African countries.
Hours after the huge explosions that hit Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Oct. 14, killing over 350 and wounding hundreds of others, a Turkish air ambulance landed in the airport and carried 35 wounded to Ankara for free treatment.
Turkish Health Minister Salih Demircan and surgeons went to Somalia to coordinate relief efforts and offered 10 tons of medical supplies.
The iconic Istanbul bridge, linking mainland Asia and Europe, was light of the colors of the Somalia flag in the aftermath of the explosions while Somali people thanked Turkey's support with heartfelt messages on social media.
"Turkey is always the first to help us. They are our genuine brothers," told reporters Somalia's Minister for Information, Abdirahman Omar Osman.
The speed of Turkey's response to the terror attack won the hearts and minds of the Somali people and shows the important role played by this country in Turkey's ambitions in the African continent.
When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, it aimed to open the traditionally western-oriented NATO country to Africa, after being frustrated by failing to join the European Union, and to show and promote an image of Turkey as a leader of the Islamic world.
Located on an important trade route and the strategic Horn of Africa region, Somalia is key on Turkey's ambitions to upgrade its economic relations with African countries and invest in adopting a role of conflict settlement in this part of the globe.
The rapprochement also has a historic background: Somalia has close ties with the Ottoman Empire which used its military to protect the Muslim community..
Turkey, contrary to other international players, has no past colonial history, and once took also a leading role in brokering dialogue between Somalia and the autonomous region of Somaliland.
Just recently, Turkey has opened its first overseas military base on Africa, a large training facility in Somalia designed to train African soldiers against terrorism spread by movements like al-Shabaab, a branch of al-Qaida.
The base is staffed with 200 Turkish personnel which will be joined by some 10,000 Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops.
Turkey has spent 1 billion U.S. dollars in humanitarian aid after the 2011 Somali famine that left 250,000 people dead. Moreover, Turkey hosts nearly 15,000 Somali students in Turkish universities.
"Turkey will continue to be present on the ground (in Somalia) with its institutions to bring aid and assistance," Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said during a speech.
Erdogan remarked that Turkey was the "sole country to play its humanitarian role in regards to the massacre in Somalia," insisting on the "compatriot" attitude of his country on economically challenged nations.
Experts believe that Turkey's policy of "opening" towards Africa can be explained by its desire to become a soft power, assisting in peace building and development schemes that can prove to be a model for other countries.
Nearly 20 years ago, Turkey had 10 embassies in Africa, and now there are nearly 40 Turkish diplomatic missions. The trade volume with the sub Saharan part of the continent has reached some 17 billion dollars in 2016.
"By an integrated strategy, Turkey is teaching Somalia to stand on her own two feet and to ensure sustainable development," told Xinhua researcher Halil Ibrahim Alegoz from the Istanbul Ibn Haldun University.
This expert on African studies insists that the Somali model is a "success story" in Turkey's humanitarian diplomacy to acquire a position of soft power in this part of the world, mostly forgotten by the western public.
Alegoz argued that the religion factor, Turkey and Somalia being predominantly Muslim, is not the sine qua non of the Turkish interest, as Ankara is also assisting non-Muslim African countries such as Uganda.
"For Turkey, finding new trade partners was essential, and this drove her towards new markets in this vast continent," said this expert.
However, this move towards new markets and zones of influence is believed driving Turkey away from her traditional partners.
Beril Dedeoglu, a professor of international relations from the Istanbul Galatasaray University, doesn't agree.
"The debate about 'where Turkey belongs' is meaningless in today's world; we don't live under Cold War conditions where everybody had to pick a side and stick to it," she wrote in a column in Sabah daily.
She also insisted that the military assistance offered by Ankara in Somalia and in the Horn of Africa in general was "in total coordination with the United States and NATO."
"What Turkey is trying to do in Somalia now is to accomplish, as an American ally, what the U.S. couldn't manage until now. Turkey will assist Somalia to build a functioning national army capable of taking the fight against al-Shabaab terrorists," added Dedeoglu.
In accordance with Ankara's global expansion strategy, Turkey's national airline company Turkish Airlines made a major boost in its destinations in Africa.
The airline's planes flew to 14 cities in Africa in 2011; by the end of 2017, the company will operate 52 routes from Istanbul to Africa, linking firmly Turkey to this continent.