Will Turkey’s bold maritime advances bring rewards or war?

The sabre-rattling has begun again in the Aegean Sea, as Turkey continues to push the envelope in terms of territorial ambitions, refugee pressures, and aggressive, possibly illegal, attempts to drill for oil and natural gas. 

Last week, after Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos suggested armed confrontation was possible, his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar warned in a television interview: “I do not think Greece would want to go to war with Turkey.”

Greece is incensed by several perceived Turkish offences, from Ankara’s sending thousands of refugees to the Greek border earlier this year to regular confrontations in the Aegean Sea and Turkish warplanes’ violations of Greek airspace.

This is in addition to Turkey sending several ships to drill in waters claimed by Cyprus and signing a maritime borders agreement with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that essentially erases the Greek island of Crete off the map.

“This definitely is a far more aggressive stroke than anything we’ve seen in recent years,” Ryan Gingeras, professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, told Ahval in a podcast, referring to the maritime borders deal.

Gingeras said Greek-Turkish relations had probably not been this strained since the late 1990s, when there were whispers of war over disputed Aegean islands.

“It’s certainly quite bad. The question is, beyond rhetoric what can Greece do to halt this?” said Gingeras. “It’s clear that Turkey is quite confident it can be this aggressive knowing it’s not going to necessarily pay any direct cost, and so far Ankara has turned out to be right.’

Last week the Turkish navy and air force held exercises off the Libyan coast, underscoring Turkey’s plan to fulfil its maritime borders deal and start drilling off the coast of Libya in the next few months, which Athens sees as a new provocation.

“Clearly Ankara is using this agreement as the thing that will validate their exploratory efforts in matters of law,” said Gingeras. “Maybe they don’t attain the full extent of their rights, but having staked such an early claim, anything they cede in terms of their overall territorial interests, it would still count as a win.”

Gingeras saw Turkey’s increased aggressiveness in the eastern Mediterranean as in line with a new foreign policy approach called Blue Homeland, which lays out Turkish dominion over the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean and Black seas. This approach also incorporates the idea that the West, and the United States in particular, is aligned with Greece in seeking to curb Turkey’s ambitions in the region.

The architect of Blue Homeland is retired naval officer Cem Gürdeniz, who was arrested in 2011 as part of the military coup plot trial known as Sledgehammer, which was key to the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government’s effort to end military tutelage in Turkey.

Gürdeniz was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was acquitted and released in 2015. Following the failed coup a year later, Gürdeniz emerged as a key nationalist and anti-Western voice in Turkish media just as the government began promoting a more nationalist vision in line with that of its parliamentary partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Gingeras said that many former military officers aligned with the Blue Homeland policy share an anti-Western view, blaming a great many of Turkey’s ills on a so-called Atlantic Front.

“These individuals who have taken on this concept often do so with an express desire to counter, as Gürdeniz puts it, American imperialism,” said Gingeras, author of several books, including most recently “Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Atatürk”.

As part of this effort, Gürdeniz urges Turkey to build deeper ties with Russia and China, which may explain Ankara’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems last year despite U.S. and NATO protestations.

Turkey and Russia support opposing sides in the Libyan civil war, yet Turkey’s tentative shift toward Russia - with the recently launched TurkStream pipeline, a still-holding ceasefire and successful joint patrols in Syria’s Idlib province, and the S-400 deal - along with its eastern Mediterranean aggressions, could be seen as part of an anti-Western Blue Homeland approach.

“The policy is a pretty dramatic shift in the sense that it signals formally a much more aggressive, much more maximalist approach to maritime issues,” said Gingeras, adding that it was not altogether new, as Turkey often embraced a combative posture, at least toward Greece. “It’s clearly also a matter of branding and it’s very on-message in terms of its borders, defence, national interests.”

All the more surprising, then, that the United States and the European Union have done so little to counter Turkey’s moves in the Aegean or the eastern Mediterranean, or its military interventions in Libya or Syria’s Idlib province, where some 2 million displaced people have been living in ad hoc camps along Turkey’s border.

Vit Novotny, migration expert at the Wilfriend Martens Centre for European Studies, had hoped that the European Union might help create a no-fly zone over Idlib and carve out a United Nations-approved safe zone, possibly with European boots on the ground.

“Any military action, unfortunately, I think seems to be out of the question, even a no-fly zone, which would not require boots on the ground, simply because the Europeans have an aversion to hard power,” he told Ahval in a podcast

He saw Turkish aggressions, such as brinkmanship on the high seas and allowing migrants to stream toward Europe, continuing in the absence of a significant European response.

“Without more active involvement of the EU in Turkey, in Syria, in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, we’re going to see this continue,” said Novotny.

European powers have started dipping their toes in the water. Last month Greece, Cyprus and France, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, issued a joint statement denouncing Turkey’s aggressions in the eastern Mediterranean. France this week called for a NATO meeting to discuss Turkey’s aggressive involvement in Libya.

Gingeras said the alliances and voices that had begun to emerge to confront Turkish aggressions had made very little impact. “There’s not really been any clear muscle behind this,” he said.

Now it might be too little too late. Thanks in part to Turkish support, the GNA has made great advancements in recent weeks and the war in Libya appears to be nearing a conclusion. The U.N. said last week that new ceasefire talks had begun.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister and minister of treasure and finance met with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, aiming to ensure that, after the war, Turkish firms return to resume their work on some $25 billion in Libyan contracts and the maritime borders deal is secure.

Anything resembling a victory for the GNA will deliver these rewards, and most likely embolden Turkey to continue and extend its aggressive Blue Homeland approach, potentially bringing these two combative neighbours to the brink of war.