Turkish admiral's resignation exposes a new showdown in Ankara

Few developments in Turkey have raised as much attention recently - both at home and abroad - as the resignation of Cihat Yaycı, following his removal by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the key post as active duty rear admiral and the naval chief of staff.

Yaycı's move sparked a series of comments and speculations about what it 'really' signifies and what consequences it will trigger. In short, it is an event which is larger than it appears to be.

Yaycı is the chief architect of the so-called ''Blue Homeland'' naval expansion doctrine, and the author of several books which are regarded as reference texts for Turkey's post-putsch irredentism in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

In the book “The Demands of Greece: The Problems in the Aegean with Questions and Answers,” Yaycı argues that Turkey has the right to territorial claims over more than 150 rocks and tiny islets - belonging to Greece - off Turkey's shoreline.

In another book “The Struggle to Share the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey,” he developed the doctrine - titled “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) - which lays claim over a large naval zone between Turkish and Libyan waters, at the expense of Crete and Cyprus. 

As a matter of fact, the term ''Blue Homeland'' was coined by a retired admiral, Cem Gürdeniz, while he was imprisoned due to alleged links to ''Ergenekon'' - a supposed clandestine deep state network that was accused of aiming to topple the elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The defendants were later acquitted.

Yaycı's popularity is not without reason. His drive to realise the naval doctrine led last autumn to a controversial maritime deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord, which considerably escalated tension between Athens and Ankara. Turkish military presence in Libya is a fact, and the Aegean islands show signs of becoming powder kegs.

So, what are we to make of Yaycı's removal and subsequent resignation? Wild speculation and patchy comments have helped display only what was on the surface. A rift over military procurement was mentioned as a reason, but a few believe that. Ankara, especially the military, is far too complicated for minimalistic analysis.

There are strong undercurrents, in the context of the Yaycı affair, which point to an ongoing, unresolved power struggle. This high-rank officer is a prominent member of the 'nationalist' flank of the state, along with the (mostly retired) officers, which are also identified as ''Eurasianists''.  

They emerged as the victors from the intra-army battle which was staged during the attempted coup in mid-July 2016. As the pro-American and pro-NATO military flanks, some of whom were Gülenists, were brutally cleansed from the top ranks, Eurasianists cemented an alliance with Erdoğan and his staunch allies, Defence Minister (former Top General) Hulusi Akar and current Chief of Staff Yaşar Güler.

The alliance, however, was tactical, rather than strategic - leaving the way open for further confrontation between the Islamists and secular hard-line nationalists. Entrenched in their positions, both camps were determined to test each other's weaknesses, in order to take steps to gain more territory within the administration, the army and overall influence.

For the Erdoğan camp, the development and implementation of ''Blue Homeland'' was utterly favourable, both regionally and for domestic use.

But the nationalist-Euroasianist camp does not seem to have grasped Erdoğan’s most elemental feature; a Machiavellian operator, Turkey's president is the master of the ''use, abuse, and throw away'' style.

As a chameleon focused on political survival and holding power, the question for Erdoğan was how long he would keep these secular, hard-liner, anti-American allies at his side. Erdoğan is a tactical power-sharer, but when he sees a flank in his loose coalition - or in this case his not-so-sincere allies - attempting to gain influence and dominance, he will not tolerate it.

Akar is, and will remain key, in this game going forward. So far he has proven to be loyal, given also that he has been granted some autonomy to design the top echelons of the army, in accordance with his boss in the palace. Akar will be utterly important should Erdoğan continue to keep his options open for improved relations with U.S. President Donald Trump and the Pentagon. Turk’s president has no other choice but to place all his eggs in Trump's basket, betting on his victory in the U.S. elections.

Therefore is it crucial that Akar does not leave any unforeseen moves by military officers to chance. Yaycı's removal is to be seen in this context, that it is a warning to the nationalist flank to 'know its place'.

There has been some wild speculation that Yaycı's removal was pointing to a halt in Turkey's expansionist moves in the Eastern Mediterranean. It may prove to be an illusion. Drilling off the coast of Cyprus, escalation over Aegean islands, and the incursion into Libya will continue.

The Yaycı-Gürdeniz flank was very profitable for Erdoğan, because they offered their know-how over what they call ''Blue Homeland'' to him. For Erdoğan, the doctrine not only offered chances for lowering energy-dependency, but, more importantly, to export his well-known global jihadism by establishing a foothold in Libya - confronting Egypt and Tunisia, but also the southern line of the European Union.

Lately, the Turkish president has rather successfully played on NATO's growing concerns over Russian’s interests in Libya, trying to draw the alliance closer in order to legitimise Turkey’s military operations - conducted by jihadist mercenaries - in the country.

As the Gülen movement was once upon a time, the engagement of the nationalist-Eurasianist officers in regional issues has been very helpful for Erdoğan. So, time will only tell whether the Yaycı-Gürdeniz flank will fall into the same ''useful idiots' category as the Gülenists once were.

A fresh interview with Gürdeniz, by OdaTv, shows all the signs that he understands what is at stake, that his flank may come to lose the battle against Erdoğan-Akar line. He was not at all happy as he mentioned that he is aware of the overtures Erdoğan and Akar have made recently vis-a-vis Washington.

In a nutshell, the Yaycı affair is yet another symptom of an immense, cunning power struggle which goes on in Ankara.

With Gülenists and pro-NATO military echelons out, and Turkey still stuck between the United States and Russia, this was an inevitable development, that had to come sooner or later. It will be a nasty fight, and it may already be time to place bets.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.