Turkey’s expanding naval horizons

Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland – Turkey’s doctrine claiming extensive maritime jurisdiction in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas – is back in the news with an agreement that Libya’s Tripoli government and its main backers in Ankara announced last week.

The two governments concluded an agreement on Nov. 28 on their respective sea borders that sees the two countries as maritime neighbours, drawing Turkey’s marine boundaries across an area that discounts maritime claims of Greek islands, including Crete.

Ironically, the deal concerns areas that the internationally recognised Tripoli government does not currently control, since it has lost the east of the country to the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar.

Nevertheless, the agreement prompted vehement reactions from Greece, Cyprus and also Egypt, and may be raised by Athens in the NATO summit in London this week.

The agreement with Libya is a product of Turkey’s Mavi Vatan doctrine. As far as its Mediterranean portion is concerned, it refers to a huge sea area across half of the eastern Mediterranean that ignores the continental shelves of the islands of Cyprus, and the Greek islands of Rhodes, Kastellorizo, Karpathos, Kassos and the eastern section of Crete.

The Mavi Vatan doctrine was first laid out in June 2006 by Admiral Ramazan Cem Gürdeniz during a symposium at the Turkish Naval Forces Command Centre.

A classic anti-Western and ultranationalist, Gürdeniz is obsessed with Turkey’s maritime supremacy in areas marked out by Mavi Vatan and eventually beyond.

Turkey’s effort to project power in the Gulf and Red Sea with military bases in Qatar and Somali, and a planned naval base on Sudan’s Suakin Island are the next steps in this doctrine.

For now, Gürdeniz’s vision of Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction includes extensive areas of the Black, Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

“The surface of this homeland, its water body, its seabed and the landmass under the seabed are ours. The size of this homeland is equal to half of our landmass,” he said. Indeed, the areas in question correspond to some 462,000 square kilometres.

Gürdeniz and adherents of the Mavi Vatan doctrine consider the present status quo as a “second Treaty of Sèvres,” referring to the treaty dividing Turkey among colonial powers which was imposed on the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War One and cancelled and superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne after Turkey’s successful independence war.

For the now-retired admiral, the perpetrators of this “second Treaty of Sèvres” are Greece and, more recently Cyprus, both of which have competing claims to what Gürdeniz sees as Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction.

Gürdeniz’s ideas have been developed in a 528-page book, “Writings about Blue Homeland”, as well as his regular column in the left-wing ultranationalist Aydınlık newspaper. He also heads a research centre, the KU Maritime Forum, at the highly respected Koç University.

Speaking at a round table organised by Turkish Heritage Organisation in the United States in May, Gürdeniz said there were there are three vital security dimensions to Turkish geopolitics in the Mediterranean: “Greek/EU challenges over Turkish maritime jurisdiction areas, the potentiality of an independent Kurdistan with free access to the Mediterranean, and the future of north Cyprus with geopolitical implications for Turkey, especially on guarantee rights”.

At the end of February, Turkish naval forces began a military exercise code-named for the first time “Mavi Vatan” in these areas and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar also mentioned Mavi Vatan for the first time in an address to mark Victory Day on Aug. 30 this year. More recently, in early September, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visiting the University of National Defence, created after the attempted coup d’état of July 2016, gave a speech in front of the map of the Mavi Vatan.

Gürdeniz criticises what he calls the republican elite for being too liberal towards Greece and Cyprus as they failed to respond adequately to what he calls faits accomplis from the 1930s onwards. He also accuses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of being too soft on the issue.

His magic formula consists of closing deals by force and that fits perfectly with Erdoğan’s coercive foreign policy. Clear examples of this are Turkey’s drilling for hydrocarbons within Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, the almost daily violation of Greek airspace and now the Libya deal.

It is no exaggeration to say that Turkey’s maritime policy is now being “navigated” by informal, but very influential clusters of individuals, headed by the likes of Gürdeniz.

Turkey’s neighbours and its NATO allies, starting with Greece, will be compelled to cope with this highly perilous style of foreign relations in the months and years to come.


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