The dangerous waters of the eastern Mediterranean have once again brought Turkey under the spotlight. The succession of events in the quadrant stretching from the Aegean to the seas around Cyprus is still looking murky.
The Current Situation in the Eastern Mediterranean
Ankara has sent the survey ship Oruç Reis with an escort of military craft to explore the seabed. Greece reacted with a series of military maneuvers and opened an anti-Turkish blockade in Mare Nostrum with France as one of its leading partners. The challenge is leading to an increasing deployment of air-sea forces with the risk that the slightest spark could trigger a conflict whose boundaries and effects are hard to predict.
But what matters is to understand why this escalation has come about. Why are tensions rocking the Aegean and the Levant, and why are Greek, Turkish, French, Italian and American ships and UAE fighters scrambling to active duty stations?
The Blue Homeland Doctrine
To understand this, we have to start with Turkey, a country that has increased its outward thrust in recent years. It has decided to turn its gaze beyond its borders in all directions and enlarge its sphere of influence. First it adopted and exploited the “strategic depth” conceived by Ahmet Davutoglu. Now, however, with its thrust moving from the land towards the sea, this return of Turkey to the international theater has a name that echoes with increasing force: Mavi Vatan, or the Blue Homeland doctrine. We discussed it with Cem Gürdeniz, admiral of the Turkish Navy, the first to coin this term and promote it. Today Mavi Vatan is the symbol of Ankara’s Mediterranean strategy.
“Mavi Vatan rests on three pillars. The first pillar is the symbol of Turkey’s growing maritime claims in the Twenty First Century. Turkey had a maritime vision that has sadly been curtailed over the centuries. Ataturk sought to revitalize it, but after him no one really focused on developing a capable navy. We depend on the sea for resources, trade and the state’s very existence. The Turkish government and people have returned to this mindset in recent years, realising how much they need the sea. That is why this doctrine is a symbol.”
But this means moving from symbolism to practice, and from this point of view, the other two pillars are fundamental to understanding what Turkey wants. Gurdeniz continues his explanation.
“The second pillar of Mavi Vatan is a definition,” explains Gurdeniz. “It defines areas of maritime jurisdiction, meaning the territorial waters, the continental shelf and the EEZ. In this context Mavi Vatan is a defensive approach to protecting our areas of maritime jurisdiction, in particular against the Seville Map prepared for the EU and imposed on Turkey.”
This definition is strongly correlated to the third pillar, the doctrine. “To protect, safeguard and develop maritime rights and national interests, Mavi Vatan develops secondary doctrines such as the deployment of the navy, the development of our defense industry, the use of seismic research vessels and drilling rigs, the development of support bases for the national and foreign fleet and legal instruments and arguments for signing boundary agreements with other seaboard states.” The reference is to the memorandum with Libya of 27 November 2019. This is a point the admiral often returns to: the good neighbor policy. “The doctrine seeks to establish good relations with our neighbors based on an equal share of the rule of the sea. Mavi Vatan does not necessarily lead to conflicts. Rather it fosters good relations with other powers such as Egypt, Israel, Malta and Italy.”
What About the Current Tensions with Greece?
One question naturally arises at this point, especially concerning what is happening in the eastern Mediterranean with Athens.
IO: Admiral Gurdeniz, how do you think a doctrine like Mavi Vatan can coexist with the interests of other countries and international law?
“Today’s problem with the European Union and the United States is a problem of perception. For centuries Turkey has been seen as a land-based power. The main reason for what is happening now is that with Mavi Vatan this perception has changed. We have turned to the sea without the least intention of withdrawing. The main problem at present is the Seville Map. If we are deprived of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of sovereign waters by this map, with boundaries that strangle Turkey and debar it from the sea, then it becomes a problem. The Atlantic system enforces a system compelling Turkey to remain in Anatolia. This map prevents Turkey from reaching the oceans. It is intentionally designed to take Turkey out of its role in the Mediterranean and Mediterranean geopolitics. It is impossible for Turkey to accept the second version of the Treaty of Sèvres, especially now that energy resources are being discovered and the boundaries fail to authorize it.”
IO: These words, these concepts, are very reminiscent of some speeches by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I am a Kemalist. Mavi Vatan is a policy that protects the interests of the state and is absolutely foreign to neo-Ottoman views, expansionism and Islamism. Mavi Vatan is a defensive doctrine against the demands and impositions of the EU and the United States based on the Seville Map. It defends international rules, the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration with previous decisions on maritime boundary conflicts. Mavi Vatan is beyond politics, it has no direct connection with any political party. However, it does provide information about state policy,” Gurdenez stated.
We are beyond politics, therefore also beyond the State and beyond Turkey
“Turkey is not alone in the Mediterranean” explains Gurdeniz. “Turkey also represents the Turkish world: it represents the peoples from Kazakhstan to the Balkans who have no coasts. The Turkish Republic is the only country that can enable this world to be a maritime power and give these peoples an outlet to the sea and the rest of the world. We have to think about all these peoples and states. There is an area of interest, cooperation and coordination that stretches as far as the Persian Gulf, Aden and the whole of the Mediterranean to the oceans. Italy has aircraft carriers, for example, and they’re a crucial weapon because it means the navy protects its national economic and political interests. Italy coined the concept of an enlarged Mediterranean, expressing the urge to project itself beyond its coasts. Turkey has to extend its area of operation and in case of an emergency it needs to have operational bases abroad to operate from, such as Libya, the Republic of Northern Cyprus, Djibouti, Albania and Qatar.”
‘The Turkish Navy Has to Expand’
This is a concept that Admiral Gurdeniz stressed repeatedly.
“The Turkish Navy has to expand. This is a natural reaction to its growth as a regional power and as it makes the breakthrough. Turkey is growing as a member of the G20, with 83 million inhabitants and a major defence industry. A fundamental step that cannot be overlooked as neighbors like Greece and Cyprus seek to deprive Turkey of sovereignty and maritime rights. The world is changing, there are new poles and we are moving towards multi-polarity. China and Russia are changing the unipolar world based on the Pax Americana. Italy itself has signed an agreement with China for the Silk Road.”
IO: Speaking of Italy, Admiral how do you see relations between Italy and Turkey now or how they should be in future? Some recent episodes have revealed fault lines between the two countries but also strong synergies in certain areas
“In the case of Italy, it is possible for Turkey and Italy to be either partners or rivals. Geopolitically, Italy and Turkey could be rivals. They are two strongly maritime countries that have or want to have control of the Mediterranean or part of it. Italy has a double front, on the western and eastern Mediterranean, and occupies a very critical and special position, which is also its strength. France and Germany are pushing for an Italy positioned in a certain way, but the problem starts with the Atlantic system. Italy has a strong Atlantic culture but at the same time it also has a Eurasian thrust and could have interests other than those of the system headed by Washington. This unites it with Germany. Turkey had within it one school linked to Gülen, instigated by NATO and the Atlantic system. But part of the country is opposed to it, because the US military presence and US strategic policy are seen as problems. Turkey is as close to Eurasian politics as Italy appears to be, which is the only G8 power on the Silk Road and we have common interests in Libya and North Africa. This is something that France rejects and it is pressing for its own independent force in the Mediterranean, as has happened and is happening in Lebanon.”
IO: Participation in the “Eunomia” exercises with Greece indicates that Italy seems closer to the Western bloc. Although there was a Passex exercise with the Turkish Navy as well.
“As for the exercises, Turkey conducts them continually and it is a policy of balance. We shouldn’t be surprised by the exercises. We can conduct them with anyone and everyone performs them with different powers.”
IO: As for Greece, Eunomia and what is happening between Athens and Ankara, what do you, Cem Gurdeniz, think of it, as the creator of Mavi Vatan and the strategist of Turkish expansion at sea?
“The rift between Greece and Turkey is neither political nor legal: it is geopolitical. Greece acts as the ‘prosecutor’ of the Euro-Atlantic system, which Turkey sees as failing to respect the international system and the law of the sea. The Seville Map gives the whole continental shelf of the Aegean to Greece. Kastellorizo (the island at the centre of the current escalation ed.) takes 40,000 square kilometres out of the Turkish continental shelf despite having just 20 kilometres of coastline. The Anatolian peninsula has 1600 kilometres. So it is contrary to the reality posited by international law. It is a map dictated, handed down from above, and Turkey will never accept it.”
IO: Do you think it could be the prelude to war?
“I think that there will be no armed clashes because if Greece, with or without its EU and NATO partners, attacks Turkey, it would be the end of the Atlantic Alliance. And without Turkey there would be an acceleration of the new world order, with Ankara moving east. I think the world should persuade the Greeks to give up their unacceptable, unrealistic and irrational claims both in the Aegean and the rest of the Mediterranean. I repeat: if Greece threatens or carries out acts of war, there would be repercussions in the world order, not just the region.”
IO: Speaking of NATO in crisis, this escalation in the Aegean and the French dynamism bring to mind the words of Emmanuel Macron, who described the Alliance as in a state of “brain death”. This sounds true enough. What will happen between NATO and Turkey?
“NATO has exploited Turkey for the past 70 years. At that time we were the main bulwark against the Soviet push southward. Now the Cold War is over and Turkey has reconfigured a new geopolitics that does not fit into the Euro-Atlantic vision. And here we have the clash. They want Turkish troops to withdraw from Cyprus, they want Turkey to accept the Seville Map and to impose a Kurdish puppet state in the south with access to the sea. In the last phase they used the Gülenists to break Turkey’s will to pursue a new geopolitical vision. The coup of 15 July 2016 was the final blow, but they failed. The Gülenists were persecuted in Turkey but some escaped to America or Western countries where they found asylum and protection.”
IO: Yours is an important argument. But can Turkey, the new Turkey with its policy of Mavi Vatan, coexist with NATO? Can there still be a Turkish power within the Atlantic Alliance?
“NATO is in crisis at the moment due to what is happening in the Eastern Mediterranean and I don’t believe that the Turkish strategy can coexist for very long with the Atlantic Pact. The Mediterranean is passing from a pax americana to a pax sinica, created and installed by China. It is a very long process but it is clear that the pax americana, which came after the pax britannica, will not accept the inevitable change without a struggle. I hope this change comes about without bloodshed. But it is clear that these two pax systems are changing the Mediterranean or could change it in future.”
Gurdeniz, on this point, seems to have many certainties.
“Ties between NATO and Turkey will no longer be as close as before because the EU and NATO are diverging from Turkish national interests,” he explained. “The Euro-Atlantic system’s attitude to Turkey will have to change. New alliances will have to be forged. We must make new agreements and seek for new allies, for example with Russia, which is under siege, and with which we are making agreements in Syria and Libya. We could also recognize its sovereignty over Abkhazia if Moscow recognizes Northern Cyprus. There is a balance between our respective interests. If the EU and the US want to deprive Turkey of the resources it needs for its future, there will be no scope for a compromise that would force us to lose everything. The Americans and some NATO nations are allying themselves with the PKK and the YPG for an independent Kurdistan that is against Turkish interests. How can the land-based allies of a NATO member state seek to destabilize and fragment another ally?”