In September 2019, the Turkish Presidency’s official website published a photo of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, giving a speech before the Military School’s students with a map in the background titled “Blue Homeland”, in Turkey “MAVI VATAN”.
The map shows the areas which Turkey considers as territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea.
The map indicates that Turkey is entitled to use all the maritime resources in this area, that is half the land area of Turkey. The Blue Homeland map includes a number of islands disputed over with Greece in the Aegean Sea, as well as a large area of the eastern Mediterranean coasts extending to the eastern shore of Greece’s Crete island.
Considering the geopolitical dimension of Turkey’s maritime location in general, Turkey is usually described in the political geography literature as a “strait state” due its control over the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles Strait, which together form a waterway from Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and South Europe through the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea.
Here is where Turkey’s strategic significance for NATO lies, leading NATO to include Turkey and Greece to the alliance in 1952 despite their mutual animosity. However, this position usually left Turkey captive to the oscillation between heading East towards Russia and West towards the Atlantic.
Blue Homeland Strategy: what does it mean? When did it appear?
Military expert Cem Gurdeniz attributes to himself coining this term, where he announced it in 2006 in a speech he gave as, then, the Head of the Strategic Planning Department in the Turkish Naval Forces Headquarters. By this term, he meant the maritime areas that must be under Turkish sovereignty, including “Turkish Economic Areas” in the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea. That is 200 maritime miles from Turkish mainland (around 370 km2) in all directions. However, such attitudes disregard the water demands of other Mediterranean states.
Gurdeniz thinks that the Turkish Navy objectives boils down to cutting the way before a Kurdi state having an access to the Mediterranean, maximizing Turkey’s maritime territory in the Mediterranean in general, and ensuring the future of Northern Cyprus (Cyprus has joined the European Union, but its northern part, separated from it, remains loyal to Turkey with no international recognition by any other country in the world).
After his retirement, Gurdeniz used this term as a title to his daily articles in a Turkish newspaper. Until then, Turkey was following the “Zero Problems” policy with all regional and international parties. Turkey hasn’t officially adopted the “Blue Homeland” doctrine because it preferred to stay in the alliance system of the Western parties, and not to go far in its dispute with Greece. The Turkish Navy’s strategy issued in 2015 did not refer to the “Blue Homeland” doctrine at all.
However, in 2016, a transformation has occurred after a failed coup attempt, in which a number of army leaders and elements participated. This was externally accompanied by deepening Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria, and by Turkey purchasing Russian S-400 air defense system.
In addition, a number of Mediterranean countries, including Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, signed treaties demarcating their maritime boundaries and defining their economic areas as a step towards making use of the gas wealth in the Mediterranean. Such developments have brought back to the surface old disputes between Turkey and Greece.
Finally, in November 2019, Turkey announced its desire to achieve the Blue Homeland strategy in international forums, with its UN Delegate demanding the right to claim the economic areas of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean according to the maps of the “Blue Homeland” doctrine.
This was a step within the Turkish endeavors to secure power resources, in light of the fact that Turkey imports 95% of its total needs of power in any possible way, at a cost of USD 50 Billions, and with Turkey only supposed to have an area of 12 marine miles -with no power resources- according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, issued by the United Nations in 1982, and was not signed by Turkey.
The Turkish maritime strategy is seeking to control the gas areas and to maximize regional influence, through two main levels: the first is the level of the three seas (Aegean, Mediterranean, Black), and the second includes the Red Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf. Such a context explains why Turkey has made military bases in Somalia and Qatar.
How lawful is the Turkish Blue Homeland strategy?
Turkey went to moving the Blue Homeland strategy from the area of media publicity to reality, using multiple tools in its endeavor, military, legal, political, and economic, as follows:
- In the military aspect, Turkey works on maximizing the fighting capacities of its naval forces. In February 2019, Turkey launched the largest naval maneuvers in the history of the Turkish Army, titled “Blue Homeland”. The maneuvers included trainings with frigates, military ships, and submarines, in the three seas, with more than 103 naval ships participating.It aim was testing the readiness of the bases and centers of operations of the Naval Command in the Turkish territorial waters. The maneuvers, arranged according to NATO standards, also included landing operations and launching missiles. Qatar, Britain, Italy, and Germany participated in the maneuvers.
The Turkish Navy currently adopts a project that aims at strengthening their military capacity through purchasing tens of new ships and aircrafts, targeting to possess 140 ships, more than 60 aircrafts, and thousands of marines.
In this context, the Turkish Navy benefits from Milgem project which includes cooperation with Germany through adding six German submarines to the ten submarines currently in possession of the Turkish Navy, by 2027.
Milgem project’s ambition extends to having a Turkish aircraft carrier in service in the next year. It’s also noteworthy to mention that the Turkish Navy has acquired field experience as a result of its illegitimate interference in Syria and Libya, in addition to its operations in the Mediterranean Shield project with NATO states.
Besides developing the Turkish Navy, Turkey seeks to maximize its military influence in the airfield. In December 2019, AFP announced that Turkish fighter drone Bayraktar-TB2 arrived at Turkish Cyprus. Some Turkish newspapers leaked news about the desire of the Turkish Ministry of Defense to have a military base in Turkish Cyprus. In April 2020, Greece’s General Staff of National Defense accused Turkish aircrafts of violating their airfield at the mid and south of the Aegean Sea; and in January 2020, they accused Turkey of violating their airfield 120 times on 15 January.
Also, Turkish frigates moved to the Libyan shores to support militias fighting under Fayez Al Siraj’s government.
- From the legal perspective, Turkey tried to improve its legal situation regarding the demarcation of the international boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. In November 2019, Turkey announced reaching an agreement with the Libyan Fayez Al Siraj’s government on demarcation of boundaries that divides the maritime area in the Mediterranean between the two countries to two economic areas of 200 maritime miles from its shores, based on the principle of the continental shelf.Turkey deliberately ignored the boundary claims of Greece and Cyprus, as well as the boundary agreements between Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece. The Turkish demarcation cuts the way before the passage of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline, a project to transfer gas from Israel to the European lands, because it passes in a maritime area claimed by Ankara.
Turkey goes beyond the military and legal aspects, and seeks to execute its strategy through economic and political tools too. It tried to legitimize its political alliance with the Libyan Fayez Al Siraj’s government to ensure the survival of its strategy by signing an agreement for political and security cooperation. Turkey has also sought to extend its influence to Algeria and Tunisia.
In application of the accomplished fact policy, Turkey extended its operations to explore power resources, and used “Al-Fatih” ship to explore gas in the economic area supposed to belong to Greek Cyprus, which also accused Turkey of using “Yafuz” ship too to explore at the vicinity of its economic area.
In January 2020, Turkey has done explorations at one of the areas of the Turkish Cyprus’s government, which is not recognized internationally. The European Union condemned such a step in May 2020.
While in June 2020, the Turkish government announced its intentions to start exploration works in the Libyan economic area according to agreements with Al Siraj’s government.
The Turkish president did not miss the chance to farewell the Turkish exploration ship, Al Fatih, in May 2020, before the ship heads towards the Turkish economic waters in the Black Sea. Such a gesture corresponded with the memory of Sultan Mohammed Al Fatih’s conquest of the city of Constantinople.
Is there a relationship between the Blue Homeland strategy and the developments of Turkish politics?
It was not a coincidence that the Blue Homeland strategy rises to the forefront of Turkish official defense politics after the 2016 coup, and with the national economy regressing. The strategy speaks to the nationalist Turkish army leaders, with their expansive dreams and their rejection to the boundary reality imposed by the treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
These groups think that the Turkish alliance with the Western forces has weakened the independency of the Turkish army, and they instead prefer the rapprochement with Russia, because they are convinced that there are western attitudes to strategically seclude Turkey in the area of eastern Mediterranean.
Gurdeniz, a former military leader and a leftist, was brought under the spot in the media along with such transformation, and following his release from jail in 2015 after being detained with tens of other officers in the period when the influence of Gulen’s movement on the Turkish army increased. Gurdeniz was facing an 18-year sentence, from which he did only four years.
The rise of the Blue Homeland strategy to the official forefront can be linked to the appointment of Admiral Jihad Yayci as a chief of staff of the Turkish navy. Yayci previously challenged the legitimacy of Greece’s sovereignty over 23 islands in the Aegean Sea in a book authored by him and titled “The Demands of Greece”.
Yayci is one the leaders promoted after deposing previous leaders following the failed coup, within a plan by the Turkish president to remove the Islamic leaders who are suspected to be loyal to Fethullah Gulen’s movement which opposes Erdogan, and replacing them with secular leaders who are against the West.
He played a role in this, and he is said to have reported five thousand military persons and six thousand civilians of the organization.
He had a strong influence inside the Turkish army since then, in a way that allowed him to be the architect of the above-mentioned boundary agreement with Libya.
But, in May 2020, Yayci was suddenly removed from the General Staff of the Turkish navy and demoted after giving statements that suggest the creation of a Turkish economic area with Israel within the efforts to strengthen the Turkish influence in the eastern Mediterranean, which were rejected by the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister.
Yayci resigned from the army as a reaction to such measures, although some reports say that his removal occurred in the context of a competition between him and the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, who also played a key role in aborting the 2016 coup when he was the Chief of Staff of the Turkish army.
In October 2018, the Turkish president opened a mosque that carries the name of Akar in one of the Turkish areas as an honor to the current Minister of Defense.
Such developments were preceded by news published by many media outlets expecting a military coup to happen soon. Military expert Gurdeniz, the main theorist of the strategy, has called for readiness, just days before Yayci’s removal, to escalations to be taken by Greece in response to the Turkish support to Al Siraj government, suggesting that the Turkish military takes positions at west Crete and deploys a small marine squadron in Albania.
Gurdeniz has also linked the rise of influence of liberals and Gulen’s movement in Turkey to the removal of Yayci, expecting, in an article by him on 2 June, that the Blue Homeland strategy will be withdrawn in response to American pressures.
This, according to Gurdeniz, will be in the course of a package of points which will include reaching a resolution with Greece, a federal solution to the Cyprus problem, and cancelling the Russian air defense systems.
He cited some American moves in Greece and Cyprus, such as a statement by the American Ambassador in Athens, on 27 May 2020, that the United States does not recognize the Libyan-Turkish agreement, where the Ambassador has also expressed worry over Turkey’s explorations at the vicinity of the Cyprus lands.
The American Ambassador emphasized that his country will not allow two NATO members to get involved in provocative moves that creates an armed conflict. After this statement, the United States sent eleven B1 aircrafts to the Black Sea, joined by Ukrainian and Turkish aircrafts for fuel provision. However, Turkey has declared that they are not going to cancel S-400 air defense program.
It could be noted that concern to the Blue Homeland strategy comes in a time when the Turkish economy suffers. There are increased expectations that Turkey will go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan, due to the impacts of the coronavirus. The Fund expects that the Turkish gross domestic product will decrease at a percentage of 5% during 2020.
Turkey has been targeting growth rates at the same percentage approximately. It is also likely that the drop of tourism will negatively impact Turkey’s returns in foreign currency, damaging the value of the Turkish Lira, which has already dropped at about 15% against the US dollar since the start of 2020, reaching its lowest level in history at 7.24 liras for a US dollar.
The objectives of the Blue Homeland strategy and its future prospects can be seen in light of the repeated oscillation of Turkey’s foreign policy between the West and Russia, and the Turkish president’s compromises with the local groups of interests.
Erdogan employed the latter to maintain the support of political Islamists, by playing on their imperial and Khilafa ambitions, while employing the former to attract the support of the circles close to Russia inside the Turkish army in a time when its relations with the western axis suffer.
Yet, the Turkish military expansion has lead to increased western pressures, leading Erdogan to take some steps that indicates decreasing the Russian influence inside the Turkish military circles, to deport opposing army leaders to Greece.
At the same time to show some Turkish interest in the strategic dimension of the Black Sea for NATO in the face of Russia, especially after a US sign to Turkey that the latter has come close to the maximum limit allowed for military expansion.
This does not necessarily mean the withdrawal of the contents of the Blue Homeland strategy. Rather, the option that is more consistent with the Turkish expansive ambition and desire to seize the larges possible share of the Mediterranean wealth appears to be giving more attention to the execution of the part of the strategy related to the Black Sea, and achieving the largest gains possible in the Mediterranean Sea and the Aegean Sea under the supervision of the United States.