Blue Homeland: the doctrine behind Turkey's Mediterranean claims

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A maritime doctrine devised by a once-imprisoned admiral lies at the heart of Turkey’s energy drive, which has raised the spectre of naval confrontation with Nato allies Greece and France.

The Blue Homeland, or Mavi Vatan, philosophy supports Turkey’s search for gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, which has seen warships head to the region this week.

Developed in 2006 by Admiral Cem Gurdeniz when he led Turkish naval planning, it is the maritime realisation of Ankara’s drive for greater independence in its dealings with the world.

“Turkey’s defence policy had always been based on our staunch support for the Atlantic bloc,” said Adm Gurdeniz, who was among hundreds of military officers prosecuted in sham trials a decade ago.

“It was based on whatever Nato decided but this meant we didn’t develop our own strategies. After the Cold War, Turkey wanted to create a new geopolitical situation because the world wasn’t black and white anymore, it was a Picasso painting.”

The now-retired admiral added: “What we are seeing now is the biggest expression of the Blue Homeland theory because it is the first time Turkey as a state is exerting its rights on its continental shelf.”

Map shows competing maritime borders according to agreements made by Athens and Cairo, Tripoli and Ankara

The latest confrontation was sparked when Turkey sent the Oruc Reis research vessel, escorted by warships, into a region between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete to explore for gas – an area Greece claims as part of its continental shelf and maritime economic zone.

While Ankara disputes Greek claims, the stand-off has seen the Greek navy, supported by French warships, shadow the Turkish mission.

“I’m concerned about a possible skirmish because when you have so many naval assets in a narrow area, you could end up with a very unpleasant situation between allies,” former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende said.

“Nato should be more active in trying to defuse the situation and avoiding an accident that could lead to an undesired conflict which would destroy Nato.”

On Friday, EU foreign ministers were due to meet in an emergency session amid the threat of sanctions against Ankara.

The discovery of natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has seen historic rivals Turkey and Greece assert competing claims.

Athens uses its hundreds of islands to press its case while Ankara claims an overlapping continental shelf. Both have struck maritime deals to reinforce their ambitions – Turkey with Libya’s Tripoli-based government and Greece with Egypt.

In addition, there are the claims of the internationally-recognised Greek government of Cyprus. Turkey argues it is defending not just its own energy rights but also those of Turkish Cypriots, whose government is acknowledged by Ankara alone.

Felicity G Attard, an international maritime law specialist at the University of Malta, said maritime territory “cannot be based on a unilaterally imposed boundary, but must be established in an agreement and should represent an equitable solution.”

Economic zones can also be claimed by islands, making the dispute “extremely difficult, particularly because of the location of the islands and the longstanding rivalry between the two states,” she said. Disagreement over Cyprus “further complicated” the issue.

Mr Rende said Turkey’s position was that the Greek Cypriot administration “does not represent in law or fact Turkish Cypriots or the island as a whole and it follows that they’re not entitled to conclude any agreement on behalf of Turkish Cypriots.”

Athens’ stake is largely based on including the island of Kastellorizo, known as Meis in Turkish and which lies just 2 kilometres off Turkey’s southern coast, within the Greek continental shelf.

“Greece claims 40,000 square kilometres of maritime jurisdiction area due to this tiny island,” tweeted Cagatay Erciyes, a senior Turkish foreign ministry official.

One aspect of Blue Homeland has seen Turkey linked to planned naval bases in northern Cyprus and Libya as well as farther afield, with plans for a base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast only abandoned with the change of regime in the country last year.

Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said the discovery of gas had linked the eastern Mediterranean to a “nexus of international flashpoints”.

Turkey’s efforts to extend its influence in Africa and the Red Sea region brought it into conflict with both France and Egypt, he added.

Underpinning Blue Homeland is the idea that foreign powers are trying to “imprison” Turkey, Adm Gurdeniz said.

Citing the post-First World War Sevres treaty, which sought to divide Turkish territory among the Allies, he said: “These self-declared Greek claims, which are backed by Nato and the EU, are the second version of Sevres but on the sea.

“Overall, we’re talking about 150,000 square kilometres of Turkey’s continental shelf being stolen.”

Calling for the recognition of Ankara’s claims, he added: “Turkey’s new geopolitical realities are changing and our friends and allies should understand this. We have to find a middle way.”

Updated: August 14, 2020 02:07 PM

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