Blue Homeland: The Heated Politics Behind Turkey’s New Maritime Strategy
“Mavi vatan,” or “blue homeland,” has become a common phrase in Turkish political life. It is most often used as a shorthand expression for Ankara’s maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean. Central to these interests is the presence of large deposits of natural gas off the coast of the island of Cyprus. For Turkey, the lion’s share of these deposits lies within what Turkey interprets is its exclusive economic zone. Such a stance, however, is at odds with claims made by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. Both governments have argued that Ankara ignores Greek and Cypriot sovereignty as well as key statutes of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (a treaty Turkey has never ratified). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained steadfast in spite of threats of sanctions and increased diplomatic isolation. “While performing our duties, we are proud to wave our glorious Turkish banner in all our seas,” one officer declared before Erdogan in October 2019. “I submit that we are ready to protect every swath of our 462 thousand square meter blue homeland with great determination and undertake every possible duty that may come.”
The coining of the term “blue homeland” ultimately represents more than an act of political branding. To a large extent, it signals a somewhat dramatic shift in doctrine within Turkish political and military circles. It was not too long ago that changes in Turkish strategic thinking were associated with transitions in administration (particularly transitions between more secular leaders to more religiously conservative ones). Until recently, the emergence of Turkey’s “blue homeland” rhetoric has generally been associated with the navy’s former chief of staff, Cihat Yaycı. Yet with Yaycı’s recent demotion and resignation, commentators have assumed a new appreciation for the concept’s author and chief promoter, former Turkish Rear Adm. Cem Gürdeniz. His presence in popular Turkish media has done more than transform the concept of the “blue homeland” into a contemporary watchword. His writings and television appearances suggest the ascendency of a more aggressive and antagonistic strain of thought within Turkish security circles.
As an adherent of Turkey’s nationalist left, Gürdeniz appears to represent a growing contingent of influential figures, including several former flag officers. Binding this group together is a shared disdain for the United States and what they often term the “Atlantic framework.” On the whole, it is not clear what this developing consensus means for the future of Turkish relations with its neighbors, let alone for Ankara’s ties with NATO, the United States, or Russia. At the very least, the preeminence of an increasingly doctrinaire approach toward Turkey’s “blue homeland” suggests greater amounts of tension within the eastern Mediterranean lie ahead.
Doctrinaire politics is not a particularly recent innovation within Turkish political life. During the first decade of Erdoğan’s rule, Turkish foreign policy tended to follow the ideological dictates of the country’s celebrity foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. For much of his tenure, Davutoğlu touted Turkey’s inherent strength as a state lying at the cultural and historical crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia. This “strategic depth,” or stratejik derinlik as he termed it, allowed Ankara unique advantages in forging a new political, economic, and social order within the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. In advancing this broad geostrategic vision for Turkey’s future, Davutoğlu was at the forefront of promoting an overarching agenda of strategic cooperation, increased trade, and solidarity among the country’s neighbors (an effort he heralded as Turkey’s “zero problem” policy). By 2012, however, many of the earlier successes of this doctrine had given way to failure. Turkey’s presumed “strategic depth” offered little in the way of leverage in dealing with a myriad of crises, be it Syria’s civil war, the siege of Gaza, or the overthrow of Egypt’s former President Mohammed Morsi. While Davutoğlu’s own political career has suffered since his dismissal from government service in 2016, elements of his “strategic depth” thinking live on. To this day, Erdoğan still touts Turkey’s unique role as a leader within the Islamic world and a pivotal state within the Middle East.
Davutoğlu’s marginalization does not mean that Turkey now lacks presumptive visionaries when it comes to matters of foreign policy. A scan of the country’s popular editorial writers offers indications that there are several individuals who aspire to assume Davutoğlu’s place. Most leading commentators, however, have yet to offer a comprehensive strategic vision for the country’s future. The most glaring exception to this trend can be found in the writings of Gürdeniz, a retired rear admiral of the Turkish navy. On his own, Gürdeniz stands somewhat out of step with most retired members of Turkey’s military. Though former generals do offer commentary from time to time in print and on television, Gürdeniz is arguably the most visible and prolific former flag officer in Turkish media today. This is an especially striking fact given the degree to which the Turkish navy resides within the shadow of the army, the country’s largest and most prestigious branch of service. By his own account, this is among the factors that inspire Gürdeniz’s engagement with the public. Turkey, he argues, historically lacks an appreciation of its maritime traditions and achievements. Defending the country’s territorial waters, its “blue homeland,” is every bit as important as protecting Turkish soil.
Gürdeniz’s life story bears a strong resemblance to that of other senior military leaders. He is almost entirely the product of military education from high school forward (with the exception of a master’s degree attained at a university in Brussels). In addition to service on multiple warships and a tour at NATO headquarters, Gürdeniz received the honor of running the Turkish navy’s policy-planning division between 2009 and 2011. He spent long stints of time in his career working closely with the United States (including two years in residence at the Naval Postgraduate School). He is a prolific writer, having authored multiple books on various subjects related to the military. Three years after attaining the rank of rear admiral (upper half), he was arrested along with scores of other senior officers as a part of the broader Sledgehammer trials of 2011. Though convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison, he was released from custody in 2015.
Since the summer of 2016, Gürdeniz, now retired, has maintained a consistent presence in Turkish media. Many of his early interviews and opinion pieces demonized the 2016 coup attempt, blaming it on a vast conspiracy that included the United States and its European allies. The role of pro-Fethullah Gülen supporters in the coup, in his opinion, masked a broader effort by what he has referred to as the Atlantic framework or front (Atlantik yapı/cephe). A critical aim of this Atlantic front was not simply to remove Erdoğan but to punish Turkey for getting closer to Russia. His enmity toward the United States and Western Europe has not faded with time. In his weekly column for the newspaper Aydınlık, he regularly accuses Washington of seeking to undermine Turkish interests (an intention, he argues, that is undergirded by the desire to prevent Turkey’s ascension as a global power). While not going so far as to condemn Ankara’s membership in NATO, he has consistently maintained that the alliance is a manifestation of what he still euphemistically terms the “Atlantic front.” Turkey’s political destiny, Gürdeniz counters, lies broadly with the states of Eurasia (most notably Russia). In his interviews and writings, he has maintained that building deeper ties with Russia and China would not only help further Turkish interests but would also serve as a bulwark against what he has termed the “imperialist powers” of the West.
Several factors make Gürdeniz and his views especially relevant in today’s political environment. Unlike Davutoğlu, Gürdeniz appears to reflect an institutional frame of mind more in keeping with the times. His political opinions, as well as his association with key publications, place him solidly among the followers of Doğu Perinçek and the Vatan Party. As a group defined by its affection for Russia and its categorical opposition to the United States, Perinçek’s Vatan Party is suspected of sustaining considerable support among parts of the Turkish military at large. News reports have also suggested that Erdoğan’s administration has deliberately sought to protect and promote pro-Perinçek officers after the 2016 coup. Such an effort, it is argued, has helped re-center the military under the leadership of officers with strong secularist credentials but avowedly anti-Gülenist, anti-Kurdish, and anti-Western sympathies. Like Perinçek, Gürdeniz asserts that Washington intends to undermine Turkey’s sovereignty in coalition with other regional powers. Central to this emerging alliance is Greece, a state he charges with a long history of allying itself with Western imperial powers. For this reason, Gürdeniz has called upon Ankara to take a firm line toward Greece and its counterclaims in the Aegean and Mediterranean. Waters bordering Greece’s islands, in his view, do not allow Athens the right to tap the region’s natural gas deposits. In the absence of military strength, Greece instead relies upon the United States and Europe to act on its behalf. “Greece,” Gürdeniz argues, “can live inside the dream world of its past and build endless fantasies. But it should not impose these things upon Turkey’s sovereignty and interests in the Aegean, Mediterranean, [and] Black Sea. They should know their place.”
There is significant evidence that suggests that Gürdeniz’s views have had a profound impact. The most obvious sign of his influence is the now-pervasive use of the phrase “mavi vatan,” or “blue homeland.” In March 2019, the Turkish navy undertook large-scale exercises under the operational name “Blue Homeland 2019.” The official journal sponsored by Turkey’s Naval War College also bears the name Mavi Vatan. More revealing signs of this trend can be found in the statements and publications of likeminded former flag officers. Like Gürdeniz, several former admirals, such as Rear Adm. Soner Polat, Adm. Özden Örnek, and Rear Adm. Mustafa Özbey, have written or spoken glowingly of his ideas (most often in newspapers and television programs aligned with Perinçek’s Vatan Party). Arguably the most striking demonstration of this worldview can be seen in Turkey’s evolving policy toward Libya. In December 2019, Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives of Tripoli’s government. The agreement, which charted a mutually expansive maritime border between the two states, has been heralded across Turkey’s political spectrum as a triumph in the name of the country’s blue homeland.
Recent events, however, suggest that the ideological influence of Gürdeniz and others associated with the ultranationalist left may possess certain limits. On May 16 of this year, the architect of Turkey’s agreement with Libya, Rear Adm. Cihat Yaycı, was officially demoted in accordance with a presidential decree. Erdoğan’s endorsement of the demotion whipped up a firestorm of speculation across Turkish media. As the navy’s chief of staff, Yaycı was generally seen as an emerging strategic visionary who championed many of the assertive policies proposed by Gürdeniz. In his recent books, Yaycı has gone so far as to openly challenge Greece’s possession of islands in the Aegean. His decision to resign rather than to accept his demotion has provided fodder to commentators who see this affair as a power struggle within the armed forces as a whole. As early as January of this year, the Turkish press was rife with speculation that Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar saw Yaycı as a rival for Erdoğan’s favor and was seeking his dismissal. Others have supposed that Erdoğan and Akar were forced into removing him by conspirators aligned with the presumed mastermind of the 2016 coup, Fethullah Gülen. Still others have suggested that Erdoğan and Akar sought to marginalize Yaycı as a way of mollifying American and European concerns over Turkey’s maritime policy. Regardless of the reason, commentators associated with Vatan Party news outlets have responded to these events with dismay and confusion. In his most recent column, Gürdeniz largely derided Yaycı’s removal as a Gülenist plot backed by Greece and the wider “Atlantic front.” He declared his hope, however, that the state would continue “to make the best use of Admiral Yaycı’s advanced knowledge and experience.” In contrast, Perinçek issued a starkly public rebuke of Yaycı’s refusal to accept his demotion. “In a time when our navy is face to face with threats in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus, and the army is at war from within and without, one does not resign.” After making these comments, Cem Gürdeniz announced he was parting ways with Perinçek’s newspaper Aydınlık and resume publishing with another ardently Kemalist media outlet, Odatv.
The significance of Yaycı’s demotion and resignation indeed appears open to interpretation. On the one hand, the affair seems to affirm the fact that Erdoğan remains willing to distance himself from powerful allies and surrogates when it politically suits him. Whether it was an act meant to appease Washington or maintain the loyalty of his defense minister, Hulusi Akar, it is hard not to see Erdoğan’s decision to remove Yaycı as one grounded in his desire to hold onto his unparalleled authority. On the other hand, it is likely that this change in command does not constitute a complete repudiation of the assertive policies championed by Yaycı and others. So far, nothing seems to suggest that Ankara plans to switch course with respect to Libya or the eastern Mediterranean. Yaycı’s replacement, Adm. Yankı Bağcıoğlu, has received considerable media recognition as the chief orchestrator of the “Blue Homeland 2019” naval exercises. More recently, he assumed prominence in declaring to a French naval delegation that Turkey would “continue unremittingly in its blue homeland operations” alongside its NATO commitments.
What the “blue homeland” turn means for the future of Turkey’s participation in NATO, or Ankara’s relationship with its Western partners, is far from clear. Many signs points to rough waters ahead. Athens has repeatedly voiced apprehension at what it characterizes as a broad range of provocative Turkish behavior in the Aegean and Mediterranean. Washington’s increasingly warm relations with Greece, as well the U.S. Congress’ vote to lift a decades-old arms embargo against Cyprus, have been equally greeted with revulsion in Turkey. And yet there is nothing within Turkey’s official posturing that casts doubt upon its ties with NATO or the United States in particular. The Turkish navy’s official strategy paper, published in 2015, makes no mention of a “blue homeland” (although it does state that maritime rights, particularly with respect to “economic wealth contained” close to its borders, are indeed “one of the most important issues influencing our relations with countries [close] to our littoral maritime environment”). A casual perusal of the navy’s main webpage presents visitors with multiple images, media clips, and reports outlining its collaborative efforts with NATO partners.
Whatever does happen, Turkey’s present commitment to its “blue homeland” policies appears contingent upon two critical factors. Firstly, Turkey’s maritime posturing, as conjured up by Gürdeniz, Yaycı, and others, has captured the imagination of a broad swath of the Turkish political establishment. Calls for a determined defense of the country’s expansive “mavi vatan” echoes the combative, independent spirit of Ankara’s contemporary foreign policy. At present, there is little incentive for Turkey to deviate course. The second, and most important, factor is Erdoğan’s tacit approval of this overall strategic direction. Although individuals like Cihat Yaycı may succumb to political infighting, Turkey’s president, thus far, has made good use of the blue homeland’s larger significance. Yet with continued financial strains and the country’s increased isolation, it may well be the case that Erdoğan’s enthusiasm for a “greater” maritime Turkey fades with the passage of time.
Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history. He is the author of five books, including most recently, Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Atatürk. His Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire received short-list distinctions for the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize. The views expressed here are not those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote. A Turkish military officer, not President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said the following: “While performing our duties, we are proud to wave our glorious Turkish banner in all our seas. … I submit that we are ready to protect every swath of our 462 thousand square meter blue homeland with great determination and undertake every possible duty that may come.”
Image: Turkish Navy