What Can a Retired Sailor Teach Us About Turkey?

October 21, 2020
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This past spring, a hitherto obscure Turkish rear admiral, Cihat Yaycı, grabbed international headlines after his dramatic departure from the Turkish navy. Though rumors of his departure had circulated for months in advance, both Turkish and foreign journalists strained to interpret its significance. Until May, Yaycı had been celebrated in the press, and lauded by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as the “architect” who negotiated the drawing of a shared maritime border with Libya’s Tripoli-based government. His association with Turkey’s more assertive naval posturing, dubbed the “Blue Homeland” initiative, the subject of my last article in these pages, made him the face of the country’s greater ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean. Yaycı’s resignation, in turn, was received as evidence of Erdoğan’s limited patience with the rise of politically influential senior officers. Some commentators, particularly outspoken nationalists, voiced their fear that his resignation could lead to the abandonment of the Blue Homeland concept altogether.

 

 

Since then, Yaycı has spoken at length with the Turkish media about his experiences and views. While he has not avoided discussion of his resignation, the bulk of the interviews have dwelt on issues far closer to his heart, namely Turkish maritime politics and strategy. In the many hours of recorded discussions he has had over the last few months, Yaycı has rendered to the public a rather large sampling of his opinions on a wide range of subjects. His statements, as a whole, offer a general survey of the development of his own thinking. When considered within the broader context of Turkish history and contemporary affairs, Yaycı’s revelations offer potential insights into the political consensus driving elements of Turkey’s more militarized approach towards foreign policy. His reasoning offers clues as to how the country’s foundational ideology, Kemalism, helps to form common ground among Ankara’s fractured political elite.

Partisanship and Ideology Inside the Turkish Officer Corps

In Turkey today, there is no shortage of former generals and admirals appearing on television. Current affairs, to some degree, warrant this. Amid news of Turkish military activity in Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan, and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish armed forces are increasingly at the forefront of the country’s foreign policy. Yet against the backdrop of Turkish history, the presence of so many retired officers on television is colored by a certain amount of irony. Since the founding of the country in 1923, scholars and commentators often have depicted professional officers as something of a cloistered class. As the historic “guardians” of the republic’s founding principles (especially those associated with Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), the military long constituted a praetorian elite, an elite best known for its tendency towards conspiracy and political intervention. Since coming to power, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party government has done much to rein in the power and autonomy of the military. In addition to executing administrative reforms and mass purges of personnel, Erdoğan has gain greater support among disaffected officers since the attempted coup of 2016. A shared loathing of the followers of Fethullah Gülen, who is widely blamed for the coup as well as other plots, has been critical in restoring a certain amount of faith between military and civilian authorities.

Nevertheless, in spite of these developments, observers continue to question how senior officers genuinely perceive the country’s politics and strategic priorities. To this day, there are relatively few post-Cold War studies that take on the military’s institutional or ideological inclinations. While many former officers have made the jump to television as talking heads, the extent to which they represent the current thinking within civilian and military circles remains unclear. This uncertainty has not prevented a rampant amount of speculation as to the ideological, partisan, and personal divides that shape Ankara’s strategic thinking. Convention now dictates that military officers particularly tend to fall into one of several camps. Reputedly the oldest, most established block within the military comprises so-called “Atlanticists.” This group, observers contend, includes officers who uphold a more collaborative American or Euro-centric approach to foreign policy (a tendency often associated with Atatürk’s preferences). Dissenting from this view are so-called “Eurasianists,” an inclination largely associated with the fringe right-wing Fatherland Party. Although comprising officers who tout themselves as ardent Kemalists, this segment of the officer corps is associated with a fierce aversion to the “imperialist order” promoted by United States and Western Europe. In rejecting the collectivist interests of NATO, Eurasianists are seen as favoring closer ties with Russia and other powers of greater Asia. This group, some observers contend, has found a degree of fellowship with both the Justice and Development Party as well as with more religiously conservative officers. Although set apart by their differences on issues of secularism and identity, both Eurasianists and religious conservatives favor a more muscular, independent Turkey, a Turkey capable and willing to exert greater amounts of influence in its near abroad and on the global stage. This agreement, it is argued, lies at the core of what two scholars have called a Green (Islamist)-Kemalist (particularly Eurasianist) alliance.

Yaycı’s many writings and interviews appear to confirm, but also complicate, these impressions. As a flag officer who survived multiple purges through his career, he is among the most recent, and highest-ranking, officers to assume public prominence. In spite of his untimely resignation, Yaycı presents himself as neither a dissident nor a partisan proponent of the ruling party. The framing of his views instead emphasizes elements of consensus seen among the supposed factions comprising Turkey’s military establishment. In this regard, Yaycı’s outlook offers indicators as to the fears and desires driving the most dominant initiative of Ankara’s current foreign policy: Turkey’s Blue Homeland.

Parsing the Admiral’s Thoughts

Adm. Yaycı’s career path speaks to his persona as a soldier-scholar. Born in the eastern town of Elazığ, he entered Turkey’s military education system in middle school. After graduating from the naval academy in 1988, he cultivated a successful career as a line officer. His service on multiple warships (including captaining a frigate) culminated with a tour as commander of a flotilla within the navy’s northern command. Staff tours punctuated his sea service, allowing him to focus on strategy and foreign relations. For example, he worked as a defense attaché in Turkey’s embassy in Moscow. Along the way, he earned a doctorate in international affairs and a master’s degree in physical and electronic engineering. And he built a reputation as a prolific writer and innovative thinker. In addition to several books on Turkey’s maritime claims in the Mediterranean, he is credited with creating a so-called algorithm capable of determining the number of or detecting Gülenist members in the armed forces (an instrument called the “FETÖ meter”). His rise to prominence as a strategist, in many ways, fits a mold first set by his mentor, retired admiral Cem Gürdeniz. As the man most credited with coining and promoting the notion of Turkey’s Blue Homeland, Gürdeniz acknowledges his influence upon Yaycı’s ascendency and has praised him as “one of the important academics in Turkish maritime history.”

In his many interviews, Yaycı unhesitatingly asserts that he is a man devoted to the most fundamental values associated with Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal. As the son of a provincial bureaucrat, he was raised by parents who were firmly “Atatürkist” and “statist.” His early years as a cadet in Turkey’s military education system further solidified his singular devotion to the state. When asked whether he was embittered by his forced resignation, Yaycı responded that his years of education and service made it impossible. “I am a child of my state, not my parents,” he asserted, “It is my state who taught, fed, nursed, clothed and raised me since I was 13 years old.” Rhetorically, such sentiments are in line with the education and indoctrination he received as a youth. As a student he, like most children in Turkey today, took multiple iterations of a mandatory course entitled “Revolutionary History and Atatürkism.” The class, which is featured in middle schools, secondary schools, and universities across the country, emphasizes the centrality of the state as a core tenet of Turkish citizenship and identity. Placing the state above everything, including family, is at the heart Kemalist orthodoxy. What makes Yaycı’s sentiments paradoxical is in their application. By placating Kemalism, Yaycı has consistently sidestepped the invitation to criticize Erdoğan or his political party. This ability to brandish his Kemalist credentials, while signaling his indifference or support to Erdoğan, is a standard theme of many of his public appearances.

His responses to a variety of other issues raised by journalists offer further evidence of Yaycı’s dexterity. He has, for example, refused to criticize Erdoğan’s controversial decision to open Aya Sofia as a functioning mosque. Even though Atatürk himself ordered its conversion into a museum (a gesture heralded as symbolic of Kemalism’s commitment to secularism), he again deferred to the core principles of statism and attacked foreign critics. “No one,” he asserted, “can criticize the Turkish Republic for the use of its sovereign rights.” As an officer, he further explained, he learned to accept the orders of his commanders in spite of his opinions. “Aya Sofia was opened and from now on this is a state decision.” In the same interview, his host asked his opinion of the Treaty of Lausanne, the 1923 agreement that, among other things, formally established Turkey’s territorial borders with Greece. In recent years, the treaty has been subject to much criticism by conservative critics. In 2016, Erdoğan denigrated the agreement and its contemporary defenders, claiming that Aegean islands ceded to Greece at Lausanne rightfully belonged to Turkey. When pressed, Yaycı asserted that the treaty was a victory for Turkey, one entirely due to Atatürk’s leadership. The problem, as he has repeated elsewhere, is not the agreement, but Greece’s behavior:

It is emphasized in the Lausanne Treaty that the islands adjacent to and outside of three miles [from Asia Minor] are not to be transferred. But Greece has tried to embrace all of them. It is Greece that arms the islands, wants to increase its territorial waters, wants to protect the islands and islets whose sovereignty has not been transferred, and expands its airspace beyond land waters.

Blaming Greece is core to Yaycı’s political and strategic thinking. Greek behavior in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, in his estimation, constitutes a grave challenge to Turkey’s integrity and ambitions. He has characterized Greece as a “revisionist” state, one unswervingly committed to seizing and holding territory rightly belonging to Turkey (such as the Imia or Kardak islands in the Aegean). By placing troops on islands off the coast of Anatolia, Greece not only violates the Treaty of Lausanne but poses, in Yaycı’s estimation, a direct military threat to Turkey. The shadow Athens casts over the Aegean and Mediterranean, he concluded, is a threat to Turkey’s emergence as greater power. In addition to being a “serious (ciddi) state” (that is, a state that has, among other things, political parties, elections and a patriotic population), a powerful state needs independent access to the sea and sources of energy. Turkey, according to his reckoning, possesses the first criterion. Greece, with Western backing, constrains Turkey from attaining the second.

In his many indictments of Greek policy, echoes of Yaycı’s education as a Turkish citizen and officer shine through. His reading of Turkish-Greek relations, both past and present, cannot be divorced from the core lessons of state-mandated education. In both mandated classwork and official statements, the state of Greece (alongside native Armenians and Orthodox Christians) is a critical foil within the story of Turkey’s development. Several Turkish holidays, such as Children’s Days, Sports and Youth Day, and Victory Day, mark events during Turkey’s “war of independence” against Greece between 1919 and 1923. For Yaycı, Athens’ claims to territorial waters in the Aegean and Mediterranean is a testament to the enduring tensions stemming from this century-old conflict. To combat what he characterizes as Greece’s assertiveness, Yaycı has gone so far as to abandon use of the term Aegean (Ege in Turkish and Aigaio in Greek) for a Turkicized phrase, the Islands Sea (Adalar Denizi). To the trained ear, the suggested name change clearly harks back to Atatürk’s efforts to “Turkify” place names deemed too Greek, Armenian, or generally foreign. “Giving things Turkish names is important,” he explained, “but it is also [within our] discretionary authority.”

This reading of the past and its contemporary significance resounds within the rhetoric of Eurasianists and supporters of the Justice and Development Party. As a man equally familiar with the history lessons of his school years, Erdoğan has invoked the memory of Turkey’s war with Greece in referencing current events. Gürdeniz, the leading advocate of the Blue Homeland, had declared that a second war of independence against Greece is now underway in the Mediterranean. Both Gürdeniz and Erdoğan share Yaycı’s “blood and soil” rendering of Turkish history and identity. Commercials produced by the Justice and Development Party often celebrate the country’s Turkic past (particularly the great warriors and conquerors from the Seljuk and Ottoman periods). The lands of the Mediterranean, as Erdoğan put it, enjoyed their “most tranquil period” after they were conquered by Turks. Both Gürdeniz and Yaycı have drawn similar connections between the Ottoman Empire’s era of maritime supremacy and the urgency with which Turkey should pursue a more robust policy in the Mediterranean. In one of his most recent books, The Struggle to Share in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey,  Yaycı favorably quotes Barbarossa, the famed Ottoman corsair, who posed that “those who have command of the sea, command the world.”

To be fair, it would be inaccurate to say that Yaycı’s worldview is solely derivative of his Kemalist upbringing. In his many books advocating Turkey’s rights to a large exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean, he appeals directly to what he believes are Ankara’s legal prerogatives. International law, he has stated time and again, allows Turkey the ability to disregard Greece’s many islands in claiming large expanses of the Mediterranean seafloor. A heavy peppering of realist thinking also flavors his view of Turkey’s approach to its maritime claims. To bypass Greek and Cypriot opposition, he advocates signing bilateral economic zone agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. Such agreements, he argues, would appeal directly to the self-interest of each of these states. In disregarding the claims of Greece and Cyprus, each signatory would enjoy larger chunks of the seafloor. Gürdeniz has seconded these suggestions and has encouraged the Turkish government to sign economic zone agreements with both Egypt and Israel.

To date, however, no one within the Turkish government has endorsed such a plan. Given Ankara’s poor relations with Egypt and Israel, as well as signs the two states have grown closer to Greece in recent months, the likelihood of Turkey signing multiple economic zone agreements with its Mediterranean neighbors appears slim. Erdoğan, however, has heartily embraced the legalistic foundation of Yaycı’s argument (despite the fact that Turkey is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea). While he has previously proposed an international conference to settle the issue of Turkey’s economic zone, legal analysts in Turkey speculate that Erdoğan may be in his legal right to unilaterally declare what he sees as Turkey’s legitimate maritime domain.

Blue Homeland and the Forging of Turkey’s Foreign Policy Consensus

Over the last several months, Yaycı’s statements have provided fodder for debate regarding the partisan or personal rivalries at work in Ankara today. Initially, some inferred from his resignation that he was being forced out as a result of a Gülenist-led plot. Others saw it as a potential power grab by Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s powerful minister of defense, who has marginalized several influential flag officers in recent years. Still others have interpreted his departure as signs of divisions in the Eurasianist camp. Aydınlık, a newspaper closely tied to the Eurasianist Fatherland Party, has since taken a more negative approach towards Yaycı’s views, when before it heaped praise upon him. Gürdeniz, long one of Aydınlık’s more prominent columnists, decided to resign after the Fatherland Party’s founder, Doğu Perinçek, criticized Yaycı on television. The closeness exhibited between these two former admirals, however, does not mean they share identical views of the world. Since leaving the navy, Yaycı has not indulged in the sort of anti- American and anti-NATO rhetoric associated with Gürdeniz and many Eurasianists. More pointedly, Yaycı has disavowed any allegiance to the Eurasian or Atlanticist camps. He instead has identified his political orientation as simply “native and national (yerli ve milli),” a catchphrase long favored by Erdoğan and coined by the founder of the governing party’s junior partner in government, the Nationalist Action Party.

There is certainly a danger in over-interpreting the significance of the words and beliefs of a single person. In the case of Yaycı, many of his statements and actions have been taken as indicators of the rise or fall of different factions within Ankara. Reading too much into each of his expressions or acts may give way to what one commentator has likened to “Turkish Kremlinology,”  wherein small signs are erroneously parsed for profound meaning. If there is something to be gleaned from his post-retirement interactions with the press, it is perhaps how his views reflect important points of agreement among Turkish policymakers today. Whatever his personal opinions may be with respect to domestic politics, it is clear that Yaycı, like many officers and common citizens, prioritizes his loyalty and service to the Turkish state. His stated desire to strengthen the Turkish state, and promote its national interests abroad, is one that binds him to individuals found across Turkey’s political spectrum.

There are few in Turkey, even among Erdoğan’s opponents, who would reject his depiction of Greece as the country’s chief nemesis on the high seas. Yaycı’s belief that history and geography predestine Turkey’s ascendency as a major power now holds nearly universal appeal in the country. In this regard, securing Turkey’s Blue Homeland has been broadly adopted as a national imperative by both government loyalists and dissidents. To a large extent, this general consensus stands as a testament to the enduring power of Kemalist ideology. Kemalism, as one Turkish scholar recently put it, should be understood as a more diffused force in Turkish politics and society. As one of the cornerstones of Turkish education and national identity, aspects of Kemalism inform the worldview of Islamic conservatives, leftists, and nationalists of various stripes.

This shared idiom and base of reference is among the factors that allow Yaycı, Erdoğan, and others to find common cause in the service of the Turkish state. That is not to say that partisan or personal differences within this circle are irrelevant. Erdoğan, for example, may part company with Yaycı in leaning closer to Gürdeniz’s animosity towards the United States.  In the long term, the common ground shared between these various camps will likely remain critical to the future of Turkish foreign policy. It is for this reason that Yaycı’s vision of a more combative and self-aggrandizing Turkey is likely to endure, if not grow more entrenched, for some time to come.

 

 

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.

Image: U.S. Navy