Amidst ongoing tensions between Turkey and its neighbours in the eastern Mediterennean Sea, a once obscure strategic doctrine has become a means of explaining this conflict.
Blue Homeland, or Mavi Vatan in Turkish, promotes the idea that Turkey needs to assert itself forcefully in the waters beyond Anatolia where it has a strategic interest. On the surface, this appears to reflect accurately the disputes today with Greece and Cyprus over offshore mineral resources in the region.
Dr. Ryan Gingeras, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, said the concept is relatively new in Turkish strategic thinking and reflects an ideological position held by several high-ranking officers in the military for years.
Blue Homeland is “arguably contrived from within Turkish government circles”, Gingeras told Ahval in a podcast. “It is meant as something more than a kind of slogan or catchphrase aimed at defining Turkish interests.”
Gingeras, who has written pieces examining Blue Homeland’s components, emphasised that the doctrine has only gained prominence in the last several years and its exact origins remain unclear. However, he attributes its creation to a retired Turkish naval officer named Cem Gurdeniz.
The former rear admiral rose through the ranks of the Turkish Navy including stints at NATO headquarters, a stint at the Naval Postgraduate School where Gingeras currently teaches, and this culminated with a stint running the naval policy planning staff from 2009 to 2012.
In 2011, Gurdeniz was charged of conspiracy to stage a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan along with many other officers and was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment during the so-called Sledgehammer Trials. However, he was released early in 2015.
According to Gingeras, Gurdeniz’s worldview veered into the realm of conspiratorial thinking rooted in a strain of thought called Eurasianism that is common among some circles of the Turkish military’s upper ranks. It is characterised by a suspicion of the West and a belief that Turkey’s future ultimately lies with other Eurasian powers such as Russia and China.
It is something of an unexpected partnership between former members of Turkey’s secularist brass and Erdoğan’s ruling party, but this assertive, new concept has found wide support across the political spectrum, including factions of the Turkish opposition who embrace this idea.
Members of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the leading secular party, have supported the confrontation over natural resources with Greece and Cyprus while the Good Party’s (İYİP) leadership stated that they considered the security of the “blue homeland” equal to that of the mainland.
“It is generally agreed that Turkey possesses a great deal of potential as an emerging power at this moment,” said Gingeras. He said there is a shared belief that some of Turkey’s Western partners are obstacles to achieving this status.
To go along with its wider regional designs, Turkey has invested for years now in a programme to modernise its navy. Long considered secondary to its army, Ankara has purchased new warships including corvettes, submarines and even a light aircraft carrier called the Anadolu. Increasingly, these ships have been constructed at home in spite of its sluggish economy.
Gingeras said that the root of Turkey’s naval build-up goes back to 1974, when it was subject to an arms embargo for its invasion of Cyprus. Despite this agenda to improve its military capacity at sea, progress has been uneven despite claims from pro-government media that suggest the contrary, he said.
“Most of this navy only exists on paper, it has not been actualised yet,” Gingeras said. Turkey still does not entirely rely on domestic parts for all of its fleet, and its removal from the United States’ F-35 stealth fighter jet programme after purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defence system has hampered the modernisation agenda, he said.
Washington has threatened further economic and political reprisals for Ankara’s purchase of the S-400, which it says could be used by Russia to garner sensitive information on the F-35 and other NATO weapons.
As prominent as Blue Homeland has become as of late, the extent to which it explains all of Turkey’s recent actions abroad is debatable.
Despite Gurdeniz’s relatively active presence on the Turkish media circuit, some of his ideological kinsmen have seen their stock fall within the government. A case in point is former rear admiral Cihat Yayci, who retired from the navy after a demotion by Erdoğan. The reasons for this are subject to speculation, including that Erdoğan or his defence minister, Hulusi Akar, distrust politically influential officers and saw fit to clip his wings.
Some have called the place of Blue Homeland into question for the decision, but Gingeras cautioned against reading too deeply into these moves or even the perceived popularity of Gurdeniz’s thinking.
“Turkish strategic thinking still remains somewhat opaque,” Gingeras said to Ahval. “We shouldn’t take the word of former flag officers as being definitive evidence of ways people in the Turkish government right now are thinking.”