Turkey and Greece, two NATO allies, nearly experienced a full-fledged military conflict in August. Two of their warships collided during a naval standoff over hydrocarbon exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. This follows a similar naval incident in June between three Turkish vessels and the frigate of another NATO ally, France, prompting an inquiry that the alliance has been trying to keep under wraps to prevent further discord among its ranks. Behind these incidents lies Turkey’s embrace of an assertive naval concept, namely the “blue homeland,” that is poised to disrupt the transatlantic alliance in the years to come.
The “blue homeland” is an irredentist concept that claims vast sections of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, including Greek and Cypriot maritime borders and hydrocarbon deposits, for Turkey. What began as a fringe idea among the anti-Western brass of the Turkish navy has morphed into a popular nationalist aspiration fronted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Blue homeland” will continue to damage Ankara’s diplomatic relations, since Erdoğan will find it difficult to step away from maximalist claims he has personally cultivated.
The tendency to see the Turkish president’s belligerence merely as posturing for domestic consumption, and failure to develop a concerted transatlantic strategy, has provided Erdoğan with the time and opportunity to institutionalize his irredentist thinking. Absent pushback from the West, Turkish foreign and security policy will reflect Erdoğan’s worldview for decades to come. The United States and the European Union should, in response, work together to discourage the Turkish president from continuing to play a destabilizing role in NATO’s southeastern flank. They should also engage and support Turkey’s pro-Western dissidents and help amplify their voices in a media landscape almost entirely dominated by Erdoğan. Coordinating a Western response — while extremely difficult — is essential to mitigating the most damaging effects of current Turkish foreign policy.
Background to ‘Blue Homeland’
The “blue homeland” naval concept, first coined in 2006, does not stem from Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party. Instead, as Ryan Gingeras lays out in detail in his War on the Rocks piece, its origins lie with two staunchly secularist naval officers who later developed links with the Maoist-rooted neo-nationalist Homeland Party. The party and its predecessor, the Workers’ Party, were once fierce opponents of Erdoğan and his political party. However, the Homeland Party has since entered into a tactical alliance with the Justice and Development Party as the Turkish president gradually turned to his former adversaries among the ultranationalists and Eurasianists (a faction that advocates Turkey joining the Russia- and China-led anti-Western geopolitical camp) in a bid to hold onto power.
Cem Gürdeniz, a retired Turkish rear admiral who is one of the architects of the “blue homeland,” presents the concept as a response to an existential threat, and offers it as guaranteeing the ability to “sleep comfortably at home.” Gürdeniz sees the Ottoman failure to control the seas as the cause of the empire’s demise and warns that naval supremacy is crucial for the survival of the Turkish Republic, which in his opinion continues to remain in the crosshairs of Western imperialism. While the “blue homeland” is most immediately linked to maximalist Turkish claims in areas where Cyprus and Greece assert jurisdiction, Gürdeniz ultimately argues that it is also key for Turkey’s expansion of its political and economic influence across the region. Since he believes that “the Mediterranean is not sufficient for an expanding Turkey,” he urges Ankara to take control of the “Persian Gulf, Sea of Oman, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, the Eastern waters of the Atlantic Ocean, [and] North Africa.” Within the Eurasianist paradigm, the “blue homeland” is part of a broader strategy of confronting the West and establishing Turkish supremacy in the region.
For Erdoğan, this concept is also a means to expand Islamist influence. More specifically, he hopes that Turkish domination of the Eastern Mediterranean will boost Turkey’s military and proxy presence in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and beyond, and thereby strengthen the footprint of the Muslim Brotherhood and its agenda.
The makeshift alliance between Eurasianists and Erdoğan is riddled with contradictions. For example, Gürdeniz spent almost four years in prison on trumped-up charges brought by a judicial system controlled by Erdoğan and the shadowy network of Erdoğan’s former ally-turned-archnemesis, Fethullah Gülen. When asked about his troubled past with Erdoğan, Gürdeniz claims that he and his fellow Eurasianists are supporting the state, not the Turkish president, although he also argues that Erdoğan has learned his lesson since then.
Turkey’s Political Opposition in a Bind
Turkey’s opposition, meanwhile, finds it difficult to oppose Erdoğan’s “blue homeland” policy and rhetoric, which taps into broader nationalist sentiment. The leader of Turkey’s pro-secular main opposition Republican People’s Party, for example, accused the European Union of a “double standard” when weighing Turkish rights in the Eastern Mediterranean versus those of Greece. Nevertheless, two other Republican People’s Party politicians managed to articulate their criticism. Lawmaker and former ambassador Ünal Çeviköz slammed the government for its “Neo-Ottomanist foreign policy” and warned Erdoğan’s intervention in Syria gives a premonition of where tensions in the Mediterranean are currently headed. Meanwhile, Gürsel Uçar, the Republican People’s Party mayor of the town of Datça on the Aegean coast, which is only 12 miles from the Greek island of Symi, posed next to a banner with the words “Peace Will Win” — honoring the close relations that many Turkish coastal towns have with neighboring Greek communities only a stone’s throw away.
Political parties to the right of the Republican People’s Party have been even more vocal in their support of Ankara’s maritime claims. Meral Akşener, leader of the center-right Good Party, tweeted that she considers the security of the “blue homeland” to be equally important to the security of the motherland. Her position echoed her archrival, far-right Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahçeli, who has given his blessings for military escalation with Greece and the European Union — accusing Turkey’s opponents of “stepping on the nerve endings of the Turkish nation” and vowing that things would end “very badly” for Greece.
The most vocal opposition to the Erdoğan government’s maximalist maritime claims has come from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, which knows the dangers that stem from the Turkish president’s belligerent rhetoric. Peoples’ Democratic Party co-leaders Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar issued a statement rejecting Turkey’s “policy of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean” and urging a policy of peace instead. Meanwhile, another party lawmaker, Garo Paylan, called for a fair agreement between Turkey and its Eastern Mediterranean neighbors to share the natural gas, warning that the current path threatened disaster for Greek and Turkish people alike.
Despite draconian restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkey and the purge of over 6,000 academics, Turkish intellectuals have also voiced words of caution in response to rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ilhan Uzgel, a professor of international relations purged from Ankara University in 2017, has characterized the current crisis between Turkey and Greece as “useless” and “artificial.” Uzgel believes that the crisis will amount to little more than a “dogfight” — and one that will end up with a U.S. diplomatic intervention that brings the disagreement back to where it started — with nothing ending up resolved.
Aydın Selcen, a former Turkish diplomat who now writes for one of the few remaining critical outlets in Turkey, has warned: “Ankara appears to be in desperate need to have a mini armed conflict of sorts. It will be better for everyone in Brussels, Paris and Athens in my humble opinion not to play into Erdoğan’s hands.” Similarly, Yunus Emre Açıkgönül, another former Turkish diplomat who is now a Ph.D. student at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and an expert in maritime delimitation law, has pointed out that the International Court of Justice would not recognize any maximalist maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. He notes the legal precedents set by island-maritime boundary cases such as the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon disagreement between France and Canada and the Archipelago of San Andrés dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua, which indicate the court would rule for an equitable delimitation of the maritime borders between Turkey and its neighbors, Cyprus and Greece.
Such calls for calm and reason are unlikely to elicit a positive response from the wider Turkish public. Cross-border military operations in Syria and Iraq remain popular in Turkey, gaining support beyond Erdoğan’s base — a popularity that the Turkish president has been eager to exploit to distract from Turkey’s failing economy. Furthermore, the government metes out penalties to those who dare to speak out against Erdoğan’s military campaigns. When Turkey’s peace process with the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party broke down in 2015, the Erdoğan government jailed and investigated activists who signed a petition urging the end of military operations and a continuation of the peace plan. Activists who spoke out against military operations in Syria in early 2018 were similarly jailed and accused of spreading “terrorist propaganda.”
Turkey’s restrictive media landscape further limits the reach of sound analysis by the likes of Uzgel and Açıkgönül. Baskın Oran, a retired professor of international relations and a leading human rights advocate, warns in his piece on the Eastern Mediterranean tensions that the current crisis is happening because “95% of newspapers and TVs, especially TRT [Turkish Radio and Television Corp.], distort the truth morning and evening.” Not only that, but opponents of the government’s decisions are subject to vicious troll attacks on social media, leading many to self-censorship.
Turkey’s suffocating intellectual climate has slowly but surely transformed public attitudes on issues that were previously unthinkable. The Erdoğan government’s irredentist figures are even questioning the Treaty of Lausanne, signed between the Turkish national movement in Ankara and the allied powers of World War I, which has long represented a resounding diplomatic victory recognizing the legitimacy of the new Turkish state and its 1923 borders. If one is to believe the government propaganda in outlets such as TRT, even this peace treaty is now up for “debate.” This is a dangerous path that leads to Turkey making revisionist claims on its neighbors’ territory. If the growing popularity of the “blue homeland” is any indication, irredentist sentiment is becoming the common reality in Erdoğan’s Turkey.
What Should the West Do?
Many policymakers and analysts in Washington and European capitals continue to believe that Erdoğan’s belligerent posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean is in part theatrics aimed at wooing the Turkish electorate and in part a bargaining ploy. So when the Turkish president agreed to resume exploratory talks over Ankara’s contested maritime claims with Athens after a four-year hiatus and withdrew its seismic research vessel, Oruç Reis, from waters claimed by Greece, the European Union was quick to walk back its threats to impose sanctions. This policy reversal came despite Nicosia’s attempts to keep them on the agenda by making them a prerequisite for greenlighting sanctions against Belarus.
One of Turkey’s leading foreign policy observers warns that Erdoğan’s move is “just a tactical pause … until the end of the upcoming E.U. summit in a bid to dodge possible EU sanctions.” Nevertheless, Berlin’s reported and Washington’s rumored pressure on the European Union against sanctioning Turkey will strengthen Erdoğan’s strategy of repeatedly escalating and de-escalating tensions to extract concessions from his European counterparts. The United States and the European Union should take the Turkish president’s belligerent rhetoric and policies seriously and develop a concerted strategy that does not shy away from holding Erdoğan accountable through targeted sanctions. More importantly, they should push back against Erdoğan’s trademark move of driving a wedge among E.U. member states as well as within the transatlantic alliance.
The key to an effective transatlantic response is developing a “containgagement” strategy (i.e., containment and engagement) that combines the right mix of sanctions (targeting Erdoğan’s inner circle and kleptocratic cronies) and other punitive measures with incentives to encourage Erdoğan to step back from his disruptive policies and rhetoric. The impunity the Turkish president has enjoyed so far for his purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, his role in facilitating Iran’s sanctions evasion schemes, and hostage diplomacy involving Western nationals continue to embolden his belligerence. Given Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis, Erdoğan would be interested to sign trade deals with both the United States and the European Union and be potentially open to the idea of changing policies in exchange. If Erdoğan approaches the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package, any financial lifeline should also come with strict conditions for democratic reforms, transparency, and accountability.
It is also crucial for the United States and the European Union to engage with and support Turkey’s embattled pro-Western dissidents. The Erdoğan government’s brutal crackdown on the opposition, chokehold on the media, and restrictions on freedom of expression make it nearly impossible for critical voices to be heard. Supporting Turkey’s independent media outlets and offering Turkish dissidents platforms to articulate their alternative vision will help elevate voices for peace and democracy in the country. All Western delegations to Turkey should make it standard practice to hold formal meetings with pro-Western stakeholders, including opposition politicians, activists, and intellectuals.
In September 2019, Erdoğan posed for a photograph in front of a redrawn map of Turkey’s maritime borders in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The map denies any continental shelf or exclusive economic zone to Cyprus or to many of Greece’s Aegean islands. The photograph sums up Erdoğan’s approach — stoke nationalist sentiment in Turkey to advance the country’s maximalist foreign policy positions.
While the West disagrees over how to respond to Turkey’s assertive foreign policy, Erdoğan continues his efforts to popularize belligerent and irredentist territorial claims. Turkey’s opposition parties will continue to feel pressure to join Erdoğan’s saber rattling as the “blue homeland” naval concept takes hold as an expression of nationalist aspirations. Even worse, Erdoğan’s irredentism may outlive his time in office and simply become a part of mainstream Turkish political culture. Turkey’s Western allies would fare better by taking threats hurled by Erdoğan and his ultranationalist allies seriously and devise a concerted response today if they, just like the Turkish opposition, don’t want to be haunted by Erdoğanist phantoms in the decades to come.
Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament.
Philip Kowalski (@philip_kowalski) is a research associate at the Turkey Program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.