Turkey touts past maritime conquests ahead of talks on dispute

‘Blue Homeland’ doctrine challenges Greek, Cypriot claims that confine Turkey to narrow strips of coastal waters.

Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis is escorted by Turkish Navy ships as it sets sail in the Mediterranean Sea
Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis is escorted by Turkish Navy ships as it sets sail in the Mediterranean Sea off Antalya, Turkey [File: Turkish defence ministry via Reuters]

As Turkey and Greece prepare for talks to calm a bitter maritime dispute, Ankara released a video this week glorifying a 16th-century naval victory that led to the Ottoman Empire taking control of the Mediterranean.

The video, shared on Twitter by the presidential communications department and viewed nearly half a million times, intersperses tales of ancient sea battles with footage of modern Turkish warships, driving home a message that Turkey must defend its interests in offshore waters.

This doctrine, called “Blue Homeland” in the video and accompanying song, has been championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government as it challenges Greek and Cypriot maritime claims that confine Turkey to narrow strips of Aegean and Mediterranean coastal waters.

The policy, mirroring Turkey’s assertive military interventions on land in Syria and Libya, has come to prominence in the last year – more than 10 years after it first emerged – and is feeding into the east Mediterranean dispute.

Retired Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci, who had a major role in developing the doctrine, said Turkey’s maritime policies were sharpened by the “aggressive stances” of Greece and Cyprus, which signed a series of accords marking out an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean since 2003.

“They didn’t want to share the seas with Turkey, they wanted to seize Turkey’s seas. Turkey realised this,” Yayci said.

The dispute resurfaced last November when Turkey signed a maritime boundaries accord with Libya, which had been mooted by Yayci a decade earlier but which Athens said cut across its own claims.

In the wake of the Libya deal, tensions with Greece escalated in August when Ankara sent the survey vessel Oruc Reis to the eastern Mediterranean to explore for hydrocarbons.

They eased after Ankara brought Oruc Reis back to port, but Cyprus has demanded EU sanctions against Turkey. EU leaders are set to discuss the dispute at their summit starting on Thursday.

Battling Crusaders

In an interview, Yayci traced the roots of the Blue Homeland back to a 16th-century Ottoman admiral celebrated in the government video.

“The real founder of the Blue Homeland concept is Barbarossa Hayrettin Pasha, who said ‘whoever controls the seas controls the world’,” Yayci said at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, where he runs a maritime research centre.

The video shows Ottoman sailors battling Crusaders, interspersed with images of Turkey’s modern warships and sailors. A song evoking the Blue Homeland and a nationalistic poem read by Erdogan accompanies it.

The historic parallels extend to Turkey’s gas exploration. A seismic survey vessel operating off Cyprus is named after Barbarossa, while two drillships are named after powerful Ottoman sultans.

‘Not a threat’

For all the patriotic fervour, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said this week he believed there would be “good progress very soon” in the talks with Greece, which are set to resume after a four-year hiatus.

Asked about Greek concerns regarding Blue Homeland, Kalin said it was not a threat to any other country.

“It’s the idea of turning this sea land, the vast sea land in the Mediterranean, into an opportunity rather than a source of tension and friction among the Mediterranean countries,” he said.

“Of course, we are open to dialogue and negotiation to agree on a model that is inclusive, that is fair, that is based on sharing whatever resources we have.”

The Greek foreign ministry declined to comment directly on Blue Homeland.

But it rejects Turkey’s claims in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, saying Ankara has not signed the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which gives islands sovereign rights to a continental shelf of up to 320km (200 miles).

“I hope Turkey will adopt this logic consistently and in the long term, abandoning its illegal actions and provocations and making dialogue its priority,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said last week.

A hint of the approaching storm came a year ago when Erdogan posed at a military ceremony in front of a map showing the Blue Homeland, covering an area of some 462,000 square kilometres (178,379 square miles) – more than half the size of Turkey – across the Aegean, East Mediterranean and Black Sea.

The image was splashed across Greek newspapers and Dendias said Turkey was establishing itself as a “troublemaker”.

While the two sides have agreed to resume talks broken off in 2016, the vast difference between that map and Greek maritime claims illustrates the gulf the two sides must bridge if they are to find a compromise.

Source: Reuters