Unilateral gas drilling, martial rhetoric, deployment of military ships: Turkey’s demonstrations of force in the eastern Mediterranean are rooted in a strategy called “blue homeland” aimed at establishing its sovereignty over disputed areas.
Fearful of being excluded from sharing the region’s immense natural gas reserves, Ankara deployed warships on August 10 in an area claimed by Greece, causing tensions with Athens to escalate and concern in Europe. .
A sign that the crisis is not over, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, galvanized by the discovery of a large gas field in the Black Sea, announced Friday that his country would accelerate research in the eastern Mediterranean.
It is “not only a fight for our rights, but a fight for our future” which is being played out, summarized Mr. Erdogan. “The defense of our” blue homeland “is as important as that of our territory,” he added.
Theorized by Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, the “blue homeland” is a doctrine which encourages Ankara to impose its sovereignty over an area of 462,000 km2 in the Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean.
It is considered necessary for “its prosperity, its security and, even, its happiness”, explains to AFP the soldier now retired.
If Mr. Gürdeniz created the expression “blue homeland” in 2006, Mr. Erdogan has only used it for a few months, in a context of heightened nationalist sentiment after an attempted coup in 2016.
Island of discord
Refusing any accusation of expansionism, Turkey maintains that it claims only what is rightfully due to it in the face of maritime claims from Greece and Cyprus which it considers excessive.
Ankara rejects in particular any claim of the Greek islands located off the Turkish coast to an exclusive economic zone, believing that this would amount to “imprisoning Turkey within its shores”.
The small Greek island of Kastellorizo, located two kilometers off Antalya (south), crystallizes Turkish anger.
According to Athens, the waters surrounding this island are under Greek sovereignty, which would deprive Ankara of tens of thousands of km2 of sea rich in gas.
“It’s laughable”, laughs Rear Admiral Gürdeniz, adding, with a serious face: “It’s a red line”.
It is precisely to the south of this territory that Turkey deployed its ships on August 10.
The discovery of major gas fields in recent years has only worsened an old dispute that plagues relations between Ankara and its Greek and Cypriot neighbors.
“This is a problem that most governments in the region have deliberately ignored, because it is too difficult to solve,” said Muzaffer Senel, professor of international relations at Sehir University in Istanbul.
The interlocking of Greek islands in the Turkish coast and the rivalry between Ankara and Athens “make the situation extremely complex”, abounds Felicity G. Attard, specialist in international maritime law at the University of Malta.
The partition of Cyprus also complicates the equation, according to her: in the north, there is a Turkish-speaking Republic not recognized by the international community, which claims an exclusive economic zone admitted only by Ankara.
But for Mr. Senel, Turkey is aware that its maritime claims are unacceptable to Greece. And if Mr. Erdogan publicly defends his “blue homeland”, it is to “announce his starting position before negotiations”.
“The blue homeland is not a realistic objective ”, notes a Western diplomat, judging that Ankara“ raises the stakes before negotiations ”.
For experts, Turkey’s forcible attacks also reflect its isolation in the eastern Mediterranean, where it is at odds with almost all of its neighbors.
To give weight to its demands, Ankara signed, in November 2019, a maritime delimitation agreement with the official Libyan government in exchange for military aid, angering Athens.
Ankara is also investing heavily in the navy and is due to commission its first helicopter carrier by the end of the year.
“The situation is volatile and any miscalculation could have serious consequences,” notes the Western diplomat.
Mr. Erdogan “is pragmatic and knows that prolonging the tensions would be bad” he adds, citing the threat of economic sanctions.
But according to Mr. Gürdeniz, Ankara will defend its maritime claims at all costs. “Even if sanctions or an embargo are imposed on Turkey, she will not give up.”