Turkey is in the midst of a major naval construction program, seeking to restore regional maritime influence lost since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and the project is already generating regional tensions.
“Turkey will get back its fair share in the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Black Sea,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last month. “If we say we will do something, we will do it, and we will pay the price.”
Turkey’s imperial legacy looms large in the fabric of Turkish society. An imposing statue of the 16th century Ottoman Admiral, Hayreddin – or Barbarossa – dominates a square adjacent to Istanbul’s Bosphorus waterway.
Many European historians portray Barbarossa as a pirate and slave trader. However, in modern Turkey, he is still revered for his naval victories that asserted Ottoman control of the Mediterranean Sea.
Since 1923, when the Turkish Republic was founded on the Ottoman Empire’s ashes, Turkey’s military power was primarily land-based, with its naval forces limited to coastal patrols.
Under the mantra of “Blue Homeland,” Erdogan is vowing to restore Turkey’s naval prowess and he seeks to extend its power beyond the horizon.
“Turkey is becoming a maritime state, like England, like France, like the United States,” said Retired Admiral Cem Gurdeniz, author of the “Blue Homeland” doctrine.
“In order to protect Turkey’s rights and interests, in overseas areas like in [the], Persian Gulf, like in [the] Red Sea, the Arabian sea and whatever need arise, the Turkish navy, Turkey’s maritime signature should be there,” Gurdeniz told VOA.
Turkey’s efforts to restore its navy to blue water power include plans for an assault aircraft carrier.
The country has given a glimpse of its longer-term goals already by challenging Greece, its neighbor, with claims on waters that Greece considers its own and that are believed to have vast energy reserves.
Athens, citing international law, claims much of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean between the two countries, confining Turkey to its coastal waters.
“The main implication [of the Blue Homeland doctrine], first of all Greece should understand they’re not the owners of the Eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea,” said Gurdeniz.
“Yes, they might think in their fantasy world that all the seas surrounding them are belonging to Greece, but that dream is over.”
An arms race could be looming.
“The time has come to strengthen the armed forces as a legacy for the security of the country,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in announcing Athens’ own naval construction program this month.
Also this month, French President Emmanuel Macron met with six Mediterranean leaders to counter Ankara’s assertiveness.
“We must be tough with the Turkish government,” said Macron ahead of the summit.
Erdogan pushed back, warning Macron “not to mess” with Turkey.
Faceoff with Europe
On Thursday, European Union leaders are due to discuss sanctions against Turkey to support Greece, an EU member.
“We are at a watershed moment in Turkish-EU relations,” warned EU foreign affairs chief Jospeh Borrell last week.
Under the threat of sanctions, Turkey stepped back, withdrawing a research ship that had been operating in waters claimed by Greece.
“Let’s give diplomacy a chance, let’s put forth a positive approach for diplomacy,” Erdogan said Friday. “Greece should also positively meet this approach of ours, and let’s take a step accordingly,” he said.
Greek and Turkish officials are already holding technical talks under NATO’s auspices to introduce measures to avoid an accidental confrontation. The two NATO members are regularly holding live-fire naval exercises in close proximity.
But tensions over Turkey’s naval aspirations are not limited to Greece.
In July, France accused a Turkish frigate of threatening one of its naval ships seeking to enforce an arms embargo on Libya. The two countries back rival sides in the Libyan civil war.
NATO is refusing to publish a report on the incident, citing the “sensitivity” of the issue.
“It would be a disaster if two NATO countries started shooting at one another it would be the end of the alliance,” said Turkish presidential advisor Mesut Casin, who is also a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University.
The true purpose?
But domestic political considerations rather than broader strategic goals may be the real driving force behind Turkey’s naval expansion.
Recent opinion polls reveal Erdogan’s popularity on the wane, with the already weak Turkish economy hit hard hit by the COVID-19 epidemic. Analysts say restoring past maritime power could the door to untapped electoral support.
“Domestically owning or embracing this very nationalistic idea, very sovereignty- orientated idea you know, has improved or has expanded his support base,” said International Relations Professor Serhat Guvenc of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“He is getting support from circles which would normally would not want to do anything with Tayyip Erdogan,” Guvenc told VOA.
Government videos depict images of past Ottoman Empire glories, and promises to extend Turkish influence across the Mediterranean and beyond.
With the price tag of the ambitious naval program running into the billions of dollars, economic realities could yet stymie Erdogan’s aspirations.