The “Blue Homeland” and Turkey’s new forward defence doctrine

The Blue Homeland doctrine is a product of Kemalist maritime officers. The nationalists realized that allying with Erdoğan would bring crucial advantages, such as using the radical Islamists as a proxy back and forth in Syria and in Libya, and forging military ties with Qatar and Somalia.

In the past few years, Turkey has incrementally been building up a new foreign and security policy. A coalition of political actors introduced a new security doctrine known as “forward defence.” As those actors envisaged military operations and territorial control in cross border areas, the Mavi Vatan or “Blue Homeland” doctrine emerged as the maritime wing of this strategy. 

By now, it is no secret that the AKP government’s overly ambitious neo-Ottoman policy of regional hegemony, which supposedly relied on the cooperation of various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, has collapsed. After an interlude during which it had to deal with the Gezi protests and the corruption scandals brought up by the Gülen movement, the Erdoğan government found it convenient to strike an alliance with the nationalists in order to prolong its incumbency and aspire to regional dominance, this time through other means. 

This new coalition involved Islamists, the nationalist MHP and the Eurasianist current, including the Vatan Party, thereby reflecting the two most powerful ideological currents in Turkey’s history. The Islamist-nationalist coalition is not historic first. In the 1970s, coalitions between nationalists, Islamists and the centre-right ruled the country. Later, the military regime that came about with the 1980 coup embraced the Turkish-Islamist synthesis ideology. The nationalists and even some sections of the secular nationalists realized that putting aside their disagreements with the Islamists might pay off. 

While the two political traditions fully agreed on cracking down on the Kurdish political opposition and the remnants of the Gülen movement, this partnership has also affected Turkey’s foreign policy. This is reflected in the almost unprecedented militarization of the country and the emergence of the “forward defence” doctrine. 

Turkey’s forward defence doctrine is one of a series of transformations in its foreign and security policy. The others include a blackmailing policy towards the EU, using the refugees as a bargaining chip, balancing between Russia and the US, and getting involved in almost all disputes in the wider region. 

At the moment, Turkey is simultaneously engaged in three (and a half) military operations in three countries, a rare feat for any country in the world, let alone in Turkish history.  

Amid this context, the Blue Homeland doctrine that was devised by the Admiral Cem Gürdeniz in 2006 with the aim of bolstering Turkey’s resilience at sea and protect the country’s maritime rights, resurfaced. Back then, as the “Zero Problem with Neighbors” (ZPN) policy developed by Ahmet Davutoğlu gained ground, the Blue Homeland doctrine was marginalized and did not appeal to many except in a limited number of nationalist circles. 

Contrary to its passive connotation, the “Zero Problem with Neighbors” policy was an expansionist project aimed at reigning in the former territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire through soft power instruments. In other words, it was at the heart of the Neo-Ottomanist ambitions. Although the ZPN policy challenged the Kemalist ideology, and the Blue Homeland doctrine is a product of Kemalist maritime officers, both ultimately relied on the idea of re-asserting Turkey’s influence in its wider region. Theoretically speaking, it should be stated that while ZPN, which was developed by Davutoğlu, himself an academic, is a refined text despite its serious flaws, contradictions, misjudgements and ideological blindness, the idea of Blue Homeland is not based on an elaborate and coherent analysis, and is no more than a collection of unconvincing and familiar threat perceptions.  

Yet after 2015, these two doctrines merged into a new synergy and form backbone of a more assertive and militarized foreign policy posture. The nationalists realized that allying with Erdoğan would bring crucial advantages, such as using the radical Islamists as a proxy back and forth in Syria and in Libya, and forging military ties with Qatar and Somalia. 

The secular nationalists do not oppose forging ties with the Islamist Serraj-led government in Libya. Thus, both strategic doctrines merged silently and brought a new dynamism, which is reflected in growing authoritarianism at home and militarization abroad. The political opposition, aside from the pro-Kurdish HDP, while critical of its domestic consequences, was largely behind this new assertive foreign policy. Public opinion meanwhile, is generally supportive of it, except for the overseas Libya incursion.  

This forward defence policy, which basically represents the traditional Turkish raison d’état, is based on three pillars. The first is the heavy militarization of Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey has been deploying its military in crisis-ridden areas across Iraq, Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, employing armed drones in Cyprus, setting up military bases in Somalia and Qatar. The Turkish Navy has boasted that it has prevented drilling activities in 20 cases, and forced drill ships to leave contested sea zones. 

Turkey completed its greatest naval exercise in February 2019 with 103 vessels. Erdoğan and the Commander of Navy got their photo taken in front of a “Blue Homeland” map, sending a symbolic and disturbing message, especially to Greece. This new trend differs from the military-dominated decision-making process of the 1990s. While the military back then led a crucial role in shaping foreign policy and enjoyed tutelage over politics in general, Turkey’s foreign policy was never as militarized as it is nowadays. 

Second, the main argument of this new doctrine is that Turkey’s defence starts in cross border areas. Turkey maintains military bases and troop presence in Cyprus, Qatar, Somalia where it has the biggest outpost, northern Iraq, and Libya. Syria is becoming a special case where Turkey not only maintains troops but establishes an administrative structure in the areas its control. Both Davutoğlu’s Strategic Depth and Gürdeniz’s Blue Homeland doctrines propose such cross border dominance and area control both on ground and at sea.

Finally, Turkey has heavily invested in its defence industry to the extent that is has reached the level of a military-industrial complex involving both pro-AKP and secular sections of the business world and public enterprises. Turkey now produces armed drones, its own rocket systems, co-produces attack helicopters, tanks and warships through its MILGEM project. It is also currently building a carrier in its docks. Despite the turbulences of the past few years, Turkey remains by far the most powerful military force in the region. And Ankara has realized the benefits of using it more effectively. 

This forward defence posture is rooted in an age-old threat perception the state has long cultivated and which predates the AKP government. According to this mind-set, Turkey is encircled by hostile powers, and the West is bent on undermining Turkey no matter which party rules the country. The establishment of a Kurdish state in Iraq in the 1990s, which Turkey declared a casus belli and after 2011, the prospect of Kurdish-run autonomous or independent areas with an outreach to the Mediterranean serve as examples of this threat perception. This triggered a series of military operations from Turkey on the Syrian front. 

Meanwhile, Western powers, alongside Egypt and Israel, are strangling Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cihat Yaycı, the architect of the Turkish-Libya maritime deal in November 2019 has dubbed this the “Sèvres Treaty at Sea.” According to this perspective, Greece is expanding in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean with the support of the EU, thereby undermining the rights of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots to share natural resources in the region. 

While Turkey’s embedded fear of a possible Kurdish entity in any neighbouring country paved the way for military control in its southern borders, growing cooperation both political and diplomatic as well as in the energy sector between Greece, the Cypriot Republic, Egypt and Israel have led to the risky Libyan engagement and naval confrontations in the Eastern Mediterranean. For the first time in Turkey’s history, the Sèvres syndrome in mainland Anatolia and at sea merged. 

So far, Turkey’s “military first” policy has yielded some results. It helped it to obtain critical and strategic gains which Turkey would be unlikely to relinquish even if the AKP were to step down. The trio of traditional Turkish military might, its recent technological advancements (drones, airlift capabilities, professionalized army, its modernized warships) and effective use of Islamist fighters in the form of mercenaries or as proxies proved a formidable force in overturning the balance of forces on the ground. 

Still, every policy and strategic gain comes at a cost. Turkey has alienated and confronted a myriad of countries including France, Russia, Israel, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia in this configuration of power, in an area of rapidly shifting alliances. It has also escalated a conflict involving Egypt and Russia on the Syrian and Libyan fronts.