As the impact of the coronavirus pandemic drags on and energy companies scale back their research operations, Turkey has been conspicuously stubborn in pushing forward with its hunt for resources despite the slump in oil prices.
Some see Turkey’s persistent pursuit of energy resources that other actors now view as too cheap to be worth drilling for as tied to Turkey’s Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, which lays claim to expansive territorial waters in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black seas. Others say that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is using that doctrine as cover to drum up support for its own foreign policy aims.
The Blue Homeland doctrine made headlines in September 2019 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a speech while standing in front of a map showing the 462,000 square kilometres that it envisages as Turkey’s Blue Homeland. The navy had already conducted giant military exercises bearing the name earlier that year.
Turkey’s most recent move in its nearby waters saw one of its drillships, the Fatih, setting sail for Trabzon on Turkey’s northern coast on Friday to begin exploration in the Black Sea. The Fatih had been active in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey’s other ships, the Kanuni and Yavuz, are still stationed.
The country’s initiatives to increase its influence in these areas have already led to heightened tensions with its neighbours. Turkish research ships have been active since last year in areas that lie in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.
In November, Turkey further raised the heat with a deal with Libya’s United Nations-recognised government that sees the two countries as maritime neighbours, claiming for Turkey parts of the Mediterranean that lie just off Greek islands and near Cyprus. The Turkish government is protecting the Tripoli-based government and the deal by sending it military hardware, advisers and Syrian mercenaries – in the process turning the tables in the fight against its eastern-based rivals the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The Libya gambit has so far gone in Turkey’s favour, and its drone power has helped the Tripoli government retake key areas even though it faces in the LNA an army that is backed both by Russia and regional powers like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Turkey is likewise isolated in its stance on Cyprus, as European and Mediterranean states have signed deals with the island state that Ankara does not recognise.
International gas projects around the island have been placed on hold as energy companies dial back their activities to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turkey’s pursuit of these projects through the economic slump shows that “push for control over any oil and gas in the Mediterranean basin is not really an economic project at all: gas supply is not a pressing need or financial imperative for Turkey yet,” Mustafa Karahan, the director of consultancy Dragon Energy, told the Guardian this week.
“This is really about the projection of political power,” he said.
In that sense, the Blue Homeland doctrine has perhaps grown beyond the boundaries of the Eurasianist, nationalist officers who envisaged it after being taken up by Turkey’s Islamist-rooted AKP government.
Earlier this month, the admiral credited as the mastermind behind Blue Homeland, Cihat Yaycı, resigned after he was effectively demoted following an apparent falling out with Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.
The news was lamented by many in Turkey who viewed the admiral as both a staunch defender of Turkey’s interests internationally and as a key man in the fight against the Gülen religious movement, which is widely thought to have infiltrated key positions in the state over recent decades and is blamed for the July 2016 coup attempt. Yaycı developed a metric to identify suspected members of the movement in the military.
With Yaycı gone and the expansionist foreign policy rolling on, Türker Ertürk, a Eurasianist retired admiral and frequent media commentator, told Medyascope’s Ruşen Çakır that the AKP had hijacked the doctrine to “trick the public” into accepting its involvement in Libya.
Ertürk said Yaycı’s resignation had shown the depths of politicisation in Turkey’s armed forces, and, in a post on his personal blog earlier in May, said Yaycı had fallen victim to a plot by Akar, who viewed him as a rival due to his popularity.
But Ertürk said Yaycı’s departure would not spell the end for the Blue Homeland doctrine in the navy. This was echoed by another retired admiral known for his influence in creating the Blue Homeland doctrine, Cem Gürdeniz, who has said in several YouTube interviews since Yayci’s demotion that the government has no intention to give up on the doctrine.
Indeed, the government appears determined to press forward with the strategy, which has been the focus of friendly media outlets over the past year. The Fatih’s departure to the Black Sea coast on Friday was reported by Sabah as a move that would “shift the balance,” and media outlets have enthusiastically covered the initiatives in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean.
In this sense, Blue Homeland could be viewed as a means of cementing support by shifting the media’s focus to foreign adventures while there is little to celebrate back home. Turkey’s economy had already been stuttering since a currency crisis in 2018, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated its problems.
But more than distracting from these problems, Erdoğan could see Blue Homeland as a means to address some of them while pursuing a doctrine that unites his Islamist base with its Eurasianist and nationalist allies. For a country that is hugely dependent on its neighbours for energy supplies, securing sources of natural gas near Cyprus would be a huge boon for Erdoğan’s government.
The presence of energy resources is even more tempting in Libya, where plentiful oil reserves are already being tapped. All the more so since the intervention also allows Erdoğan to continue in his long-running policy of supporting Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.