Turkey’s strategic assertiveness a dangerous development

Turkey’s foreign policy strategy appears to be becoming something of a Frankenstein’s monster. The reasoning behind this statement lies in Ankara’s push into the Eastern Mediterranean as part of its “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, which stipulates that the country’s security lies under the seabed of the Mediterranean. The Blue Homeland doctrine has been expanded in recent months due to multiple factors, including a race by all regional actors for what appears to be the energy riches off the coast of several key Mediterranean countries.

Turkey’s Blue Homeland philosophy supports its search for gas reserves across a swath of the Mediterranean and has seen warships head to the region this week. Devised in 2006 by Adm. Cem Gurdeniz, who was then head of Turkish naval planning, the strategy is the maritime component of Ankara’s drive for greater independence in its dealings with the world’s energy assets and logistical lines.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions are driven by his desire to expand Turkish influence across large parts of the globe. His focus on Africa began before he even became president. Erdogan’s 12-plus visits to the continent are now paying off, with Ankara moving Syrian fighters to the Libyan theater, as well as expanding the country’s reach in key African countries including Mali. Turkey also has a strong presence in part of Somalia that abuts the Red Sea, an important strategic reality. The very fact that Turkey is using airlifts to move fighters from one theater to another is an accompanying strategic and tactical factor when considering how the country can intervene. But complaints about an overextension of the Blue Homeland doctrine are beginning to pile up, putting Ankara in a position of having to decide exactly where it wants to go next in terms of its regional and global projections of power.

The Aug. 31 signing in Tripoli of a cooperation deal between the Turkish and Libyan central banks will ensure Ankara provides technical support, but the exact contours of the agreement, including what it means financially, still need to be clarified. Meanwhile, the Tuna-1 gas field recently discovered in Turkey’s portion of the Black Sea is still a few years from being exploited, so there are concrete details that must be explored and worked out between Tripoli and Ankara. Many of the contracts contend with older Turkish business under the Qaddafi regime, which Turkey wants to recover and build upon.

Anger is rising over Turkey’s push into the region and many are calling for Ankara to return to its strategic box.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Much of the Blue Doctrine issue is beginning to be wrapped up in Turkey’s adventurism in Libya. In her report to the UN Security Council last week, Acting UN Support Mission in Libya Special Representative Stephanie Williams painted a stark picture of the uptick in external meddling in the country, outlining in great detail the number of arms shipments flowing into Libya from supporters of both sides of the conflict and urging an immediate return to negotiations. US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft echoed this call for a return to dialogue, stressing that international partners support the Aug. 21 declaration calling for a cease-fire, demilitarization, the resumption of oil sector operations, and a return to UN-facilitated political talks as the only way forward.

Further buttressing these remarks, US Africa Command released data detailing the flow of foreign actors into the Libyan theater, especially from Turkey and Russia. Particularly illustrative was the information regarding the hundreds of flights by all parties, underscoring the volume of assets being flown into the region for organizing, training and equipping both the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army. France has also deployed the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean in a possible mirror of Arabian Gulf scenarios. A host of other countries are going to challenge Turkey across a variety of spectrums — diplomatic, economic (including sanctions) and adjudication. 

Currently, the principal point of impact is Greece. The Greek-Turkish story is not new and confrontations between the two countries have occurred in the past. However, there is now a new series of issues — including seabed and exploration rights, rights of navigation, sovereignty, treaties and their enforcement, and a general collapse of constructive discourse — which is leading to challenges and brinkmanship. The bulk of Europe, specifically via the EU, is seeking to punish Turkey for its behavior by helping and supporting Greece. NATO is in a contradictory position, given that the security situation is an intra-alliance fight, which only pleases Moscow in terms of European security.

The volatile situation is made worse by a childish Turkish information campaign that only serves to distract from real issues. The Turkish information campaign is designed to confuse, conflate, inflate and waste the time of readers. It produces false facts that spread rapidly via analysts who tend to parrot falsehoods and are blinded by severe bias. No doubt, many of the parties involved possess vivid imaginations, which blend into their necessary strategic and tactical analysis. It is shameful.

Overall, anger is rising over Turkey’s push into the region and many are calling for Ankara to return to its strategic box. The White House is growing frustrated with it and, given the dramatic shifts in the region due to the normalization process, Ankara’s aggression is likely to grow across the multiple battlefronts the country now faces, from the Caucasus to North Africa. Turkey’s neo-religious outlook, when fused with national identity, is a dangerous development that will drive the country to be more assertive. An escalation ladder will inevitably lead to a kinetic exchange — most likely maritime — that may produce very ugly results. All players are increasingly taking greater risks that could potentially backfire. 

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik
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