Turkey’s bid to become a maritime power disrupts the Mediterranean

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Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey’s great push into the Mediterranean with controversial gas drilling, harsh rhetoric and warships is rooted in a grand vision of a ‘blue homeland’ taking control of waters claimed by EU neighbors .

Fearing that she would be denied a fair share of the region’s abundant natural gas wealth, Turkey has sent a research vessel and a small navy armada to seas Greece considers its own, which has significantly affected tensions intensified last week.

As a sign of the growing importance he attaches to energy independence, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Friday that Turkey had made its biggest discovery of natural gas in the Black Sea.

“My Lord has opened the door to unprecedented wealth for us,” he rejoiced to the applause of a room filled with supportive officials.

But this new discovery did little to quell Turkey’s desire to expand ever deeper into the Mediterranean Sea, which won political points for Erdogan in his country, but infuriated Greece and prompted repeated warnings from the European Union.

France, already at odds with Turkey over Libya and parts of the Middle East, sent its own ships to the region to help Greece, prompting Erdogan to warn that he would retaliate against any attack.

The problem was not only to “fight for rights but for the future of Turkey,” Erdogan said.

– The doctrine of the “blue homeland” –

Critics say the “blue homeland” doctrine (“Mavi Vatan” in Turkish) is the latest example of Turkey resorting to disruption to coerce others to achieve what it wants.

But Turkish officials and former political admirals argue that Greece’s demands based on a scattering of small islands are unfair since Turkey has a larger mainland in the eastern part of the sea.

The author of the doctrine is retired Admiral Cem Gurdeniz, who first used the term “Mavi Vatan” in 2006 when he was head of the Turkish Navy’s Planning and Policy Division. .

His vision covers more than 460,000 square kilometers (175,000 square miles) of Turkey’s maritime borders, including the waters surrounding some Greek islands, and has grown in importance alongside the rise of Turkish nationalism.

“Blue Homeland is a symbol of the ‘maritimization’ of Turkey,” Gurdeniz told AFP, a concept that “attempts to define the areas of maritime jurisdiction surrounding Turkey.”

Gurdeniz said Turkey must secure these areas for its well-being, its defense, its security, “even for its happiness”.

– Money change –

The lack of agreed maritime borders between Turkey and Greece, or between Turkey and Cyprus, turned into a much bigger problem with the discovery of large hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean during of the last decade.

“The delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean is an issue that most governments in the region have deliberately overlooked,” said Muzaffer Senel, associate professor at Sehir University. from Istanbul.

“Because it is a more difficult problem to solve and its political costs are too high. ”

Mavi Vatan is “a bargaining chip for Ankara,” he said.

“By serving this card, Ankara is declaring its position in the negotiations. ”

While countries with coasts can claim an EEZ, islands can too.

Felicity Attard, a specialist in international maritime law, said this “makes the Turkish-Greek position extremely complex, especially given the location of the islands and the long-standing rivalry between the two states”.

She added that the dispute was aggravated by the difference in policy between the two countries towards Cyprus, divided since 1974 between the south under Greek Cypriot control and the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

There is particular anger at Greece’s insistence that the tiny island of Kastellorizo, two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Antalya, should have the same rights as the entire Turkish coast.

– «Situation volatile» –

Turkey is isolated in the region, which experts say is part of the reason Erdogan lashes out and insists on Turkey’s rights against countries joining forces without Ankara.

Last year, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian territories agreed to create the “Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum” without Turkey.

Greece and Turkey had “exploratory talks” between 2002 and 2016 on the Aegean Sea, but they ended at Athens’ request, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

Turkey says Erdogan made efforts to resume talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and at the NATO summit in London last year.

“Greece did not accept these offers and instead used the EU against Turkey. It’s not fair, ”a Turkish official told AFP.

A maritime agreement Turkey signed with Libya in November heightened tensions after establishing maritime borders which Greece said overlooked its island of Crete.

A Western diplomat called the situation “volatile”, warning that “any miscalculation could have serious consequences.”

But Erdogan “is pragmatic and knows that prolonged tensions would not be good,” the diplomat told AFP, stressing the risk of Western sanctions harming the already low reading.

Still, retired Admiral Gurdeniz looked defiant.

“Even if Turkey is alone in this fight” and even if sanctions are imposed, he said, “Turkey will not give up”.

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