Turkey’s expansionist energy policy in the Eastern Mediterranean is underpinned by a maritime doctrine that has raised the spectre of naval confrontation with Nato allies Greece and France.
The Blue Homeland, or Mavi Vatan, philosophy supports Turkey’s search for gas reserves across a swathe of the Mediterranean and has seen warships head to the region this week.
Developed in 2006 by Admiral Cem Gurdeniz, who was then head of Turkish naval planning, the strategy has been interpreted as the maritime component of Ankara’s drive for greater independence in its dealings with the world.
“Turkey’s defence policy had always been based on our staunch support for the Atlantic bloc,” said Adm Gurdeniz. “It was based on whatever Nato decided but this meant we didn’t develop our own strategies. After the Cold War, Turkey wanted to create a new geopolitical situation because the world wasn’t black and white anymore, it was a Picasso painting.”
The high command veteran was among hundreds of military officers prosecuted in the "Sledgehammer" trials of 2012 and subsequently released as the prosecutions were quashed by higher courts.
He now regularly appears on state television championing the policy he devised almost 15 years ago. “What we are seeing now is the biggest expression of the Blue Homeland theory because it is the first time Turkey as a state is exerting its rights on its continental shelf.”
The latest confrontation was sparked when Turkey sent the Oruc Reis research vessel, escorted by warships, into a region between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete to explore for gas – an area Greece claims as part of its continental shelf and maritime economic zone.
While Ankara disputes Greek claims, the stand-off has seen the Greek navy, supported by French warships, shadowing the Turkish exploration mission.
“I’m concerned about a possible skirmish because when you have so many naval assets in a narrow area, you could end up with a very unpleasant situation between allies,” former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende said.
“Nato should be more active in trying to defuse the situation and avoiding an accident that could lead to an undesired conflict which would destroy Nato.”
On Friday, EU foreign ministers were due to meet in an emergency session amid the threat of sanctions against Ankara.
The discovery of natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean has seen historic rivals Turkey and Greece assert competing claims.
Both have struck maritime deals to reinforce their ambitions over parts of the Mediterranean basin – Turkey with Libya’s Tripoli-based government and Greece with Egypt.
In addition, there are the claims of the internationally-recognised Greek government of Cyprus. Turkey argues it is defending not just its own energy rights but also those of Turkish Cypriots, whose government is acknowledged by Ankara alone.
Felicity G Attard, an international maritime law specialist at the University of Malta, said maritime territory “cannot be based on a unilaterally imposed boundary, but must be established in an agreement and should represent an equitable solution.”
Economic zones can also be claimed by islands, making the dispute “extremely difficult, particularly because of the location of the islands and the longstanding rivalry between the two states,” she said. Disagreement over Cyprus “further complicated” the issue.
Mr Rende said Turkey’s position was that the Greek Cypriot administration “does not represent in law or fact Turkish Cypriots or the island as a whole and it follows that they’re not entitled to conclude any agreement on behalf of Turkish Cypriots.”
Turkish complaints also focus on the Greek island of Kastellorizo, known as Meis in Turkish, which lies just 2 kilometres off Turkey’s southern coast.
“Greece claims 40,000 square kilometres of maritime jurisdiction area due to this tiny island,” tweeted Cagatay Erciyes, a senior Turkish foreign ministry official.
Turkey has sought a dramatic expansion of its blue water naval presence and has been linked to planned naval bases in northern Cyprus and Libya. Plans for a base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast were only abandoned with the change of regime in the country last year.
Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said the discovery of gas had seen the Eastern Mediterranean emerge as a “nexus of international flashpoints”.
Turkey’s efforts to extend its influence in Africa and the Red Sea region brought it into conflict with both France and Egypt, he added.
Blue Homeland reflects official frustration at the situation under international law and a growing internal belief that foreign powers are happy to “imprison” Turkey with an unfair settlement, according to Adm Gurdeniz.
“Overall, we’re talking about 150,000 square kilometres of Turkey’s continental shelf being stolen," he said. “Turkey’s new geopolitical realities are changing and our friends and allies should understand this. We have to find a middle way.”