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Turkey, Italy will strengthen ties to defend Mediterranean rights, says former admiral

September 28, 2020 at 12:19 pm

Retired Turkish admiral and author Cem Gurdeniz on 19 August 2020, at Heybeliada, on the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul. [BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images]

Turkey’s 21st-century geopolitical strategy is called the Blue Homeland. It is the brainchild of retired Rear Admiral Cem Gurdeniz, who talked to MEMO about Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean policy, which envisions the protection of Turkey’s rights and interests in the declared and undeclared maritime jurisdiction areas.

Once narrowly only associated with left-wing nationalists in Turkey, the Blue Homeland strategy is now cited regularly by Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially when talking about maritime disputes. Recent disputes between Turkey and Greece over maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean have led to bitter exchanges. Some European countries – including France – have become involved on the side of the Greeks.

According to Gurdeniz, the strategy will help thwart attempts to undermine the 1936 Montreux Convention that that gives Turkey control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits and regulates the transit of warships. The Istanbul Canal is a 45-kilometre shipping lane under construction parallel to the Bosphorus which will link the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea to the south of Istanbul and ease the traffic on the busy Strait.

Moreover, the Blue Homeland is the name for a gateway for new opportunities and innovations within the context of global, continental and regional relations that Turkey seeks to develop around the axis of the Caspian, Black, eastern Mediterranean, Red and Oman Seas.

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One of the most important debates in the Eastern Mediterranean relates to the Seville Map. This was first published by Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero and Juan Carlos Rodríguez Mateos from Seville University in the early 2000s. It outlines the Exclusive Economic Zones of Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, according to the UN Charter Law of the Sea. However, the map was rejected by Ankara on the basis that it is used by Greece to isolate Turkey by trying to confine it to its Mediterranean coast.

Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Greece should renounce the Seville Map. As long as it remains, he insisted, it is impossible to resolve problems. Significantly, the US does not consider the map to have any legal significance in regard to Greece’s claims in the eastern Mediterranean.

According to Gurdeniz, the map attempts to restrict Turkey’s sovereign area in the Mediterranean to 41,000 square kilometres along its shoreline. “If the FETO coup attempt in 2016 had been successful this map, no doubt, would already be imposed on Turkey. The truly distressing thing is that the opposition to the Blue Homeland [strategy] is willing to rely on domestic crypto-FETO sources and its foreign counterparts in order to influence domestic politics.”

He added that Turkey will not tolerate this map which imprisons the country within Anatolia and breaks its ties with the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. “Those who support the EU and the US are still defending the use of the map by arguing that nothing will actually be done with it; they must be made to understand that it will suffocate us all. Love for the EU and the US cannot save Anatolia from being cut off from the sea and snuffed out.”

By highlighting the importance of diplomatic action, Admiral Gurdeniz said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Turkey should request the Presidency of the EU Commission to reject the Seville Map and insist that it be given no legal or moral validity on EU websites and documents. Its existence shows that the EU cannot be trusted to serve as a mediator in the crisis with Greece.

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With regard to Turkey’s 21st century projections, Gurdeniz emphasised that is the growth of the national economy that has qualified it for membership of the G20 nations. In terms of space and scope, the Mediterranean Sea will not be enough for Turkey. “This is quite normal, because we are talking about a very small sea area of which the eastern Mediterranean İs half. As such, the mindset of the emerging Turkey will not allow a repeat of the errors committed in the past. The Ottoman Empire, unfortunately, did not control the sea, so it declined and ultimately collapsed. In order to safeguard its economic interests, Turkey needs an active and powerful navy, hence the need for the Blue Homeland strategy.

Retired Turkish admiral and author Cem Gurdeniz on 19 August 2020, at Heybeliada, on the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul. [BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images]

Retired Turkish admiral and author Cem Gurdeniz on 19 August 2020, at Heybeliada, on the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul. [BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images]

Commenting on Israel’s role in the eastern Mediterranean, Gurdeniz stressed that Tel Aviv seeks to rebuild diplomatic relations with Ankara while simultaneously strengthening ties with Greece and Cyprus. “On the other hand, I really do not understand why Israel supports the creation of a puppet Kurdish state in the east of Turkey. It supports the US to create this puppet state. As long as Israel maintains this policy, Turkey’s relationship with Israel will not improve.”

Until the 2010 Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza, Turkey and Israel never shed each other’s blood at any time. The three Turkish villages of Iskenaz, Eskenaz and Ashanaz, on the western part of the ancient Silk Road, were home to Ashkenazi Jews, and the Turks embraced their Jewish community. During the tragic days of World War Two, Turkey managed to maintain its neutrality. As early as 1933, Ataturk invited prominent German Jewish professors to flee Nazi Germany and settle in Turkey. Before and during the war years, these scholars contributed a great deal to the development of the Turkish university system.

“During the Second World War,” explained the retired admiral, “Turkey provided safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors of Nazism. While the Jewish communities of Greece were wiped out almost completely by Hitler, Turkish Jews remained secure.”

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Gurdeniz then turned to the importance of Italy in the Eastern Med. “Italy, like Malta, did not approve the European Commission’s recent draft proposal to apply sanctions against Turkey. Together with Turkey, they support the Government of National Accord in Libya. Turkish-Italian rapprochement in recent years is very important for Mediterranean geopolitics. Italy is not an ordinary EU and Mediterranean member state; it is a country that is disturbed by France’s geopolitical ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Sahel region.”

According to Gurdeniz, Italy is also uncomfortable with the increasing French involvement in Libya, which Rome has considered as its front yard for the past century. France’s increased military presence in the eastern Mediterranean by acquiring air and naval support facilities in Greek territory has given rise to much discomfort in Italy.

As things stands, Turkish-Italian cooperation in the region is likely to develop in the foreseeable future. It will remain part of a broader 21st century maritime strategy through which Ankara seeks to secure its geopolitical and economic interests in the area between the Caspian Sea all the way to the Sea of Oman. That is what the Blue Homeland strategy is all about.