President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is building a navy capable of asserting his nation’s interests as a regional power.
Sailing through the Bosporus Strait that divides Europe from Asia last year, a Turkish fleet saluted the tomb of 16th century pirate and admiral Barbarossa, reviving a tradition that harks back to when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Mediterranean Sea.
Little noticed abroad, the tribute by sailors returning from the country’s largest-ever naval exercise now appears freighted with symbolism. As Turkey rebuilds its maritime might and contests disputed waters, it is once more in conflict with historic adversaries to the West.
International attention has focused on the race for offshore natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean that prompted not just Turkey, but also Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel to claim rights in one of the world’s most crowded seas. Yet the roots of the tensions run deeper.
The growth of the navy reveals the scale—often dismissed outside Turkey— of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to assert his nation’s interests as a specifically Muslim regional power, able to go toe-to-toe with Europe, Russia and the U.S.
Augmented by new domestically produced surface ships and submarines, the navy has already helped Erdogan to project force abroad with a success that has surprised and alarmed other littoral states. Larger frigates are in the pipeline, and a 27,000 ton light aircraft carrier is due by next year.
“Not far below the surface is a much more emotive set of issues, the idea that Turkey is the greatest power in the Eastern Mediterranean and should be treated as such,” said Ryan Gingeras, professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and a specialist in Turkish maritime affairs. “It perceives itself as surrounded by rivals and adversaries and it will use strength to assert itself, because it can.”
The boom around Turkey’s naval shipyards is part of a wider expansion of the domestic arms industry—from warships, to attack helicopters, to armed drones—aimed at gaining what Turkish officials call “strategic independence” from Western suppliers, now seen more as rivals than partners.
Erdogan has set a target of 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Republic, for Turkey to provide all of its own weaponry. That’s unlikely to be met. There are also reasons to doubt whether a troubled $750 billion economy can sustain his great power ambitions in the current climate. The European Union is also threatening sanctions over Turkey’s activities in the region.
Still, Turkey’s military has forced its way into northern Syria, ensuring a seat at the table in developments there. In Libya, Turkish warships helped supply and support the besieged government in Tripoli, turning the tide of civil war in its favor.
Turkish naval flotillas also now routinely escort seismic research vessels into Greek and Cypriot-claimed waters as they explore for gas. Last month, that resulted in a collision with a Greek naval vessel as animosity between the two NATO members reached its highest point since a 1996 standoff over a pair of uninhabited Aegean islets that almost saw them go to war.
“Turkey will get its fair share in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea,” Erdogan said in a speech on Aug. 26 to commemorate the first Seljuk Turk defeat of the Greek, Byzantine Empire, at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. “If we say we will do something, we will do it, and we will pay the price,” he added, daring any nation to stand in the way.
A few days later, he marked another military victory over Greece, in 1922, by celebrating the production of Turkey’s first ship-launched cruise missile, as well as “space trials” for a liquid-propelled rocket. And on Saturday, he appeared to threaten Greece directly, warning it would suffer “in the field” if it didn’t reach a diplomatic settlement.
Just how literally to take Erdogan’s belligerence is unclear. In a recent Bloomberg News interview, his spokesman and adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey aimed to pressure Mediterranean partners to consider and negotiate Turkish interests in the region that had for too long been ignored.
Greece says that islands must be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf, in line with the UN Law of the Sea, which Turkey has not signed. Ankara argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland. Both sides have offered to sit down for talks, though there’s little prospect of that happening anytime soon.
Turkey’s forceful approach is getting attention from other Mediterranean powers, but it has also left the nation of 83 million looking isolated.
Last week, a Turkish navy website expressed concern at Russian plans to hold live-fire exercises in the Mediterranean later this month. The U.S. partially lifted a decades-long arms embargo on Cyprus, divided since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 ostensibly to protect ethnic Turks. In a show of force, France briefly flew high-powered Rafale jets to an airbase on the Greek-speaking side of the island.
Erdogan’s nationalist approach has broad political appeal, in a nation polarized between supporters of his brand of religious conservatism and of the secularism promoted by the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“I’m a Kemalist, I’m totally against using Islam in politics,” said Cem Gurdeniz, a retired admiral and former director of policy planning for the Turkish navy. Yet he shares Erdogan’s belief that core interests of the U.S. and Western Europe are now opposed to those of Turkey.
In 2006, Gurdeniz produced the idea of an expansive “Blue Homeland” in the waters that surround Turkey, which has since been taken up by the state. He describes that vision as a call to defend Turkey’s maritime rights, made in response to Greece’s stance. He ridiculed the idea that offshore islands should supersede mainland claims to as many as 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles) of continental shelf.
“Their mindset is so simple: We left Anatolia after defeat in 1923, but we kept the Aegean Sea,” he said. “They think the Turks are a land people, so at sea they can take whatever they want. No, things have changed.”
Based on current construction plans, Turkey’s navy will soon outweigh its primary Greek competitor, long considered the stronger power at sea. A spokesman for the Greek Navy said neither the Defense Ministry nor the Navy would comment for this article.
None of this makes war between the two countries inevitable or even probable, but escalation risks are rising, according to Hugo Decis, a research analyst focused on naval affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based security think tank.
“What we should be really worried about is the development of a dynamic of fait accompli, where Turkey starts to take the same kinds of steps as China,” Decis said, referring to the militarization of reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea.
Last year’s massive naval exercise was itself called “Blue Homeland.” As the fleet honored Barbarossa, few personalities could have better reflected the growing rift in perceptions between Turkey and the West.
Remembered in Europe as a slave trader who ravaged the Mediterranean’s northern coastlines, Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha is revered at home as a brilliant naval commander who, in 1538, defeated a combined fleet of Christian powers. For a brief three decades, he turned the sea into an Ottoman lake.
“This is not an issue of Turkey’s internal politics,” Gurdeniz said of Turkey’s Mediterranean demands. “These are disputes that won’t go away, even if the government changes.”
— With assistance by Cagan Koc, Selcan Hacaoglu, Sotiris Nikas, and Paul Tugwell