On Thursday, Dec. 10, a private Turkish news agency provided its subscribers with an article titled “Turkey confessions from Greece’s national security adviser.” The article, in an effort to sum up views penned by Alexandros Diakopoulos for the Greek daily Kathimerini earlier Wednesday, argued on his behalf that Turkey was geopolitically redefining itself in the region and that it would control maritime routes from the Black Sea and Suez Canal to the central Mediterranean Sea if it succeeds. According to the article, Diakopoulos also argued that Ankara has been spending “astronomically” on its navy and defense industry, increasing its role in Africa with new embassies, gaining a foothold in northern Africa through Libya and in the Red Sea through Somalia, and even making overtures to the Pacific over defense deals signed with Pakistan and Malaysia.
In the end, various Turkish news outlets were quick to republish these views coming from a Greek national security adviser; they praised Turkish moves and gave Turkey its due in the areas of the Eastern Mediterranean and defense. One post was an exception in two ways: First, it failed to properly cite the source of the article, and second, it recalled that Diakopoulos had resigned from his post in August, despite leaving his title as national security adviser inside the main body of the article. Diakopoulos, who was appointed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as the national security adviser in August 2019, had indeed resigned from his post one year later over his remarks suggesting that Turkish hydrocarbon exploration vessel Oruç Reis was able to conduct its activities off the Greek island of Kastellorizo (Megisti-Meis) – an area he described as Greek territorial waters – despite the presence of the Greek navy in the region. The former Greek navy vice admiral tried to clarify his comments by saying that the activities of the Oruç Reis were merely a provocation and an effort by Ankara to assert its dominance, but the damage was done to Athens’ rhetoric that the Turkish navy and exploration vessels had been staved off, and he offered his resignation. Hailing from a politically active family with ties to Mitsotakis’ ruling New Democracy party, Diakopoulos held various significant posts in the Greek navy, including having been posted as a naval attache to Ankara for three years, and completed courses both at home and abroad. All in all, he had a remarkable career with important roles in shaping Greece’s policies.
To be honest, my initial reaction to Diakopoulos’ alleged commentary on Turkish control of maritime routes was in the form of “so what?” Is it really that surprising or groundbreaking that a country with the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Black Sea, or with the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, is seeking to protect its interests and assert its influence right on its doorstep? You can add other titles to the mix: Turkey is the 18th or 19th most populous country in the world with a similar ranking in terms of economy and so forth. I wanted to dig deeper, and it took me only a few seconds to see how the public opinion on both sides of the Aegean is being gravely misled on what the other thinks.
“Turkey’s disproportionate ambitions” is the title of the article penned by Diakopoulos and published by Kathimerini, a long-running and reputable Greek newspaper. The former national security adviser begins his words by launching an all-out attack on the Turkish “Blue Homeland.” He argues that the doctrine is maximalist, violates the law of the sea and disregards the continental shelf of Greek islands and the island of Cyprus. Diakopoulos then ups the ante and gets caught up in the crude comparison of the Turkish doctrine to “Lebensraum,” or living space, a term coined by Nazis referring to Eastern Europe based on racial superiority, the centurieslong Germanic colonization of Slavic peoples and the expansion drive toward the East, termed “Drang nach Osten.” He then comes to the part nitpickingly and sugar-coatedly quoted by Turkish news outlets and argues Turkey will dominate sea routes if it succeeds in its plans, which, according to Diakopoulos, are merely expansionist. He then launches a scathing attack on his colleagues Cem Gürdeniz and Cihat Yaycı, two former Turkish naval officers known as the main conceivers of the doctrine, labeling them radicals and fanatics. From that point on, he takes the argument even further to claim ever-familiar notions that you can come across in a Western-based publication about Turkey that is becoming more authoritarian and nationalistic, that it is active all around the region and seeking dominance, and so forth.
Where to begin? Maybe it is better to say what could be a concluding remark: I cannot help but feel sorry that such a paranoid, hysterical and ill-conceived set of ideas worked its way so high up in the decision-making processes of the Greek state. I am not going to argue that everything is running well and smoothly in Turkey; in contrast, we’ve experienced serious problems in almost every policy area in recent years. They all can be attributed to the policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government or his former and current political allies, Turkey’s systemic problems or external factors, but is painting such a dark picture justified, and from Athens?
One needs to point out here that since 2008, when Greece went bankrupt after a decadeslong series of irresponsible fiscal policies based on European Union grants and loans taken for granted, the country witnessed nine different Cabinets as the political pendulum swung between extreme left and far-right, delving into the prosperity and future of the Greek working class each time. It seems that exaggerating problems in Turkey or portraying Ankara’s policies in the most extreme ways possible has turned into the only choice for Athens to prop up support from abroad and compete with its eastern neighbor. But the real questions should be, does Turkey actually threaten Greece, and does it pursue an expansionist, irredentist or hostile attitude toward its western neighbor? Is it really necessary for Athens to spend billions and strain its resources to compete with Ankara and try to hamper its development in any way it could, even by practicing an open arms policy toward terrorist groups attacking Turkey? Given the arrogant and uninformative discourse hovering over the Aegean, we should first answer these questions if we are ever to follow a constructive bid between the two neighbors.
Despite Diakopoulos’ paranoid view of the world, which is unfortunately shared by many Greek policymakers, the Blue Homeland basically implies Turkey should pay more attention to the maritime theater, focus on marine delimitation agreements, tap into potential resources as a heavily energy-dependent country and be aware of its interests, in line with long-running Turkish foreign policy principles. Again to Diakopoulos’ dismay, the doctrine is actually one of the few foreign policy areas in which more or less all Turkish political parties voice their support, unlike contested issues such as Syria or Libya or relations with the EU. Far from being an assertive set of policies, in reality, the Blue Homeland is a reactional doctrine. It is reactional in the sense that Greece interprets the Law of the Sea to its benefit and completely ignores the Turkish continental shelf to the advantage of small islands, despite a lack of agreement between contesting parties. It is reactional for a group of countries, namely Greece, Israel and Egypt, to force the hand of Libya, Syria and Lebanon, all dealing with their own internal problems. While United Nations troops still patrol the Green Line and efforts toward a solution are blocked by the Greek Cypriot administration, Nicosia is offered an equal seat at the table that partitions the entire Eastern Mediterranean, while no mention of Turkish Cypriots and their rights is made. While huge chunks of the Mediterranean seabed go to the Greek Cypriot administration, with a population of less than 1 million, no one seems to care about the maritime rights of 2 million Palestinians cramped inside the Gaza Strip, 3 million more in the occupied West Bank and hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout the Middle East. The region is divided up for international energy giants to exploit while all these conflicts persist. The Blue Homeland is reactional toward Greece’s unneighborly efforts to seize the moment as Ankara is having a series of disagreements with Cairo and Tel Aviv and tiptoe past Turkey in projects to carry the Eastern Mediterranean oil and gas into Europe despite unfeasible projects and inflated costs. It is reactional for Greece to call for help from Europe over alleged Turkish aggression and breach of rights while Athens is courting all the repressive figures in the region, be they Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi or even Libya's putchist Gen. Khalifa Haftar. However, while displaying an exemplary realpolitik drive toward such figures, Athens consistently avoids the negotiating table with Ankara over a wide range of issues, as recently displayed by the Greek delegation at NATO repeatedly skipping deconfliction mechanism talks with their Turkish counterparts, probably over fantasies that the EU would actually impose serious sanctions on its major trade and security partner. It is, in fact, not Turkey but Greece that systematically creeps toward the Eastern Mediterranean in issues way beyond its size, its rights and its power.
Take the Aegean, where Athens is pursuing a decadeslong campaign to increase its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, citing international law. While this claim – which Turkey declared in a casus belli in 1995 – is obviously impracticable throughout the eastern Aegean in overlapping areas with those of the Turkish mainland, it hands off the control of maritime routes leading to all five other Black Sea riparian states (Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria) and those with access to the Black Sea (Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria through the Danube, Moldova, Armenia and even Belarus, and all riparian states of the Caspian Sea – Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) to Greece. Does anyone in their right mind think such an aspiration is achievable by forcing Turkey’s hand on the table without firing a single bullet? Such an enlargement practically leaves the access of the entire western and northern Turkey to international waters under Greek control, and if you add Greek plans in the Mediterranean, it basically means Turkey will be surrounded by Greek territorial waters and EEZ. Is this an ambition proportionate to Greece? Have you ever heard the warmongering, Lebensraum-seeking Turkey harassing a commercial airliner or a passenger ferry in the Aegean? Wasn’t it Greece that deployed soldiers in the first place in a show of force for two uninhabited islets just 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) off the Turkish mainland back in 1996?
Take defense budgets: NATO figures show the “astronomical” Turkish defense expenditure was a little lower than 1.52% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014, which has risen at 1.91%, just below the 2% threshold set by the alliance, according to 2020 estimates. Meanwhile, Greek defense expenditures stood at 2.21% to 2.58% in 2014 and 2020, respectively. Turkey’s real GDP fell from $980 billion in 2019 to $943 billion in 2020, while Greece also shed $17 billion and fell to $190 billion. With a five-times-larger economy, six-times-larger land area, more than 7.5-times-larger population, various conflicts on its doorstep and an alleged aggressive course, Turkey spent $13.30 billion compared with Greece’s $4.78 billion, only 2.8 times higher than its western neighbor. To further make the point, Turkish defense expenditures were short of Spain’s by $766 million, or more than those of Poland by $1.26 billion or the Netherlands by $1.23 billion. Without a single land threat, France, the newfound Greek ally, spends 2.4 times as much as Turkey given its overseas positions and sizable economy. It is clear that Greece maintains an abnormally large military, using an absurd 75.6% of its defense budget for personnel expenditures while forsaking new equipment or research and development. Athens is straining its resources just to keep up with a perceived enemy, a NATO member and EU candidate country, just like the rest of its neighbors. It is a shame that all this money is being poured into militarizing every island and islet in the region, in violation of bilateral agreements, and it is also a shame that this inflated and pointless military spending is not covered by Greek and Turkish publications lacking intellectual pursuit.
For Gürdeniz and Yaycı, please, keep in mind that both former rear admirals, dubbed radicals by Diakopoulos, had distinguished careers in NATO’s second-largest military force. Described as a “Eurasianist” by his Greek peer, Gürdeniz completed his first postgraduate studies in the U.S. and served in NATO’s SHAPE headquarters in Brussels, in addition to serving in various posts throughout his naval career; Yaycı also holds a postgraduate diploma from the U.S. and has an equally successful naval career. So what lies behind Diakopoulos’ labeling? With territories both in Europe and Asia, and through cultural and religious ties with both the East and West, Turkey is one of the countries where the “Eurasia” concept fits the best; however, the Eurasianist emphasis here points to something else. It is not a secret that, broadly, there have been two major camps in the Turkish military since the end of the Cold War: the one promotes closer cooperation with NATO and the Western alliance, while the other is not necessarily against pro-Atlantic ties but maintains a skeptical view of the West’s policies regarding Turkey and its surrounding region in general, thus calling for diversification of foreign policy and defense. It is also not a secret that the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), which has been on the radar of U.S.-led Cold War-era security apparatuses since its foundation, maintained closer ties with the pro-Atlantic camp throughout its long-running bid to infiltrate the Turkish military. When FETÖ – a shadowy Messianic cult – also grabbed enough power in other branches of the government and the judiciary, it launched a series of sham trials based on illegal and fake evidence targeting the “other” camp in the military, using coup plots as a pretext. The navy was the worst-hit armed forces branch; “radical” Gürdeniz, who coined the term “Blue Homeland,” was among the hundreds of targeted names and spent more than four years in jail between February 2010 and June 2014, only to be released when the Constitutional Court ruled for a retrial and wait another year to be acquitted. Here, we should note that this “other” camp, seriously battered by FETÖ, was instrumental in fending off the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, along with the determination of the Turkish people and political figures. I don’t think that anyone in Athens understands the gravity of the attempt or the importance of its rather quick suppression and its possible repercussions if it had succeeded, such as turning Turkey into a military-theocratic dictatorship open for all kinds of foreign involvement or prompting a civil war.
As the other “fanatic” that now allegedly rules over Turkish policies, Yaycı was among the few lucky naval officers who were spared in this onslaught. Although not as politically vocal as Gürdeniz, who is openly critical of Erdoğan at times, Yaycı holds an invaluable role in naval measurements and was instrumental in signing the key naval delimitation deal with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), the legitimate authority in Libya. However, Yaycı himself resigned from the military in May 2020 citing disagreements and currently pursues a career as an academic. He has been on record numerous times saying that the Blue Homeland is not a set of concrete demands and positions but rather a guideline for those who hold power in Turkey in matters related to maritime policies. However, if we were to act on Diakopoulos’ twisted narrative, every single Turkish official seeking to promote national interests or follow a course of policies independent of the pro-Atlantic camp can be labeled as a “fanatic” or “radical,” and such officials can even be persecuted by shadowy groups or may be executed. Greece’s position in even refusing to extradite FETÖ-linked officers that fled the country after the coup attempt with a stolen helicopter is enough proof for Turkish public opinion that such a mindset is prevalent in Athens, and such commentary offers more insight into the intertwined relations between FETÖ and the pro-Atlantic security structure.
Turkish track record
All in all, the Blue Homeland is a product of Turkish security circles that often face criticism at home for always being on the defensive and too cautious when it comes to projecting military force in international or regional affairs. This may come as a surprise for many due to Turkey’s warmongering image projected all over the world over the recent military operations or defense initiatives launched by Ankara; however, history proves otherwise. The only large-scale military operation Turkey has conducted abroad since 1923 happens to be in Cyprus, and let me remind you of the atmosphere prior to 1974: The Turkish Cypriot community was stripped of their rights enshrined in the Republic of Cyprus constitution agreed upon by both communities on the island and the guarantor states of the U.K., Greece and Turkey, forced to live in enclaves starting from the early 1960s and subjected to incessant attacks by an ultranationalist Greek Cypriot militia, and a far-right military junta that had been in power in Athens since 1967. In normal circumstances, all of these atrocities above would have provided enough of an excuse for concrete military action; however, it took more than a decade for the mainland to come to the rescue of its ethnic kin, mainly due to U.S. threats amid Cold War-era politics and Ankara’s limited military capabilities. The final straw was the Athens-backed far-right coup that deposed President Makarios III and sought to unite the island with Greece, and Turkey launched its operation that captured the northern 40% of the island. Even this patient, limited, calculated military move was more than enough for the country to be labeled as the aggressor, resulting in embargoes that forced Ankara’s hand to establish a defense industry independent of the Western alliance and creation of the Aegean Army outside NATO’s scope, as previously all military establishments were designed according to the Soviet threat. Both concepts that are feared by Greece are in fact direct outcomes of Greek aggression in the region. One should also note that Greece had severed ties with NATO’s military command in 1964 and altogether withdrew in 1974, only to return in 1980 with the approval of another junta, this time in Ankara. This decision was mainly over the perceived threat of the communist bloc and pressure from the U.S. that facilitated and supported their power-grabbing in a bid to “stabilize” its only remaining ally in the region after the 1979 revolution in Iran, where a theocratic and authoritarian regime has been in charge ever since.
Take Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey only closed its borders and issued protests as Armenian forces occupied 20% of Azerbaijani territories, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands in the process. Take the first and second Gulf wars, when Turkey rejected direct involvement twice with the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) objections playing a key role, much to the dismay of ruling governments at the time, including Washington. Turkey maintains a military presence in northern Iraq to a degree, mainly due to the power vacuum created in the aftermath of the Gulf War as Saddam Hussein’s forces were pushed out of the region after a series of massacres and atrocities that even involved the use of chemical weapons, driving half a million Iraqi Kurds into the Turkish territory in the process. Take Libya, where Turkey is now an active player, and remember how Ankara wanted to spare the country from destruction back in 2011 through a series of objections against a NATO-led intervention targeting Moammar Gadhafi championed by France.
Further west in Syria, a brutal civil war has been ongoing since 2011, driving up to 8 million Syrians into Turkish territory, stripping Turkey of a major economic partner, paving the way for all kinds of terrorist groups to carve up self-ruled areas with spillover effects constantly impacting the country, be they in the form of cross-border attacks, suicide bombings or an all-out rebellion attempt, just like the one the PKK terrorist group tried to launch in 2015. The timing and the background of the latter are very important, as it took place after the terrorist group and its Syrian wing, the YPG, were catapulted to the forefront in the fight against Daesh, despite objections from regional actors led by Ankara, gaining international support and legitimacy, access to funds and weapons and control of swathes of territory in northern Syria. While the war on Daesh was still far from over, the PKK abandoned a crucial reconciliation process and simply tried to seize the moment to put these gains into action in its 40-year-long campaign against the Turkish state, which, of course, did not welcome this venture with open arms and responded with strict measures. Despite this quagmire, Turkey has only conducted surgical operations in Syrian territory and refrained from getting caught up in the larger conflict.
Here, I must stress that this is simply an evaluation of the events from recent history and by no means aims to suggest that Ankara should have acted otherwise. I think in all these crises mentioned above, Turkish officials took somewhat rational steps in accordance with the political, economic and military options at hand, and while some played out positively, others did not. The modern-day Turkish population is a refugee mix that had witnessed countless atrocities before migrating to Anatolia as the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. From its foundation, the ruling elite in Turkey kept that fact in mind and refrained from ventures abroad, while focusing on bolstering the country’s security through a string of alliances, no matter how limiting they might be compared with their country’s potential. The public opinion also generally reflects this cautious approach and refrains from adventurism. Some may choose to believe otherwise with car analogies, quoting the “pro-Turkish” American Ambassador James Jeffrey, who, in a recent interview, unashamedly spoke of Russians chopping “the shit out of a Turkish battalion.” I think many in Athens should indeed note this disrespect toward an allied nation’s soldiers, who came under attack while trying to protect 4 million people crammed into Idlib from getting massacred and fend off another refugee influx that would not only hit Turkey but indeed Greece and the rest of Europe.
Despite this historical record, however, it is clear every step taken by Ankara is perceived or being portrayed in Athens as a direct move against Greece. On this side of the Aegean, when a defense project is undertaken, many often remember how Turkey had to deploy passenger ferries operating in the Marmara Sea when thousands of Turkish nationals, along with many from other nations, were caught up when the conflict began in Libya. We often remember how Crimea was invaded and annexed overnight or how Russian forces showed up on Tbilisi’s outskirts a decade earlier. I can say with confidence that most Turks lament how they have drifted away from their Greek neighbors in the chaos of the early 20th century, as much as they are proud of defeating the imperialist Greek campaign in Anatolia that paved the way for their independence. It is clear that instead of a bragging tone about Turkish achievements, a reconciliatory tone is necessary to convince our western neighbor that Turkey is simply seeking to protect its rights and does not pursue an aggressive agenda, certainly not toward Greece. Whether in tourism, fisheries, the environment, trade, reduced defense budgets or cultural exchange, there is certainly a lot to gain for both sides from ending this deaf dialogue.
*News Manager at Daily Sabah