Will Turkey’s Naval Power Doctrine Evolve towards an East Africa Operational Zone?

By Chris Deliso

December 14, 2020

2020 was a busy year for assessment of Turkish maritime strategy. In February, I predicted (in Jane’s Intelligence Review) that Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci would likely become ‘’collateral damage” of Turkish internal power rivalries. Nevertheless, when the proclaimed architect of Turkey’s naval strategy was retired in May, many were surprised. After all, Turkey’s seeming successes in the maritime deal with Tripoli and intervention in Libya should have been reason for reward rather than retirement.

Image source Turkish MFA webpage ‘Relations between Turkey and the Comoros’

But that is another story, one that illustrates a certain dependable trajectory in Turkish security analysis. In the big picture, what is much more significant is the doctrine with which officers like Yayci are most associated- the Mavi Vatan or ‘Blue Homeland’ maritime drills in the Black Sea, Eastern Aegean and Eastern Mediterraneanbthat occurred since last year. The future direction that Turkey takes with the doctrine that envisioned the drills could have significant repercussions for multi-regional security events, some of which have possibly not been contemplated until now.

THE BLUE HOMELAND DOCTRINE- AKP INNOVATIONS AND GREEK MISUNDERSTANDINGS

The actual doctrine is not completely new, as it rests ultimately on Turkey’s singular historic interpretation of maritime law (Turkey is not a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). The neo-Ottoman tendencies of President Erdoğan’s AKP governments have for obvious reasons endorsed a policy that envisions Turkish maritime territory extending well into the Greek islands and throughout the Mediterranean.

To project power in a meaningful way, Turkey has steadily increased its naval capacities and conducted large-scale naval exercises across its sea zones last year. The long-awaited TCG Anadolu light aircraft carrier (based on the Spanish Juan Carlos class of vessel) is due to be completed soon in the Istanbul shipyard. Turkish analysts have pointed out that having an aircraft carrier will allow them to conduct aerial missions in distant theaters of war, where refueling issues would otherwise present this activity.

In September 2020, The Daily Sabah cited Defense Industries Presidency (SSB) Chairman Ismail Demir as saying a whole range of new vessels, including submarines, are going to be commissioned in the next few years to achieve Turkish goals of maritime dominance in the region. In August, the Turkish president had said the country will need a total of three aircraft carriers to become “a deterrent at sea.”

Finally, Turkey throughout 2020 consistently called on Greece to remove forces from Aegean islands it considers “illegally” militarized, citing prior treaties. However, Greece has not called for Turkey to demilitarize its coastal cities, has no plan to invade Turkey, and is well aware (from Turkey’s 1974 Cyprus invasion) of the threat of Turkish amphibious assaults. The period from 1967-74 witnessed a similar Turkish naval buildup to what we are seeing now.

For these reasons, it was strange to hear Greek Foreign Minister Dendias dismiss the Blue Homeland exercises, and the underlying doctrine behind it, as more fanciful than real. “When I first heard of this, I thought it must be the opinion of some junior officer,” Dendias commented when the question was raised at an LSE Hellenic Observatory webinar of 5 November. (I am paraphrasing him, but the quote is in there somewhere, towards the end of the recording).

Notably, Dendias also stated that he had recently come from Germany, where he had been personally lobbying high officials to stop German companies from selling equipment used by Turkey’s submarine fleet.

History reveals that Greek officials have chronically underestimated Turkish naval capacities and resolve, sometimes out of arrogance and sometimes out of ignorance. Highly recommended reading in this regard is a new academic book on how the Turkish military planned and executed the 1974 Cyprus invasion- apparently catching the Greeks and Greek Cypriots completely by surprise. The book in question is Edward J. Erickson and Mesut Uyar, Phase Line Attila The Amphibious Campaign for Cyprus, 1974. (I will review this book in due course).

TURKEY’S RIVALRY WITH FRANCE OVER AFRICA AND POSSIBLE EXPANSION OF THE BLUE HOMELAND DOCTRINE

The year 2020 has also showed continuous conflict between Turkey and France over dominance in Africa- essentially, a neo-colonial endeavor on both sides. However, Erdoğan has slickly portrayed the French as the real ‘colonizers’ while Turkey represents ‘brotherhood’ with fellow Muslims there. Earlier in the year, Macron publicly demanded West African leaders do more to fight anti-French sentiment in their countries. This has risen due to the French military engagement in the Sahel, and the increase in jihadist activity in the region.

Turkey has its own military, diplomatic, economic and developmental goals in Africa, ranging from a strategic base in Somalia to participation in NATO Gulf of Guinea anti-piracy naval exercises, with the Libya adventure thrown in between. This has a long and established pattern of opportunism (see my 2011 interview here) by which Turkey has gotten steadily more involved with developing economies across all sectors- including military sales of Turkish-produced gear to several countries, and cooperation with Western European military subsidiaries (such as a German-owned South African venture).

In this context, the main analytical question for future will be how the partial activation of the Blue Homeland doctrine (through the Libya intervention, maritime border deal, naval exercises, energy exploration and other practices) will develop in the next 5-10 years. While all of these exploits have been treated rather dramatically in the media and by Greece, they are still within the realm of policy, of what Turkey considers its real ‘near-abroad.’ At the same time, however, Erdoğan has often emphasized his desire that Turkey become a leading superpower.

Therefore, a new question arises: how could Turkey expanded its Blue Homeland policy towards achieving this goal? Does it even have the appetite, or the means to do so, and what would be the main challenges and potential benefits?

CONTESTED TERRITORIES IN EAST AFRICA AND A POSSIBLE ENTRY IN THE COMOROS ISLANDS ISSUE

A private newsletter out of the UK that occasionally provides good intel recently reported on clashes in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Citing a British official, the report stated that this populous Christian country strategically located in East Africa could become “the next Yugoslavia,” with a more widespread conflict and possible Egyptian military involvement that would target the new Ethiopia dam on the all-important River Nile. The UN is now putting pressure on Ethiopian authorities after one of its field delegations was shot at recently f after failing to stop at two military checkpoints. Ethiopian leaders were also angered recently when US President Trump speculated that Egypt might in fact blow up the dam in the end, because of the clear water-sharing problems the mega-project will create.

I do not know enough about Ethiopian politics to comment further, except to say that the existence of such complex inter-state conflicts are [potentially great opportunities for Turkish involvement. Also, in that general region (through Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia) there are clusters of military bases run by the world’s leading superpowers, with the overall objective of guarding the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea up to Suez being a common interest.

Turkey has established its military base in Somalia and would like to claim that it can do what Western powers cannot- to stabilize this perennial hotspot of jihadism. But, if conditions are favorable and strategic interests warrant, Turkey could do something much more interesting in its low-intensity war with France: establishment of a naval base in the island nation of Comoros, just off the East African coast, and a former French colony of which one island (Mayotte) is still French territory due to popular referendum.

Comoros would be an appealing proposition for several aspects. Like Turkey, it is a Muslim country and part of the relevant international organizations. It is also chronically unstable and corrupt, having suffered numerous military coups since independence in 1974. There is very little information available about Turkish relations with Comoros, though this Turkish foreign ministry webpage has some basic facts of cooperation.

According to this official website, “Turkey has become one of the leading trading partners of the Comoros. The trade volume between the two countries in 2018 was 18.3 million USD and in 2019 the trade volume increased to 21.1 million USD.”

When it comes to development aid, Turkey “is providing development and technical assistance to the Comoros through TİKA, which has established a program coordination office in Moroni in April 2017.”

Further, the  Turkish Government runs the ‘Türkiye Scholarships Program for locals, which “is allocating undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students from the Comoros. Until now, 127 students from Comoros were granted scholarships.”

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the ministry notes, Turkey runs an “International Training Program for Junior Diplomats, organized each year by the Diplomacy Academy of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” All of these measures indicate that, like other Muslim African countries especially, Turkey has a clear influence plan underway.

A Turkish naval base in Comoros would give Turkey its own equivalent to the US-run military island of Diego Garcia to the northeast. This position would also be of inestimable value should security conditions on the mainland deteriorate in countries like Tanzania, where Turkey already has a strong presence. Finally, it would increase Turkey’s proximity to the minerals-rich island of Madagascar, the current site of a global economic resource war. In fact, at present Turkey’s main diplomatic presence to Comoros is in Madagascar- while the Comoros representation to Turkey is in Cairo.

Establishing a presence in Comoros would also be useful for Turkish propaganda offensives against their French rivals in the neo-colonial contest. In the most recent referendum, Mayotte chose to remain under the direct rule of Paris because it enjoys a superior standard of living than the independent Comoros islands. Were Turkey to invest in modernizing the country and making its leaders more accountable to the population, perhaps a future referendum will go the other way. IN that case Turkey could deprive France of a strategically vital military zone.

The major challenge for Turkey in this regard is that the Comoros government already has a defense agreement with France, which runs a naval base there. Comoros also has increasing ties with China, which has a similar view of islands as strategic military assets. A rival Muslim benefactor o the Comoros, the UAE, has also reported interests in base expansion there. Finally, India has reported interest in establishing a naval presence in Madagascar or Comoros, after several high-level visits in the last few years. All of this interest will simply drive up the price of admission, and Turkey may simply decide it is too distant or that there are other options to achieve its strategic objectives.

CONCLUSION

In whatever case, by continuing to develop its contacts and influence at the African Union level, Turkey will also continue to woo these countries in its direction. The only question remains whether it will at the same time seek to expand its maritime capacities beyond what has traditionally been known as its sphere of influence- even to itself.

Unlike the sea area around Cyprus and Greece, where Turkish policy-makers will continue to cite a primary defensive role to their naval escalation (making it primarily a national security issue), any large-scale extension of activity into the Indian Ocean would probably have to be justified by future expectations of economic relationships. Nevertheless, the fact that Turkey already possesses a Somalia base will likely make expansion southward an appealing thought. In so doing, Turkey would develop a maritime presence from the middle of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, as well as the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Jane’s, Janes Fighting Ships Yearbook 2020 – 2021

Metin Gurcan, Opening the Black Box: The Turkish Military Before and After July 2016 (Wolverhampton Military Studies)

Soner Cagapatay, Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East

Douglas Porch, The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force

 

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