ISTANBUL - Turkey is carrying out its largest naval exercises in a display of its rapidly growing navy. The show of force comes amid rising regional tensions over territorial and energy exploration rights disputes.
Dubbed "The Blue Homeland," the drills involve more than 100 ships operating across the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean. On display in the 10-day exercise are many of Turkey's newest warships, along with the use of high-tech domestically produced drones.
"Turkey is a regional power, and this naval exercise is to show the world that Turkey is a player," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, “It is a show of strength in military terms to any country in the region.”
“They should be aware how important it is to be with Turkey or to work together with Turkey or the risk of being against Turkey," he added. "It is showing the flag, the showing of the muscles. We are here in the Mediterranean; we have our interests in Cyprus, we have our interests in gas exploration and economic interests.”
Turkey has many outstanding disputes with Greece over territorial waters, which saw the two NATO members in the past go to the brink of war. Energy exploration in Cypriot waters is also a new point of rising tension.
The Mediterranean island is divided between Greek and Turkish-Cypriot communities since a Turkish military intervention in 1974, following a Greek-inspired coup. The international community only recognizes the Greek-Cypriot administration. However, Ankara says the Greek-Cypriots must collaborate with the Turkish-Cypriot government in energy exploration after recent massive finds of natural gas in the island’s territorial waters.
"Nothing at all can be done in the Mediterranean without Turkey," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced last week. "We will not allow that, [unilateral Greek Cypriot energy exploration].“
He declared that Turkey would begin drilling for oil and gas near Cypriot waters with two new exploration ships.
Despite Ankara’s rhetoric, Greek Defense Minister Evangelos Apostolakis sought to play down the naval exercises, calling them “regular Turkish military training activities.”
Unnerving Cyprus, Greece
Analysts say Turkey’s powerful display of modern naval prowess will likely unnerve both Nicosia and Athens, which is the Greek-Cypriots' main ally.
“Turkey has resumed expanding its naval power after a decade, so we are talking about important material capabilities and the expansion of the Turkish navy should threaten the Greeks,” said international relations professor Serhat Guvenc of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“But Greece has been struggling to come out of this deep recession,” he added, “Therefore they don’t have money to respond to this Turkish naval expansion.”
Turkey’s growing military capabilities are forcing new regional alignments, say analysts such as Guvenc.
“Athens is trying to remedy the lack of financial resources with the involvement of third parties, namely Russia and the United States,” he said.
Greece traditionally has good relations with Russia, which has been building up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean as part of its backing of the Damascus government in Syria's civil war. Until recently, however, the Greek government has had a frosty relationship with Washington.
“[Greek Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras was elected on a relatively anti-Western, anti-American platform,” he added, “But Greek-American relations have been improving, and the Greek government has been the most cooperative in decades in terms of promoting military cooperation with the United States.”
In December, Greece and the United States launched a strategic dialogue to increase cooperation.
“We recognize Greece as a key player in the east Mediterranean. Greece emerges as a leader of regional stability. Our strategic dialogue will lead to a stronger future,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo also added that Washington was working to strengthen relations with “democratic allies there, like Greece and Cyprus and Israel.”
The three countries are already cooperating in the development of significant gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. They also have had strained ties with Turkey.
"Turkey’s policy toward its neighbors is threatening and aggressive, and this is and will have repercussions,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University.
“We should not forget that Greece is expected to sign in the [coming] months, a mini security arrangement with the United States, to which Egypt, Israel and Cyprus could potentially join as non-NATO countries, and this is clearly aimed at Turkey,” he added.
Turkey maintains that it poses no threat to any of its neighbors and that it is only committed to defending its rights and those of its allies. But analysts warn such words will likely do little to allay neighbors' concerns, with Turkey committed to expanding its armed forces, in particular, its navy.