Category Archives: Middle East

Analysis related to USCENTCOM.

The Mavi Vatan Doctrine and Blue Homeland Anthem: A Look At Turkey’s Maritime Worldview

By Jeff Jager and Andrew Norris

According to its main proponent, retired Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, Turkey’s concept of mavi vatan represents an idea, a symbol, and a doctrine. As an idea, mavi vatan encompasses Turkey’s maritime interests; as a symbol, Turkey’s eponymous military exercise in 2019 demonstrated its maritime jurisdiction claims and the potential of the Turkish Navy and Turkey’s maritime capabilities; and, as a doctrine, mavi vatan guides the defense of Turkish sovereignty at sea, including the control of Turkey’s continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Mavi vatan has increasingly gained prominence both domestically and as a component of Turkey’s foreign policy, which in the last half-decade has become increasingly aggressive and securitized, with an anti-Western, anti-U.S. outlook as a central organizing principle.

Mavi vatan most visibly manifested itself through Turkey’s dispatch in August 2020 of the seismic research vessel Oruç Reis, under the escort of five warships, to conduct surveys of possible hydrocarbon resources in maritime zones claimed by Greece. This led to, among other things, a collision between one of the warships and a Greek warship shadowing the Turkish flotilla; France dispatching military assets to the Eastern Mediterranean in a show of support for Greece; and Greece vowing to procure more military hardware with which to confront Turkey. All of this has dramatically raised regional tensions, which were already fraught as a result of other manifestations of mavi vatan, such as the aforementioned 2019 military exercise and Turkey’s exploratory activities in waters claimed by Cyprus in 2019.

Aug 10, 2020 – Turkey’s research vessel, Oruc Reis, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels as it transits the Mediterranean. (Photo via Turkish Defense Ministry)

The Turkish Presidency’s Directorate of Communication’s September 2020 YouTube release of the Mavi Vatan Anthem (Mavi Vatan Marşı) exemplifies the increasing prominence of mavi vatan in Turkish security affairs. The Anthem, which resembles in many ways the Turkish national anthem, is accompanied by a propaganda video highlighting the centuries-long history of the Turkish Navy protecting the mavi vatan. Gaudy and replete with symbolism, the Mavi Vatan Anthem reflects not only the significance and prominence of mavi vatan in contemporary Turkey, but also provides insights into Turkey’s mindset and worldview. The Anthem provides an example of how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pro-religious stance is now more formally shaping Turkey’s securitized foreign policy perspectives. This article, after providing some background and context, translates and analyzes the Mavi Vatan Anthem and the associated propaganda video to allow for a fuller understanding and discussion of it and its import.

Mavi Vatan Fundamentals

Mavi vatan establishes the defense of Turkish sovereignty in the maritime domain as its supreme objective. To achieve this objective, mavi vatan employs the principle of forward defense to pursue three goals: making Turkey a regional maritime power; buttressing Turkey’s maritime claims; and countering Western attempts to constrain Turkey. The underlying forward defense principle focuses on securitizing or militarizing Turkey’s foreign policy and defending Turkish sovereignty and territorial integrity as far forward from its land borders as possible, both of which rely on developing self-sufficiency in Turkey’s defense industry, which is already producing indigenous high-quality naval vessels.

By making Turkey a regional maritime power, the first goal of mavi vatan, Turkey aims to ensure it possesses the military capacity and capability to project power and protect Turkish interests in its surrounding seas (the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Eastern Mediterranean) and further abroad if necessary. This serves to enhance Turkey’s regional standing generally, and also allows it to shape more aggressively the outcome of regional disputes in a manner favorable to Turkey’s national interests. On a larger global stage, this enhanced power may serve as a deterrent to Western actors involving themselves in matters of interest to Turkey, and may also elevate the appeal of Turkey as a partner to other major powers, including Russia and China.

Mavi vatan’s second goal, strengthening Turkey’s regional maritime boundary claims, envisions Turkey declaring, delimiting, and defending maritime boundaries in the Aegean Sea, Black Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean. This goal represents perhaps the most common interpretation of mavi vatan, which analysts such as Ryan Gingeras at the Naval Postgraduate School now use as a “shorthand expression for Ankara’s maritime claims.” Through this second goal, Turkey aims for access to energy resources, increased influence, and domestic economic growth. As with the overall militarization of Turkish policy, this goal has the added domestic appeal of a strong and assertive Turkey “taking back” its rightful maritime birthright, with the bonus that this is being done at the expense of traditional foe (and NATO ally) Greece.

The desire to counter Greece links to mavi vatan’s third goal of preventing perceived Western attempts to constrain Turkey, colloquially referred to as a “second Treaty of Sevres” by Turks. Just as Western powers aimed to dismantle the remnants of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in the Treaty of Sevres, so too in the minds of mavi vatan adherents the West (mainly Greece and the United States, but also the EU and other competitors in the Eastern Mediterranean) aims to dismantle the link between Turkey’s territory, its maritime jurisdictions, and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The Increased Prominence and Acceptance of Mavi Vatan

Mavi vatan has been increasingly accepted as a component of Turkish foreign policy. Though the concept of mavi vatan was first introduced in 2006, the first indications of high-level political endorsement emerged in 2019, when President Erdoğan twice appeared in photographs in front of maps showing mavi vatan boundaries. These photographs became front-page news in Turkey after Greek politicians and media strongly reacted to what appeared to be an endorsement in a military setting of a claim by Turkey to waters (and associated resources) claimed by Greece. President Erdoğan’s endorsement of the concept is both indicated by, and perhaps served as encouragement for, a recent proclamation by a Turkish Navy Commander in Erdoğan’s presence, without contradiction or rebuke, that “[w]e are proud to wave our glorious Turkish banner in all our seas. . . I submit that we are ready to protect every swath of our 462 thousand square kilometer blue homeland with great determination and undertake every possible duty that may come.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan appears in front of a map entitled “Mavi Vatan.” (Photo via Aydinlik)

Perhaps on cue from President Erdoğan, reference to and endorsement of mavi vatan has exploded in recent times amongst senior defense and military officials. In August 2019, Hulusi Akar, a retired Turkish Army general and former Chief of the Turkish General Staff now serving as the Turkish Minister of Defense, provided what appears to be the first public support from a senior defense official for mavi vatan during his speech commemorating Turkish Victory Day, which marks Turkey’s final victory over Greece in the Turkish War of Independence. Other such examples include the Turkish Naval War College using Mavi Vatan as the title of its respected journal and the Turkish Ministry of National Defense releasing a statement that Turkey will “defend all of our rights, interests, and advantages in our blue homeland, as we have until today and as we will until the end.” And as if to cement the centrality of this concept in Turkish strategic thinking, the February 2019 naval exercise, the largest in the history of the Turkish Navy, involving 103 Turkish Navy vessels and more than 20,000 troops and air units in the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean, was named Mavi Vatan.

It is against this backdrop of Turkey’s enthusiastic and burgeoning embrace of the mavi vatan concept that the Directorate of Communications released the Mavi Vatan Anthem. The Anthem offers a fascinating glimpse into Turkey’s current military, diplomatic, and domestic mindset, as analyzed in the following sections.

The Mavi Vatan Anthem

Resplendent with garish imagery and jingoistic narration, with nationalist, Islamist, and neo-Ottoman themes, the Turkish Presidency’s Mavi Vatan Anthem provides a stark illustration of the extent to which the Erdoğan government has embraced mavi vatan and demonstrates the neo-Ottoman ethno-religious nationalism espoused by President Erdoğan. This section translates, explains, and analyzes the Anthem in manageable segments, accompanied by the corresponding video segment to allow for concurrent viewing and correlation by the reader.

Scene 1: The Martyred Father

Time: 0:00 – 0:55 (Link to Scene 1)

Scene Description: With a background of slow, melancholic, traditional Turkish music, the Turkish Presidency’s presentation of the Mavi Vatan Anthem opens with two Turkish Navy officers, serving as casualty assistance officers, notifying the conservative wife and children of (apparently fictional) Navy Commander (General Staff) Süleyman Mehmetoğlu that their husband/father has died in service (şehit in Turkish, literally “martyred”). The scene itself begins with Mehmetoğlu’s son reading to his younger sister (who is wearing a Turkish-flag bandana) from a book inscribed with a memorable quote by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha, the famous 16th century Ottoman pirate turned Admiral in Chief of the Ottoman Navy, which reads: “He who commands the seas, commands the world” — a fitting introduction to the production that follows.

A ringing doorbell alerts the children and their mother to the arrival of two casualty assistance officers, one holding a folded Turkish flag and the other a model of an Ottoman-era sailing ship with the name Barbaros written on it. As the door opens, a voice-over reciting a poem begins, and the camera pans to show the children standing in front of their mother, who is wearing a long skirt and a headscarf, but whose head the video cuts from the scene. The casualty assistance officers present the flag and the model ship to the son, and, with the voice-over continuing, the son proudly hangs the flag from the balcony of the family home.

The video then cuts to a new setting, with a Turkish sailor raising the Turkish flag at the front of a Navy vessel, and then to a Turkish Navy officer saluting sailors as he comes aboard the vessel. We next see a framed photograph of martyred Commander Mehmetoğlu inside the bridge of the vessel, next to the model of the Barbaros and a framed photo of his young son (as earlier depicted in this scene). From this closing part of the scene, we learn that young Mehmetoğlu followed in his father’s footsteps as a commissioned officer in the Turkish Navy, and is both the captain of the vessel shown in the video and the officer we previously saw saluting sailors as he came aboard.

Translation of the first stanza of the recited, voiced-over poem:

Eyyy you are the blue sky’s white and red ornaments

My sister’s wedding dress

The last cloth of my martyr

My bright wavy flag

I read your legend

I will write your legend

I will dig the grave

of those who don’t look at you as I do

I will break the nest of the flying bird

that doesn’t salute you

Discussion and Analysis: Turks and well-versed Turkey-watchers would be able to identify the owner of the voice reciting the poetry, after hearing just the first “Eyyy,” as none other than President Erdoğan, who has dominated Turkey’s airwaves and politics since the early 2000s. In this first scene presenting the Mavi Vatan Anthem, President Erdoğan is reciting the first stanza of the famous poem titled “Bayrak” (“Flag”) by Arif Nihat Asya, an influential nationalist active in the early decades of Turkey’s Republican era. “Bayrak” was first read in January 1940 at the ceremony marking the end of the Allied occupation of Adana, and is a tribute to Turkey’s national banner, red with the white crescent star of the Ottoman Empire and Islam. In Turkey, “Bayrak” is to the Turkish flag what the Pledge of Allegiance is to the U.S. flag in America.

This first scene of the Mavi Vatan Anthem video presents two important themes of the mavi vatan perspective that the remainder of the video further highlights. The first theme might be labeled as an “historical lineage,” through the plot line of the son of the martyred Mehmetoğlu growing up to captain a Turkish Navy vessel and the historical connection between the Ottoman fleet commanded by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha and the modern Turkish Navy. This plot line, neo-Ottoman at its core, helps establish the ancestry of the Turkish Navy and historical justification for modern Turkish claims on sovereignty and/or influence in waters once commanded by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha for the Ottoman Empire. This opening scene’s use of “Bayrak,” the famous Turkish nationalist poem marking the Turkish victory over the Allies in the Turkish War of Independence, establishes the second theme: the anti-Western perspective of mavi vatan.

Scene 2: Preparing for Battle

Time: 0:52 – 1:33 (Link to Scene 2)

Scene Description: As traditional Ottoman music begins, Scene 2 begins with the martyred Mehmetoğlu’s son on the ship he captains, scanning the horizon through a pair of binoculars. The scene then transitions to imagery of a number of Crusader vessels in the water, then back to Mehmetoğlu’s son, and then to a turbaned Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha. Next, the video shows Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha’s staff planning an operation, interspersed with Mehmetoğlu’s son’s staff conducting planning operations. This back-and-forth between modern and Ottoman times serves to strengthen the linkage between the Turkish Navy and the Ottoman fleet. The video then cuts to Crusader sailors, cheering and with swords drawn, preparing for battle, and then to Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha and his sailors doing the same. The scene closes with Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha drawing his sword, ready for battle. The lyrics of the Mavi Vatan Anthem start at 1:18 in the video.

Translation of the first stanza of the Mavi Vatan Anthem:

The infidel Alliance formed a single nation

The Army of Islam took refuge in the Creator

The Lion of the Seas unsheathed his sword Zülfikar

In the Mediterranean, the target was the infidel Alliance

Discussion and Analysis: With its continued focus on Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha, Scene 2 of the Mavi Vatan Anthem tells the story of the Ottoman victory in the 1538 Battle of Preveza, in which the Ottomans’ defeat of the “infidel Alliance” (in English known as the Holy League between the Holy Roman Empire, Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, and Malta) initiated centuries of Ottoman competition for dominance of the Mediterranean. In this first stanza, we see the “Lion of the Seas,” Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha, drawing his sword, named Zülfikar. Zülfikar was originally given as a gift by the Prophet Muhammed to his cousin Ali, who ruled as the fourth Caliph. The first phase of the Mavi Vatan Anthem, in its original Turkish, is küfür tek millet. In this context, we translate küfür tek millet as “infidel Alliance,” and the use of the phrase in the Mavi Vatan Anthem cleverly describes both the “infidel Alliance” against which the Ottomans were fighting, and the primary place of Islam and Muslims in Ottoman society. Historically, in Ottoman Islamist circles, the phrase küfür tek millettir represented, derogatorily, all non-Muslims in the Empire.

Scene 2 establishes the critical importance of Islam in the history of the Ottoman Empire and for the Republic of Turkey as it exists in 2021 under President Erdoğan, given the Islamist foundation of President Erdoğan’s politics. This scene also reinforces the overall anti-Western worldview of the Mavi Vatan Anthem and the mavi vatan perspective, depicting as it does “the infidel Alliance” as the target of Turkish/Ottoman aggression.

Scene 3: Ottoman Victory

Time: 1:34 – 2:25 (Link to Scene 3)

Scene Description: This scene, which covers the second, third, and fourth stanzas of the Mavi Vatan Anthem, begins with Ottoman sailors disposing of pages of the Koran in the sea, a proper disposal method for Islam’s holy book. They do so in preparation for impending combat with the Crusaders, with arrows drawn and cannons firing. Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha appears and gives the “forward!” hand and arm signal, and the Ottoman fleet engages the Crusader fleet. Battle scenes follow, quickly transitioning to Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha writing his victory message (fetihname) and giving thanks to Allah for the victory. The scene closes with an aerial image of the defeated Crusader fleet, on fire and sinking in the Mediterranean.

Translation of the second, third, and fourth stanzas of the Mavi Vatan Anthem:

They disposed of the written surahs in the sea

There is no other victor than Allah; the storm turned them around. Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha struck the Crusader Alliance with wave after wave of the fleet of Islam.

 

The Captain of the Sea with the victory at Preveza

Gave glory to Allah and wrote the victory for Allah

With prayer and praise to the Prophet

That day was the beginning of the history of the seas

 

With repute and fame, long live the Captain of the Sea!

The fleet should be inspired by the bravery of the sailors!

The Prophet’s Army comes wave after wave

Ottoman sailors and soldiers in the waters of the Mediterranean

Discussion and Analysis: The phrase Lâ gâlibe illâllah (translated here as “There is no other victor than Allah”) recalls the renowned words of Beşiktaşlı Nuri Efendi, the famous Turkish religious scholar, composer, poet, and author, who is routinely and was recently highlighted at various social and diplomatic events by President Erdoğan. In the Mavi Vatan Anthem, this phrase precedes mention of a storm that forced the Ottoman fleet to abandon the sea and return to its homeport. This appears to reference a major storm in 1541 that did force the Ottoman fleet to seek refuge, even if this conflicts with the overall timeline of the 1538 Battle of Preveza on which the rest of the lyrics and accompanying video appear to be based.

In the Mavi Vatan Anthem’s original Turkish, “Captain of the Sea” is rendered as Kaptan-ı Derya. Kaptan-ı Derya was the title given to the senior admiral serving as the chief of naval operations in the Ottoman Navy. Here, this title refers to Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha, who is shown writing his report of victory to the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph and the world and praising the Prophet. His praise to the Prophet in the original Turkish is rendered as Salat selam ile Resulallah, a verse of the Koran.

This scene is the first to explicitly mention the Battle of Preveza of September 1538. Combined with mop-up operations in 1539 and the Venice-Ottoman Treaty of 1540, the Ottoman victory at Preveza gave the Ottoman Empire dominance in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Ottoman regional naval dominance was not seriously challenged again until the 1560 Battle of Djerba (against another Christian alliance), which the Ottomans also won, extending their naval dominance through to the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (at the hands of yet another Christian alliance).

Scene 3 closes with imagery of modern Turkish Navy vessels, one with sailors in white dress uniforms saluting from its deck, accompanying the closing lyrics of stanza four, “The Prophet’s Army comes wave after wave/Ottoman sailors and soldiers in the waters of the Mediterranean.”

As discussed previously, mavi vatan’s first goal is to make modern Turkey a regional maritime power. The lyrics and imagery employed in Scene 3 hearken back to a time of unrivaled Turkish dominance of the regional maritime domain, linking modern Turkey’s future plans to its storied Ottoman past. At the same time, Scene 3’s depictions of and references to Ottoman battles against Christian alliances also strengthen the portrayal of mavi vatan’s anti-West worldview, aligned as it is with President Erdoğan’s pro-Islamist, anti-Western ideology. Finally, current tension and military posturing in the Mediterranean pits Turkey against France, Greece, and Cyprus (among others), replicating the historic competition between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian alliances against which it fought.

Scene 4: Turkey, the Ottoman Heir

Time: 2:26 – 3:29 (Link to Scene 4)

Scene Description: Scene 4 begins with one of the more striking images of the Mavi Vatan Anthem, with modern-day Turkish sailors in white dress uniform (including matching COVID-19 era facemasks) on the landing deck of a Turkish Navy ship, standing in formation spelling out “MAVI VATAN” and saluting in unison. The video then transitions to Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha addressing his sailors, who employ the same hand/arm saluting movement as used just previously by the Turkish sailors. The video then cuts to a panoramic view of 11 Turkish Navy ships sailing in formation, and then to enlisted Turkish sailors at work while embarked.

Next, Scene 4 turns to imagery of hand-to-hand combat between Ottoman and Alliance sailors, flipping the viewpoint between the two opposing forces. The video transitions to an astern view of the TCG Tekirdağ (P1207), a Turkish Navy Tuzla-class patrol boat, sailing at speed, with the Turkish flag flying, and then switches to Ottoman vessels flying the similar star-and-crescent, red-and-white flag of the Ottoman Empire.

Scene 4 then transitions to the TCG Heybeliada (F511), an Ada-class corvette, sailing through the straits at Çanakkale (also known as the Dardanelles, Hellespont, or Gallipoli) with a Turkish flag in the foreground and the massive hillside memorial of a soldier next to the words “Dur yolcu! Bilmeden gelip bastığın Bu toprak, bir devrin battığı yerdir” (discussed below) on the hills in the background. Next, Scene 4 transitions to the Mavi Vatan Anthem’s first depiction of a new character, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (alternatively Sultan Mehmet II, or, in Turkish Fatih Sultan Mehmet), before returning to a view of a Turkish Navy officer (Mehmetoğlu’s son from earlier in the video) saluting. The scene concludes with Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror on a white horse on the eastern shore of the Bosporus in Istanbul, looking westward across the water.

Translation of the fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas of the Mavi Vatan Anthem:

We drew up the anchor from port and headed out on the Blue Homeland route The Oceans are on Barbaros the Conqueror’s route

The frigates of the Turkish fleet on the horizon

In the Mediterranean waters they stand ready for the motherland

 

It is a passion that started with my existence

From our faith, patriotism is our slogan

It is sacred and can’t be contained by the high seas

Truly the cause opens the sails to victories

 

For the Blue Homeland the crimson blood runs true

If we are martyred the reward is to sacrifice our lives to the cause

To the commander who advances the ships from the land

The Conqueror of the hearts should greet the ancestors

Discussion and Analysis: The memorial on the hillside at Çanakkale reproduces a small part of Turkish poet Necmettin Halil Onan’s longer poem, which commemorates the sacrifice of Ottoman soldiers in the defeat of Allied forces here during World War I. The words of the memorial translate to “Traveler halt! The soil you tread once witnessed the end of an era.”

In addition to imagery of the Battle of Preveza, Scene 4 powerfully uses references to two of the other most significant military victories in the long history of the Turkish military, both to celebrate Turkish military prowess and to demonstrate the continuity of sacrifice that links the mavi vatan perspective to millennia of Turkish fighting spirit and patriotism.

The first battle the scene references is the Battle of Çanakkale, in which the Ottoman Empire defeated Allied attempts to take the strategic chokepoint from 1915-1916. The Ottoman Navy played a critical role in defeating the Allied attempts to force the strait by sea on March 18, 1915, laying mines under the cover of darkness that sank three Allied battleships and forced the Allies to precipitously retreat. Today, much of the Gallipoli peninsula is a Turkish National Historic Park commemorating the more than 66,000 Ottoman soldiers and more than 50,000 Allied troops killed in action, in addition to another 150,000-plus wounded. The Battle of Çanakkale also played an enormously important role in the history of modern Turkey by providing the platform from which the talented and influential Mustafa Kemal, then a lieutenant colonel, gained national prominence and a national following. These were both critical factors enabling the launch of the Turkish resistance, the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, and, as Atatürk, his role as the new country’s first leader.

The second battle Scene 4 references is the Battle of Constantinople in the spring of 1453, in which the Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Mehmet II, captured the city, permanently ending the Byzantine Empire, and establishing Turkish control of the Bosporus that has endured for 568 years (and counting). Scene 4 references this decisive Ottoman victory both in its lyrics, with two mentions of Fatih (in English, “the Conqueror”), and in visual images of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror on a white horse looking west across the Bosporus to the European continent.

Scene 5: The Son of a Martyr

Time: 3:29 – 4:21 (Link to Scene 5)

Scene Description: Scene 5 begins with an image of Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha, followed quickly by a mosque at sunset and Mehmetoğlu’s son kissing the Koran, both in time with the eighth stanza’s lyrics professing the central role of Islam in Ottoman and Turkish military history. Scene 5 then briefly shows an aerial view of the Martyrs of July 15 hillside memorial in Istanbul, which honors the hundreds killed in the failed coup attempt of July 2016, and then the gravesite of Hamza, Prophet Muhammed’s uncle, at Uhud Martyrs’ Cemetery (in present day Saudi Arabia). This was the site of the Battle of Uhud in which Hamza and many other prominent early Muslims were martyred in the year 625. The scene then cuts to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror on a white horse pointing to the European side of the Bosporus from the Asian side, before transitioning to images of a Turkish Navy band playing the music accompanying the video. Next, Scene 5 shows two Turkish Navy vessels sailing side-by-side and flying the Turkish flag, before reverting to Ottoman sailors in hand-to-hand combat. The scene closes with imagery of an Ottoman ship, and then transitions to various modern Turkish vessels before returning to an Ottoman ship firing a cannon at night in battle.

Translation of the eighth, ninth, and tenth stanzas of the Mavi Vatan Anthem:

Allah is our God, my Prophet is the Messenger of Allah

The Koran is my holy guide

The Saint of the Martyrs Hamza, Islam’s first military leader, is my leader

The son of the martyrs is my Ancestor Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror

 

Give me your ear, o world: I am the son of a martyr

Don’t forget that I am the scion of the crescent and star homeland

The blood that flows in my veins is the blood of my ancestors

We will give and take lives for the Blue Homeland

 

The scales of justice were unyielding in the midst of oppression

You are the hope of the desperate and wrathful against the enemy

To the help of the faithful who are crying for help

You are going to be the light in the darkness

Amen!

Discussion and Analysis: Hamza was the Prophet’s foster brother, companion, and paternal uncle. The Prophet gave him the honorific Sayyid ash-Shuhada after he was martyred protecting the Prophet at the Battle of Uhud.

Scene 5 employs highly evocative imagery of the “Martyrs of July 15” hillside and the Uhud Martyrs’ Cemetery that the vast majority of Turks would quickly identify, even if non-Turks would not immediately recognize these two sites of national cultural importance. Given the lyrics of the eighth stanza, the last full phrase of the Mavi Vatan Anthem (“You are going to be the light in the darkness”) appears to carry a double meaning, referring in religious terms to Allah as the “light in the darkness” and in military terms, to the Turkish Navy as the defender of the Turkish homeland. Scene 5 lyrics, accompanied by religious imagery in the video, reinforce the explicitly religious foundations of the Mavi Vatan Anthem.

Scene 6: Erdoğan and Atatürk

Time: 4:22 – 5:07 (Link to Scene 6)

Scene Description: The final scene opens with Mehmetoğlu’s son on the bridge of his ship, standing in front of a framed photo of Atatürk, with President Erdoğan in a voice-over reciting the second stanza of “Bayrak” as images of a Turkish Navy vessel, a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB), a Navy officer saluting the Turkish flag, another RHIB, and an officer peering through binoculars are displayed. The scene next shows Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and the Turkish flag, followed by shots of another RHIB and Turkish helicopters. This is followed by President Erdoğan at a rally, walking through a multitude of Turkish flags, then another Turkish Navy vessel, and finally an image of Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha. The video closes with a still shot of President Erdoğan, with arms raised and hands with four fingers extended, in front of a Turkish flag.

Translation of “Bayrak”’s penultimate and last stanzas:

You slowly wave in the winds

The dove of peace, the eagle of war

My flower that blooms in high places

I was born under you

I will die under you

My history, my honor, my poem, my everything

Choose a place, love a place

Wherever you want to be raised

Tell me, I’ll raise you up there

Discussion and Analysis: The framed photo of Atatürk behind Mehmetoğlu’s son at the beginning of Scene 6 has the following quote: “Ordular İlk Hedefiniz Akdeniz’dir,” which translates to “Armies! Your first objective is the Eastern Mediterranean!” This is the command Atatürk gave to his military at a critical point in the post-World War One Turkish War of Independence, just nine days before Turkish forces completed their rout of the Allies, forcing the Allied withdrawal from Anatolia and other Turkish territory, and securing the borders of the modern Turkish state (apart from the addition of Hatay province in 1939). Turkey now celebrates this victory annually on August 30, Victory Day and Turkish Armed Forces Day.

The Mavi Vatan Anthem video’s closing image of President Erdoğan is also noteworthy. Firstly, it features a quote from President Erdoğan, translated as “We’re strong in the Blue Homeland, We’re Secure in the Homeland.” Secondly, President Erdoğan’s gesture – both arms raised and both hands with four fingers extended and thumbs collapsed – is the sign of the rabia. Rabia literally translates as “four” in Arabic, but has become a well-known symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps popularized globally by President Erdoğan in 2013. This four-finger hand sign is also claimed by President Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) as a party symbol, standing for “One Nation, One Flag, One Homeland, One State.”

In this final scene of the Mavi Vatan Anthem video, President Erdoğan’s recitation of the last two stanzas of “Bayrak” symbolically wraps the Mavi Vatan Anthem with the flag of the Republic of Turkey. In line with the nationalistic and religious themes of the Mavi Vatan Anthem and video, Scene 6 links mavi vatan to Atatürk’s most famous command during the Turkish War of Independence, and links modern Turkey and President Erdoğan to Atatürk, Islam, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Conclusion

The Mavi Vatan Anthem is representative of the neo-Ottoman ethno-religious nationalism espoused by President Erdoğan. It garishly and jingoistically employs neo-Ottoman, Islamic, and nationalist themes, imagery, and lyrics to demonstrate the Erdoğan government’s embrace of the mavi vatan perspective, which has increasingly shaped Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. These policies over the last several years have acquired a more antagonistic and militarized outlook centered on anti-Western, anti-U.S. principles. As such, the Mavi Vatan Anthem offers insight into the significance and prominence of mavi vatan in Erdoğan’s Turkey, and also provides a means through which Turkey’s own worldview can be understood.

Furthermore, the Mavi Vatan Anthem does not stand alone. It is part of a series of such videos released by the Presidency in the late summer/early fall of 2020 that link the history of the Ottoman Empire to the modern Republic of Turkey with music, imagery, and historical references (examples here, here, here, here, here, here, all on the Presidency’s YouTube page). Taken together as part of a sophisticated, high-production-value public diplomacy effort, this series of videos provides an opportunity for analysts and Turkey watchers to apply the translation, description, and analysis framework employed in this current article to conduct individual and collective analysis. Such analysis, if undertaken, would substantially contribute to understanding Turkey’s foreign policy outlook, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Parallel Turkish-English Translation of BAYRAK (Flag) by Arif Nihat Asya

Eyyy mavi göklerin beyaz ve kızıl süsü
Kiz kardeşimin gelinliği
Şeyidimin son örtüsü
Işık ışık dalga dalga bayrağım
Senin destanını okudum
Senin destanını yazacağım
Sana benim gözümle bakmayanın
Mezarını kazacağım
Seni selamlamadan uçan kuşun
Yuvasını bozacağım
Eyyy you are the blue sky’s white and red ornaments
My sister’s wedding dress
The last cloth of my martyr
My bright wavy flag
I read your legend
I will write your legend
I will dig the grave
of those who don’t look at you as I do
I will break the nest of the flying bird
that doesn’t salute you
Ey şimdi süzgün, rüzgârlarda dalgalı
Barışın güvercini, savaşın kartalı
Yüksek yerlerde açan çiçeğim
Senin altında doğdum
Senin dibinde öleceğim
You slowly wave in the winds
The dove of peace, the eagle of war
My flower that blooms in high places
I was born under you
I will die under you
Tarihim, şerefim, şiirim, her şeyim
Yer yüzünde yer beğen
Nereye dikilmek istersen
Söyle, seni oraya dikeceğim
My history, my honor, my poem, my everything
Choose a place, love a place
Wherever you want to be raised
Tell me, I'll raise you up there

Parallel Turkish-English Translation of MAVİ VATAN MARŞI (Blue Homeland March)

Küfür tek millet olup kurmuştu ittifakı
Yaradana sığınmıştı İslam’ın orduları
Denizlerin aslanı çekmişti Zülfikâr’ı Akdeniz’de hedefti zilletin ittifakı
The infidel Alliance formed a single nation
The Army of Islam took refuge in the Creator
The Lion of the Seas unsheathed Ali’s sword Zülfikar In the Mediterranean, the target was the infidel Alliance
Yazılan sureleri bıraktırdı sulara
Lâ gâlibe illâllah terse döndü fırtına
Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa haçlı ittifakına
Dalga dalga vuruyordu İslam’ın filosuyla
They disposed of the written surahs in the sea
There is no other victor than Allah; the storm turned them around.
Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha struck the Crusader Alliance
With wave after wave of the fleet of Islam.
Kaptan-ı Derya Preveze zaferiyle
Hamd edip Allah’a yazdırdı fetihnâme
Salat selam ile Resulallah Efendime
Milat oldu o gün denizlerin tarihine
The Captain of the Sea with the victory at Preveza
Gave glory to Allah and wrote the victory for Allah With prayer and praise to the Prophet
That day was the beginning of the history of the seas
Kaptan-ı Derya şanın ve namınla yaşa
Bahriyeli yiğitlerin ilhamsın donanmada
Peygamberin ordusu geliyor dalga dalga
Bahriyeli Mehmetçikler Akdeniz sularında
With repute and fame, long live the Captain of the Sea!
The fleet should be inspired by the bravery of the sailors!
The Prophet’s Army comes wave after wave
Ottoman sailors and soldiers in the waters of the Mediterranean
Demir aldık limandan Mavi Vatan yoluna
Okyanuslar Fatih’i Barbaros’un yolunda
Türk’ün donanmasında firkateynler ufukta
Vatan için hazır kıta Akdeniz sularında
We drew up the anchor from port and headed out on the Blue Homeland route
The Oceans are on Barbaros the Conqueror’s route
The frigates of the Turkish fleet on the horizon
In the Mediterranean waters they stand ready for the motherland
Varlığımla başlayan bir sevdadır bizde ki
Vatan sevgisi imandan şiarı bizimkisi
Enginlere sığmayan kutsalımdır kendisi
Zaferlere yelken açan davanın hakikati
It is a passion that started with my existence
From our faith, patriotism is our slogan
It is sacred and can’t be contained by the high seas
Truly the cause opens the sails to victories
Mavi vatan kan kırmızı boyanır uğruna
Şehit düşsek mükafat can fedadır yoluna
Karadan gemileri yürüten kumandana
Selam olsun gönüllerin Fatih’i Atam’a
For the Blue Homeland the crimson blood runs true
If we are martyred the reward is to sacrifice our lives to the cause
To the commander who advances the ships from the land
The Conqueror of the hearts should greet the ancestors
Rabbimiz Allah Resulallah Peygamberim
Mukaddes kitap rehberim Kur’an-ı Kerim
Şehitler Seyyidi Hazreti Hamza önderim
Atam Fatih Sultan şehit oğlu Mehmed’im
Allah is our God, my Prophet is the Messenger of Allah
The Koran is my holy guide
The Saint of the Martyrs Hamza, Islam’s first military leader, is my leader
The son of the martyrs is my Ancestor Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror
Ben şehit oğluyum kulak ver ey dünya
Ay-yıldızlı vatanın evladıyım unutma
Ecdadımın kanından akar damarlarımda
Can verir can alırız mavi vatan uğruna
Give me your ear, o world: I am the son of a martyr
Don’t forget that I am the scion of the crescent and star homeland
The blood that flows in my veins is the blood of my ancestors
We will give and take lives for the Blue Homeland
Mazlumun ardısıra dimdik duran mizana
Umudusun muhtacın gazapsın düşmanına
Son kale yetiş diyen ümmetin imdadına
Karanlıklara ışık olacaksın âmennâ
The scales of justice were unyielding in the midst of oppression
You are the hope of the desperate and wrathful against the enemy
To the help of the faithful who are crying for help
You are going to be the light in the darkness
Amen!

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Jager is a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer with an area of concentration in Europe. A West Point graduate with three masters degrees, he is pursuing a PhD in international relations at Salve Regina University. As a FAO, he has served as an attaché in Cyprus, a liaison officer in Turkey, the Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation in Lebanon, and a military advisor at the Department of State (his current assignment). He speaks Turkish (3+/3+/3 on the ILR scale). He may be reached at jeffrey.s.jager@gmail.com.

Andrew Norris is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain and holds a Juris Doctorate. His last assignment in the Coast Guard was as the Robert J. Papp, Jr. Professor of Maritime Security at the U.S. Naval War College. He currently works at the Naval War College and as a maritime legal and regulatory consultant. He may be reached at anorris@tradewindmaritimeservices.com, on Twitter @TWM_Services, and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrew-norris-uscoastguard.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the positions of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The authors would like to thank a native Turkish speaking colleague, who requested anonymity, for his/her assistance with several questions regarding the imagery and lyrics of the Mavi Vatan Anthem video.

Feature Image: Screen capture from the Mavi Vatan Anthem video at 2:38.

Afghanistan After America: China’s Next Adventure

By Micah Petersen and Addison McLamb

As the final boardwalk shop on Kandahar Airfield closed its doors for the last time, reality hit home: this time the United States was actually leaving Afghanistan. A decade ago, thousands dined at TGI Friday’s on the boardwalk and joined in for Salsa Night; but now the desert dust of Kandahar blew trash across the empty basketball court and into the barbed-wire fence surrounding it, deterring anyone from playing a game during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the proposed closure of the airfield in 2015, the minimal numbers of U.S. troops throughout the country was indicative of an impending full withdraw. A nearby volleyball court, track, and soccer pitch—once part of a bustling complex of over 30,000 visitors—now sat empty in the sun, waiting for the revolving door of imperial powers to supply its next occupant.

The U.S. military began its first withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, but 2,500 troops remained in the country at the start of 2020. In February 2020, as part of a U.S.-Taliban peace plan, former President Trump agreed to the full, conditional withdraw of all U.S. troops by May 2021. President Biden then delayed the date of withdraw until September 2021. With the withdraw now complete, continued instability in Afghanistan seems inevitable, and foreign stakeholders will vie for leverage as part of a larger Central Asian strategic competition for influence. Of these players, China is uniquely poised to fill Afghan power vacuums and pursue its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan by leveraging its historic neutrality with the Taliban, capitalizing on existing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Afghanistan, and backing Pakistan to consolidate gains in a post-American occupied Afghanistan.

China’s Central Asia Strategy

Predominantly populated by a European diaspora, the United States first sought its strongest foreign ties with the “Old World” of Europe. In contrast, as a civilization unto itself, China sought its strongest ties and influences with the areas most able to affect domestic wealth and power—in a word, its borders. Throughout history—perhaps inspired by a “Go” strategy of avoiding encirclement—China has sought to secure lines of communication (LOC) in zones of influence adjacent to its borders. Whether through the eastern “nine-dash line” or western clashes with India, China sees its borders less as boundaries, but more as the circumference of a territorial platform from which to project power in near-area zones of influence, thereby ensuring domestic security and buffering outside threats to the desired “Grand Society” envisioned by Confucius.

This realist approach to security has also been balanced with a partnership approach via bilateral relations under the BRI. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likely recognizes its western-focused BRI will necessitate power projection in Afghanistan. Beijing’s policy proposals often allude to Chinese cultural references or shared history (usually an attempt to nest the young Communist Party within ancient Chinese society), and the choice of Silk Road alliteration is not melodrama. China probably desires Central Asian resources and economic clientelism to offset any adversarial posturing from South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan. Beijing would also anticipate Pakistan’s help with any push to utilize LOCs in and around Afghanistan. As if to signal the depth of their alliance, Pakistan and China recently leaked an intelligence agreement between Pakistan’s Defense Ministry and China’s Central Military Commission, demonstrating their willingness to combine strategic effort with tactical collaboration. Overall, China recognizes that stabilization in Central Asia requires a stable Afghanistan.

Over the last two centuries, Beijing learned from previous Russian, British, and American occupations in Afghanistan. As a result, the CCP has neither taken an official political stance against the Taliban nor generated unilateral policy positions towards Afghanistan. Their “bilateral” relationship with Afghanistan (framed with the same grandeur and opacity as its nearly eighty other BRI “bilateral” partnerships) allows the CCP to exert paternalistic dominance in economic relationships whilst couching investment loans as indicative of symbiotic “global leadership.” With the Taliban now in control of most of Afghanistan, Beijing could use infrastructure investment and United Nations’ influence to support a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Supporting a Taliban regime could also allow China to excuse itself from foreign accusations of anti-Islamic bias. The Taliban is geographically postured to quell any potential uprisings against their CCP partners, allowing Xinjiang abuses to be cast as a purely secular effort to shore up public safety rather than as an Orwellian plan to crush recurring thought crime.

Overall, to China, Afghanistan likely reflects a ripe investment opportunity, credible hedge against criticism of anti-Islamic bias, and tantalizing opportunity to display international leadership. To Afghanistan, China likely represents a steady supply of invasion-free investment, a sympathetic ear within the United Nations Security Council, and a pan-Asian sense of durable partnership. Whether the relationship blossoms will be largely dependent on the real returns of each side’s commitment.

Infrastructure Investment

During America’s two-decade effort in Afghanistan, Beijing took advantage of waxing relations (especially in the Hu Jintao era) to quietly fund infrastructure investment throughout the country. This was not a new tactic for China—from the early 20th century through the 1980s, China bankrolled various African infrastructure projects and even supplied weapons to sub-Saharan tribes fighting for independence from their colonial invaders. China transitioned to more passive models for the next three decades (largely due to Deng Xiaoping’s famous “lie low” doctrine and Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai Clique”opportunism), which culminated most recently in Xi Jinping’s hybrid BRI.

Modern Sino-Afghan relations were significantly shaped by Mao’s diplomacy in the 1960 Beijing-Kabul Non-Aggression Treaty. Despite sharing a slim border with Afghanistan; and even in comparison to the billions of dollars of United States’ aid since 2001, China nonetheless still holds rights to Afghanistan’s largest foreign investment project: the Aynak copper mine. Chinese payments for mineral exploitation fees alone guarantee the Afghan government an annual return of over $800 million. As strategic hubs like Kandahar Airfield are no longer controlled by foreign actors, China’s construction and operation of airports in Zimbabwe and other African states foreshadows interest in controlling and managing Afghan transportation networks. The Taliban lacks any experience in operating international airfields, and China is likely to offer its managerial expertise in hopes of establishing a similar control over transportation networks that it has with aforementioned African states. The durability of economic quid pro quo is questionable, but Chinese strategic intentions remain clear.

Infrastructure development in Afghanistan allows China to secure both profit and security. The Taliban has a history of supporting the Eastern Turkmenistan Movement, which is China’s largest terror threat in Xinjiang. Using Afghan infrastructure investment as an incentive—and domestic resources (like Aynak) as collateral—Beijing can field both carrots and sticks to dissuade Taliban support of Uighur Turkic groups. The mechanics of such negotiations can be nested within BRI projects and then marketed as skillful CCP maneuvering focused on both foreign and domestic outcomes.

Risk and Alliance

Chinese success in Afghanistan will be most reliant on its alliance with Pakistan. Kipling’s famous “Arithmetic on the Frontier” lyricizes the debilitative cost of attempting to stabilize a society that has been de facto tribal since the 14th century Durrani Empire. True to Kipling’s foreboding, it seems that durable stability in Afghanistan will only come when Pashto, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and other minority tribes are aligned to a common national vision. China’s initial networking among some of Afghanistan’s most rugged and hardened regions—in concert with Pakistan—will pay dividends in their understanding of how to assess and realign competing visions.

The United States and Soviet Union both struggled in Afghanistan in part because of difficulties in suppressing insurgent activity from the ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Relationships with powers like Pakistan are helpful for casting a wider, more effective net against regional terror activity, and China has a very strong and stable diplomatic relationship with Pakistan. Through this relationship, China has arguably set conditions to stabilize the infamous northeast provinces near the FATA. This could create a power dynamic where Beijing’s most significant negotiations would be with the Pashto and Taliban-dominated South—areas historically more aligned with kindred Pashtos in Pakistan. Northern stability and southern alliances may then serve as a platform to negotiate with a larger confederation of tribes (including those of the former Northern Alliance) to more quickly realize a Durrani redux and Afghan solidarity.

The crux of China’s involvement in Afghanistan relates primarily to security—both economic and domestic—and the risk tolerance of the CCP to flex global leadership aspirations in such a difficult environment. China will likely mitigate this risk by leveraging its existing infrastructure investments and strong alliance with Pakistan, while using BRI channels and domestic information control to frame the move as necessary for Central Asian prosperity and stability in Xinjiang. Furthermore, with the inevitability of the Taliban attaining at least some formal influence within Afghanistan governance, China remains the only permanent United Nations Security Council member whose relationship with the Taliban could bring benefits to both parties.

Conclusion

The U.S. military and NATO writ large made a lasting impact on the country of Afghanistan. Despite the fall of the Afghan government, other aspects of development such as female literacy rates, female employment, and significant overall growth of GDP per capita since 2001 are evidence that the NATO mission transformed the lives of Afghans. But long-term outcomes of western involvement remain ambiguous.

If history is any guide, U.S. troops will not be the last foreign soldiers to see shops close their doors at Kandahar Airfield. What we do know is that the discussion regarding Afghanistan’s future development is a conversation space that should not be dominated solely by the People’s Republic of China. The CCP’s expansion over the last decade, and its associated exploitation of countries in need of steady development, raises enough red flags to force the United States and its allies to consider how China will insert itself in Afghanistan over the coming years. Recognizing the incentives China possesses to influence Afghanistan is of the utmost importance and critical for the United States as it repositions itself within the Middle East.

Micah D. Petersen is a graduate of the University of Delaware with a BA in International Relations and an MA in Geography, focusing on Chinese migration to Africa. He is also a Schwarzman Scholar and currently serves as an Infantry Captain in the United States Army. He  has studied and traveled to over 25 countries and deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as the Aide-de-Camp to the Kandahar Airfield Commanding General.

Addison McLamb is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in Chinese Language and  Culture, focusing on Chinese foreign policy. He is a Schwarzman Scholar (Class of 2017) and currently serves as an Intelligence Captain in the United States Army. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.

Featured image: December 2020 – Once the center for social activities, the Kandahar Boardwalk sat desolate before coalition forces handed it over to the Afghan government in January 2021. (Credit: authors)

The Next War: How the Israeli Navy Can Better Cooperate with Israel’s Air and Ground Forces

By Ehud Eilam

The Israeli Navy has several important tasks, including the protection of Israel’s population and industrial centers, its sea lines of communication in the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, and its gas rigs. As part of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Israeli Navy must also combat Arab Non-State Actors (NSAs), namely Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel fought wars with Hezbollah in Lebanon from July to August 2006, and with Hamas in the Gaza Strip from December 2008 to January 2009, July to August 2014, and in May 2021. The Israeli Navy is composed of three flotillas. This article will examine their cooperation with the IDF’s air and ground forces in the next war with Hezbollah or Hamas and make recommendations to improve the Israeli Navy’s capabilities.

Reliance on Firepower

In the last two decades, the IDF has relied on firepower more than maneuver to reduce its combat casualties, due to the increasing precision of its weapons systems. By depending on firepower, the IDF is exploiting its advantage in technology over its adversaries, in particular Arab NSAs. However, this approach did not lead to success in the 2006, 2008-2009, and 2014 wars with Hezbollah and Hamas, all of which ended without a clear victory. The IDF is eager to ensure such a victory in the next war, but it will likely continue to prioritize firepower over maneuver, mostly from the Israeli Air Force (IAF).

While Hezbollah has significantly less firepower than the IDF, it has approximately 150,000 rockets and missiles with which it can target most of Israel. The IDF’s Home Front Commander, Major General Uri Gordin, warned on March 15, 2021, that during a war with Hezbollah, Israel might absorb as many as 2,000 rockets and missiles daily–which could hit any number of targets, including Israeli airfields. The IAF has been preparing for such a scenario so that it can continue to operate under fire. This problem was raised back in the 1990s, when the IDF was more focused on Arab militaries, particularly the Syrian military, rather than Arab NSAs.

Some in Israel suggested then to strengthen the Israeli Navy at the expense of the IAF, as a platform to strike adversaries from the sea. Their justification for investing in the navy was that warships can carry more weapons and operate for longer of periods of time than aircraft, which require more frequent rearming and refueling at airfields that are exposed to enemy fire. Yet warships also need to rearm and refuel at their bases that are exposed to enemy fire. Regardless, the IDF continues with its traditional doctrine of relying on the IAF, rather than the navy, for delivering massive firepower. The IAF has no strategic bombers, only fighter-bombers—the F-15, F-16, and F-35—but they can inflict a significant blow.

Assisting Ground Forces

In the 2006, 2008-2009, and 2014 wars, the Israeli Navy assisted ground forces by providing sea-to-shore fire support. The Israeli Navy has 76 and 20mm cannons and Spike-Er missiles, which is relatively less firepower than what the IAF can deliver. This firepower also has a short range, which limits the navy to striking targets at or near the coastline. However, more akin to artillery than aircraft, warships can maintain a longer presence at the battlefield, ready to fire at any time—which is essential if a ground unit needs immediate fire support. The IAF has significantly improved its availability for close fire support, but it is sometimes not enough. 

Gunships are useful in attacking various targets and would significantly improve the navy’s fire support for ground forces. In the IDF, almost all aircraft are under the control of the IAF. Since the Israeli Navy has no ability to strike targets from the air, it has needed to improvise. For example, on July 10, 1985, two MD-500, light gunships, took off from an Israeli missile corvette operating near the Lebanese coastline. The gunships bombed a base of a terror group and returned to the ship. The Israeli Navy could repeat such a mission with AH-64 gunships and warships large enough to embark them. The British Army Air Corps used AH-64s embarked aboard ships to strike targets in Libya in 2009.

The AH-64 has a range of less than 300 miles, but that should be more than enough against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Lebanon’s geography is such that all of Hezbollah’s bases there are within striking distance from the sea, if the IDF attacks them with gunships. The geography of the Gaza Strip is even more conducive for strikes from the sea, and its width is not more than seven miles. Therefore, every objective there could be hit from the sea by an AH-64.

The IAF can bomb every objective in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip by relying on its airfields, but gunships can land in many other areas, including on ships. An AH-64 that is sent to strike deep inside Lebanon can save fuel if it is launched from a ship located near the coastline. Having more fuel would allow the gunship to remain on station for longer periods, which sometimes can be crucial for the success of the mission. Furthermore, having the ability to launch an AH-64 from a ship would be helpful for operations farther away from Israel. 

The Israeli Navy also assists ground units with intelligence gathering activities. In general, the IDF has upgraded its ability to gather intelligence, most notably by assimilating various types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The navy is also part of this effort. Operating with and without UAVs, its surface ships and submarines can escort ground units, conduct reconnaissance for them, warn them about threats ahead, advise how to bypass an obstacle, etc. Surface ships such as missile corvettes risk exposure to Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles when supporting these activities, but Hezbollah lacks anti-submarine capabilities. However, the Israeli Navy cannot rely on submarines solely in gathering intelligence, let alone in a time of war, when information will be in high demand.

Hezbollah and Hamas plan to defend their positions from these activities. Their defense relies on mortars, improvised explosive devices, mines, and anti-tank missiles, such as the advanced 9M133 Kornet. The latter might also be used against Israeli ships operating near the coastline. Hezbollah has additional anti-ship missiles: the Yakhont and C-802. They will be met by Israel’s Barak-8, a long-range anti-missile system. The Israeli Navy also has the C-Dome to protect ships from drones, rockets, and missiles. The Barak-8 and C-Dome have not been tested in combat. Depending on how well those defense systems work, the IDF will decide how much the Israeli Navy can assist ground units in providing fire support and intelligence.

In the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired a C-802 missile that hit an Israeli missile corvette, killing four of its crew. In the first stage of the next war, the Israeli Navy and the IAF will try to destroy Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles before they can be launched. Until then, the Israeli Navy might limit its operations in order to protect its ships. This is another factor that will affect how much support the Israeli Navy can provide to Israel’s ground forces.

Amphibious Capabilities

The IDF has carried out amphibious operations during and since its first war in 1948. However, the landings were quite limited, mostly aimed at delivering supplies and vehicles, such as in the 1956 war. In 1967, a relatively major amphibious operation was supposed to take place in northern Sinai, close to the border. It was canceled due to the rapid advance of Israel’s ground forces. In the 1973 war, the IDF had plans to conduct a large-scale amphibious operation in the Suez Bay, but they were eventually turned down. The IDF preferred to rely on crossing the Suez Canal, which was a daring and highly risky operation, but one that seemed less problematic than landing from the open sea.

In 1982, the IDF carried out its largest amphibious operation ever. It was conducted in Lebanon against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, the IDF did not face much resistance since there were no PLO fortifications and almost no PLO forces in the landing zone. The PLO also did not have a navy, and the IDF enjoyed air superiority. Even the weather supported amphibious operations. Despite all those advantages, the IDF did not advance quickly from the beachhead. In 1993, the IDF took its few landing craft out of service, which were sold or used for target practice. The Israeli Navy concluded the landing craft were too vulnerable to enemy fire. The IDF could have dealt with this vulnerability by suppressing the enemy fire, buying better and faster landing craft, etc., but the IDF did not further invest in this warfare area.

In a war against Hezbollah or Hamas, establishing a beachhead in Lebanon or in the Gaza Strip could meet some resistance. However, while Hezbollah has a few dozen tanks, Hamas lacks capabilities to carry out a significant counterattack. They can only launch infantry to storm the beachhead. Conversely, the IDF can quickly deploy enough troops, backed by air power, to push back any counterattack. Hezbollah and Hamas have mortars and anti-tank missiles, but no heavy artillery. Therefore, the beachhead is not likely to face any danger of annihilation. Hezbollah and Hamas have also invested in building fortifications near their land border with Israel, assuming correctly that Israeli troops will attack there, as they have in previous wars.

In the last decades, the IDF’s naval commandos carried out raids, including from the sea. However, conducting a vast amphibious operation is distinct from such raids. The IDF is aware this will be a complicated task, which requires effective and tight cooperation between its sea, ground, and air forces. Even when Israel’s foe has been an NSA, and therefore lacking most capabilities of conventional armed forces, the IDF avoided investing in amphibious capabilities. It is a missed opportunity. With amphibious capabilities, the IDF can surprise its foe, which could help in achieving victory. The IDF can land in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip, bypass its enemy’s lines of defense, and attack their flanks and rear.

Coastal Defense

Most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are near its coastline, so coastal defense is a top priority for the IDF. In the 2014 war, the IDF was surprised by, but still managed to kill, a few Palestinian naval commandos, or frogmen, who penetrated southern Israel from the sea after swimming there from the nearby Gaza Strip. During the fight with Hamas in mid-2021, the IDF destroyed much of the equipment used by their frogmen, degrading their capability to strike Israel again. Depending on how much Hamas has rebuilt this capability, the IDF will probably repeat these strikes at the start of the next war.

In contrast with Hamas, Hezbollah has an increasingly capable naval unit, which receives significant funding and military assistance from Iran. Iran has provided this unit “with quality Iranian naval weapons, and trained [it] in Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases and training camps. “ Currently, Hezbollah has warehouses in Lebanon to sustain and enable its naval unit, “to have a continuous supply of weapons and access to the logistical and technological backbone.”

In the next war, Hezbollah or Hamas could attempt to penetrate Israel with frogmen, small boats, and perhaps even tiny submarines. They could inflict casualties among both troops and civilians, damaging IDF equipment near the coastline and disrupting operations. In recent years, following Israel’s conflict with Iran and its proxies, “Israel has invested in improved detection and defenses of its shores and maritime assets against various threats, such as missiles and most probably also underwater and fast-boat attacks.” This effort often requires close cooperation between sea, ground, and air forces.

The first line of coastal defense is of course at sea. The Israeli navy will try to block incursions, such as detecting fast boats and frogmen before they reach the Israeli coast. The Israeli Navy has the AS-565, a helicopter that operates from ships such as the Sa’ar-5 for a variety of missions, including reconnaissance and rescue. The AS-565 is essential when the ship is far away from Israel, where the IAF is not available.

In a time of war, the IAF will be busy with many tasks, so coastal defense may not be a priority. However, one of the IAF’s primary missions, achieving air superiority, should be relatively easy. Unlike Arab militaries, Arab NSAs lack air forces and significant air defenses. Hezbollah has some air defense capabilities for short range defense, such as SA-8, 14, 16, 17, and 22 anti-aircraft missiles. Hamas has much less. The IAF might lose a few aircraft, but it will not stop it from ruling the skies. Therefore, the IAF could focus on other tasks, such as destroying missiles and rockets before they are launched at Israel and supporting ground forces. Nevertheless, the IAF also must be prepared to allocate aircraft for naval missions, especially coastal defense.

The IAF could assist coastal defense efforts in several ways. UAVs can patrol across the coastline, looking for indications and warnings of an attack. UH-60 helicopters could land troops in every spot where there is an assault from the sea. The AH-64 could join them to provide fire support. Helicopters and gunships would be needed to support ground units on the frontline, but some helicopters and gunships could be assigned to patrol the coastline. In the 2006, 2008-2009, and 2014 wars, Israel postponed its ground offensive, sometimes by weeks, hoping heavy bombardments would be enough to bring victory. This approach might repeat itself in the next war, which means that helicopters and gunships could aid in coastal defense until the ground offensive starts.

Despite the importance of the sea to Israel, the IAF was not built to assist the navy. The IAF’s doctrine and weapon systems have been designed to defeat the air and ground forces of Arab militaries. While many Arab militaries have navies that could have attacked Israeli coastlines in past wars, they never tried. Therefore, the IDF focused on land invasion, worrying much less about an attack from the sea. NSAs cannot invade Israel from the sea, but their naval infiltrations could disrupt Israeli operations—or worse. The IAF must be ready to coordinate with the Israeli Navy to prevent this outcome. The priorities and development of the IAF will continue to be based on preparing for air combat and striking ground objectives, but the IAF should also invest in capabilities to locate and strike sea targets.

Conclusion

The IDF must be prepared to confront Arab NSAs in the next war. The Israeli Navy will have to provide fire support and intelligence to ground units, but it currently lacks the firepower it needs to be effective against ground targets. One way to improve the navy’s firepower is to launch AH-64s from ships at sea. The IDF should also consider reinvesting in amphibious capabilities for the Israeli Navy to surprise its adversaries from the rear. Ultimately, the IAF is likely to gain air superiority in a war against an Arab NSA, which will allow it to focus on other tasks, such as destroying missiles and rockets and assisting the IDF’s ground and sea forces. The IAF will decide if and how many aircraft will be allocated to carry out each mission, according to the priorities at hand. The Israeli Navy and IAF must be prepared to cooperate if one of those priorities is coastal defense.

Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has also  published six books in the United States and United Kingdom. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East.

Feature image: INS Magen, the first of four new Sa’ar 6-class corvettes to be delivered to the Israeli Navy.  (Credit: Israeli Defense Forces)

Why Yemen Matters

By Jimmy Drennan

Introduction

On Sunday, Yemeni separatists known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized 64 billion riyals ($260M USD) from a convoy belonging to the Central Bank of Yemen. This follows their withdrawal in April from a fragile treaty and declaration of autonomy in the southern port city of Aden. The STC’s proclamation threatens to throw Yemen into a fresh phase of bloody turmoil, even as the unmitigated spread of COVID-19 could devolve the world’s worst humanitarian crisis into catastrophe. Meanwhile, talks to end the war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels of northwestern Yemen drag on, with the Houthis indicating they may attempt to take pivotal territory in the oil-rich city of Marib. Why does any of this matter?

The stability of Yemen is not, in and of itself, one of our core national interests. Yet we continue to aid the Saudis in their war against the Houthis. Supported by international navies, we continue to patrol international waters in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. We are still pursuing Al Qaeda and ISIS throughout poorly governed regions in Yemen. Why? The answer is pragmatism.

While it is not practical, nor advisable, for the United States to commit blood and treasure to unilaterally resolve Yemen’s civil war, the instability that spills over Yemen’s borders threatens American interests. Now, with the STC potentially pitting its Emirati backers against the Saudis, who recognize the Republic of Yemen Government led by exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the risk of Yemen’s festering instability igniting a larger regional conflict is greater than ever.

A Proxy Conflict Turns Central

Although a proxy war between Arab states, both of whom the United States relies on for critical military and economic access, would implicitly run counter to American interests, a hypothetical regional conflict still doesn’t explain why Yemen matters today. Even now, instability overflows from Yemen in the form of ballistic missiles, suicide drones, unmanned explosive speedboats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and sea mines. These attacks by the Houthis are generally aimed at the Saudi-led coalition (which does not include the United States), but the use of these weapons near international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea threaten core national interests in maintaining the free flow of global commerce. The Houthis have credibly threatened to contest the Strait of Bab al Mandeb by attacking international shipping in recent years, including American warships in 2016 – which prompted swift retaliatory action against the launch sites. The strait is the sole southern gateway to the Suez Canal and therefore a strategic chokepoint for maritime trade between Europe and Asia, obviating the need to make the costly and time-consuming trip around the Cape of Good Hope.

Houthi ballistic missile and drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE threaten critical energy infrastructure, not to mention American citizens and military forces throughout the region. When considering the risk of regional Arab-on-Arab conflict, threats to freedom of navigation, and attacks on Arab energy infrastructure, another question harkens back to Ancient Rome with the Latin “cui bono?” Who benefits? In every case, the answer is Iran.

Iran publicly supports the Houthi effort to overthrow Yemen’s Hadi-led government. Having a proxy on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, or at least a like-minded partner with whom it can supply advanced conventional weapons, is of obvious benefit to Tehran. Arming the Houthis with anti-shipping weaponry allows Iran to threaten a second global maritime chokepoint, a crucial economic “ace in the hole” in its existential fight against the administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The United States, its international partners, and the United Nations have repeatedly exposed Iran’s illicit arms shipments to the Houthis; however, international sentiment is so heavily slanted against the Saudis (due largely to the early conduct of their air campaign) that Iran can quietly refute the allegations while the anti-Saudi narrative continues to resonate on Capitol Hill and social media. Meanwhile, the Houthis block humanitarian aid shipments and hold them for ransom as millions of Yemenis starve, and the world barely notices.

Iran has also learned valuable lessons on how to employ its growing arsenal in the event of a direct conflict with Saudi Arabia or the United States. In 2019, the British Government warned that Iran was using Yemen as a missile testing ground. “We’ve seen the UN panel of experts talk about the new Kamikaze drones that are coming out of Iran, we’ve had the Badr-1, which is the missile system that looks like a V2, being launched into Saudi Arabia and we have seen from technical reports that the enhancements that are being applied to that war by Iran are considerable,” Labour MP Graham Jones said.

In Yemen, Iran has deftly exerted influence below the threshold that would trigger direct U.S. retaliation, just as it has done in the Arabian Gulf over the last three decades since the Tanker War. The United States may lack the incentive to retaliate or intervene in Yemen, but ignores the failed state at its own peril. The most pragmatic approach is to help the Saudis focus on the primary source of instability in Yemen. Iran threatens Saudi Arabia from the east, north, and south, and now, with the STC’s declaration of autonomy, Tehran has the opportunity to further spread instability and division throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which will only be exacerbated by global economic strain. Iran employed a similar tactic with Qatar in 2017, and now Turkey (whose relationship with Iran is ambiguous at best) appears to be joining with Qatar to finance the Muslim Brotherhood in southen Yemen.

A strategy explicitly focused on isolating the Houthis from Iranian support – militarily, diplomatically, and economically – would dramatically alter the Houthi and Iranian strategic calculus. The U.S. could organize an international effort to interdict illicit arms shipments through the Gulf of Aden (irrespective of origin). It must continue to expose Iranian malign influence in western Yemen, and work to disrupt and eventually quell Houthi revenue streams coming from Iran. Even with these efforts stability may still not “break out” in Yemen, and the Houthis are not likely to surrender the political and territorial gains they’ve earned over the last five years.  

However, as Saudi efforts shift upstream to stem the flow of Iranian aid at its source, the Houthis’ ability, and intent, to threaten American interests in partner nations and the international commons would significantly diminish. Supporting the Saudis in isolating the Houthis from Iran is pragmatic because it balances necessity with available resources and political will. Political support from Congress will be more forthcoming by shifting the focus away from western Yemen itself toward stabilizing the international commons, and broadening the scope to an international effort to eliminate illicit arms shipments and destabilizing influence.

Conclusion

Yemen and Saudi Arabia may be toxic topics in Washington, but ignoring them could be disastrous. If COVID-19 is the domino that turns a humanitarian crisis into widespread fatalities, the United States may be compelled to intervene at great cost and risk. In the event of armed conflict with Iran, western Yemen would be a second front and a second contested maritime chokepoint. Not only would ignoring Yemen allow threats to American interests to grow, it would jeopardize U.S. influence over a key partner in the global energy market. The Saudis demonstrated their clout in April by flooding the market with oil to punish Russia for refusing earlier cuts, with analysts predicting they will win the price war. On Easter, President Trump negotiated a deal for the Saudis to cut production, and while COVID-19 impacts continue to dominate the market, American influence on Saudi Arabia proved critical in softening the blow. Despite our progress toward energy independence, our relationship with the Saudis is still a major factor in our economic health.

Ultimately, the Holy Grail for securing American interests in the Middle East is for partner nations to provide for their own defense. Saudi Arabia is already a cultural and economic heavyweight, and its Vision 2030 has the potential to gradually bring it more in line with western Democratic ideals, and to improve its security and defense institutions. A functional Arab regional security architecture is among the greatest of Iranian fears. In Yemen, the United States can send a strong message to Iran and invest in Saudi Arabia’s future as a regional security leader and sustainably secure American interests more broadly. By doing more now the U.S. can do less in the Middle East in the future.

Iran certainly sees opportunity to sow further instability in the wake of the STC’s separatist declaration in Aden. Tehran will gauge Washington’s reaction closely, and the penalty for inaction on our part could be severe. It is time to decide whether Yemen matters more to us, or more to Tehran.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. Contact him at President@cimsec.org. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

Featured Image: South-southwest-looking, high-oblique photograph taken during the Hubble Space telescope’s STS-61 servicing mission shows the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea. (NASA photo)