Category Archives: Middle East

Analysis related to USCENTCOM.

Data as an Approach to Yemen’s Maritime Security Challenges

By Jeffrey Payne and William Thompson

According to a study by Stable Seas, illicit actors are exploiting instability in Yemen’s maritime environment exacerbated by the ongoing civil war. This breach in maritime security has been made more acute because of damage to the country’s infrastructure, including a substantial portion of the facilities supporting Yemen’s maritime industry. Naval installations and two professional military education (PME) institutions — the Naval Institute and Naval School — were damaged during the conflict. As a consequence of the civil war, Yemen faces limited maritime resources and institutional capacity to police its waters and counter the rise of maritime crime. While Yemen’s maritime challenges cannot be comprehensively addressed until the conflict is resolved, there are strategies that can help allocate resources toward mitigating security gaps. Data can provide a strategic framework for addressing Yemen’s maritime security challenges while also strengthening partnerships and improving maritime domain awareness in the wider Red Sea Region. Specifically, data is an instrument for addressing three security challenges: maritime enforcement, coastal welfare, and rule of law. 

Maritime Enforcement

Maritime enforcement can be made more effective by implementing a system of maritime monitoring. This system would collect and report data on what is happening within Yemen’s territorial waters, especially what types of threats are present and what trends exist. Maritime data reveals patterns that can help human operators recognize anomalies. A more comprehensive picture built from this data would also assist policymakers in mapping an adequate response. Yemen does not have the ability at present to dispatch vessels to monitor its waters at sufficient scale. Adaptation is necessary, and data can provide a path forward for generating new insights into maritime insecurity. It is true that before a data-driven approach is adopted, a system of data collection must be built. Although it would take time to implement such a system, a data-driven strategy is a clear pathway for long-term investment into the country’s security and development that is also feasible within the constraints of the larger political environment of the civil war.

Consider the example of arms trafficking. Type 56-1 rifles are a prominent weapon documented in Yemen and Somalia with strong evidence suggesting Iranian origins. These weapons are transported via dynamic maritime trafficking networks. To complicate matters further, the total travel time for a small vessel between Yemen and its coastal neighbors is only a few hours. This means law enforcement must respond quickly, which is only possible when supported by real-time monitoring. Moreover, collecting data and mapping the location of interdictions or other maritime incidents may help predict future smuggling patterns, which would empower law enforcement to be more precise in how they orchestrate patrols or plan interceptions. Yemen will not stop smuggling in its waters, but it can raise the stakes for criminal actors and increase the cost of their illegality.

The scale of information can also be increased when other actors agree to share maritime data, such as Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain, regional states, and active non-regional states and actors. If Yemen presents a willingness to use data more routinely, then it may incentivize neighboring partners to participate in information-sharing. The relationship between data and cooperation is cyclic — as more data is collected and shared, states are better informed about possible security threats. A more informed response has a greater likelihood of success, which provides policymakers with more intelligence about illicit activities at sea, thereby encouraging more partnerships.

Coastal Welfare

Maritime domain awareness, enhanced through data collection and monitoring, can improve coastal welfare insecurity. Based on the definition provided by Stable Seas, coastal welfare encompasses the “physical and economic wellbeing” of coastal communities, including the health of local fisheries. Specifically, there exists a relationship between the fishing industry in poor coastal areas and criminality. An increase in piracy often follows an increase in unemployment among individuals employed by coastal industries. Extremist groups and pirates may recruit local fishermen for their navigation skills, and a struggling fishing industry may make local communities more susceptible to joining criminal organizations. Piracy and other forms of violent criminal conduct are correlated with illegal and unreported fishing, which not only damages local marine ecology, but threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities. Yemen’s coastal communities have been grossly impacted by the civil conflict, and the subsequent loss of income and labor stability equates to an environment where many turn toward illegal activities.

A free and easily accessible source of data to highlight in the case of coastal welfare is the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS). VIIRS data captures the location of maritime activity at night and can be a mechanism by which to better enhance maritime domain awareness. Such data may be collected to identify clusters of maritime activity and enhance management of fishing resources and suspected smuggling.

Rule of Law

Finally, a data-driven approach to maritime security has institutional implications that could bolster rule of law. Many of the advantages of data lay in the process by which it is analyzed and communicated to internal and external partners. Maritime professionals need to be trained in different aspects of data management, and teams of analysts need to be employed to evaluate policies based on empirical evidence. Various branches of Yemeni law enforcement will be able to communicate faster and more effectively, increasing Yemen’s institutional capacity to police its waters and develop new solutions to emerging threats. The costs of integrating a more data-driven approach are initially structural in nature, as it requires the retooling of the workforce. Financial costs, while a burden, are not insurmountable given the expansion of commercial firms, applications, and free data. With international assistance also becoming more common, such as through the U.S. SeaVision and EU IORIS systems, the financial burden becomes less prohibitive.  

Expanding information sharing could become the basis for intensified institutional cooperation in the region. Despite the challenges it faces, Yemen remains an active member of the maritime community in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean Region. Yemeni coast guard and port security officials routinely engage in training platforms and educational forums with their immediate neighbors, the European Union, and the United States, among others. Partner efforts should not only prioritize technical training for Yemeni maritime professionals, but also actively provide analysis premised upon their own maritime data.

Existing Technology

Data collection and processing applications already exist in the public realm, as do open-source datasets. Yemen does not need a cohort of technological experts to utilize these applications and deliver improved assessments. The applications that process data also assist in the analysis. Combined with active assistance from partners, Yemen could significantly improve its access to and analysis of a large amount of information. Platforms such as ArcGIS and QGIS are relatively easy to use and support various kinds of data mapping. Other platforms report data on the maritime domain, such as Global Fishing Watch, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Anti-Shipping Activity Messages database, and Esri’s ArcGIS online repository of public data. These platforms often report maritime data as CSV, geoJSON, shapefiles, or other formats that can be imported into a mapping software and visualized. Outside of mapping software, other open-source software such as Python and R contain numerous packages for importing and mapping data.

Conclusion

Data has the potential to be a central pillar of maritime security in Yemen and maritime domain awareness in the wider Red Sea Region. The transnational nature of maritime security necessitates a cooperative enterprise where data is requested and shared among state actors. Regional pursuits for maritime domain awareness depend on lowering the barriers between state actors, which the collection and sharing of data will help stimulate. Because data can be easily shared, it is an asset in building a stronger maritime community through a collective understanding of challenges. Therefore, Yemen should intensify its use of maritime data and request assistance in doing so, while partner nations with greater capability should provide as much assistance as possible. This will build trust and provide a clear collaborative framework for securing the greater Red Sea Region.

Jeffrey Payne is a Professor at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC.

William Thompson is a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center or the U.S. Government.  

Featured image: Yemen coast guard vessels patrol the waters near Mukalla, Yemen, on November 29, 2018 (Credit: AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Fighting, Fishing, and Filming: The Islamic State’s Maritime Operations

By Lucas Webber

In 2004, two US Navy personnel and one member of the Coast Guard were killed in a blast while attempting to board a boat near the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal off Basra. Two other explosive-laden watercraft detonated nearby, though they did not cause any casualties. The attacks were later claimed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the time and the founding father of the Islamic State (IS) movement. Notably, the statement drew a comparison to the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen, demonstrating AQI’s historical knowledge of jihadi attacks by sea and their strategic consciousness about the insurgent opportunities inherent to the maritime domain. Additionally, the statement threatened a continuance of attacks by sea, land, and air “until victory or defeat.” AQI would make good on this promise the following year, firing rockets at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Israeli port of Eilat.

These maritime attacks were also bolstered by AQI’s river-based movements and knowledge. The historian Kimberly Kagan describes how, during the 2007 surge, AQI (then called Islamic State in Iraq) “operated almost freely in a pendulum-like arc south of Baghdad, swinging from the Euphrates to the Tigris,” adding that “they traveled southeast along the Euphrates River, often by boat, from Fallujah to Sadr al Yusufiya.”

This mode of maritime activity by IS’s organizational predecessor would continue and ultimately expand under the Islamic State. IS has proven highly adaptable and, accordingly, has sought to use geography to its advantage. In the case of Iraq and Syria, the networks have long operated along the coasts and throughout the region’s river systems. IS has traditionally exploited the maritime domain for its kinetic operations, for propaganda purposes, and, in some cases, to raise funds. To be sure, the IS movement is a primarily land-centric phenomenon, yet the propensity for maritime operations is deeply ingrained into its organizational DNA.

A screenshot portrays a group of IS fighters (Credit: Terrormonitor.com)

The Islamic State has historically been quite active along the Euphrates and Tigris, traversing throughout to move fighters, weapons, explosives, and supplies; conduct reconnaissance; prepare for and launch attacks; and strike using gunboats and boat-borne IEDs. The rivers have allowed IS fighters to avoid roads, checkpoints, and bridges. In fact, IS has even blown up such structures, including a bridge connecting Dhulueya and Balad using explosive-laden watercraft.

The Islamic State’s use of river systems was so prevalent during its high period that anti-coalition forces conducted intense airstrikes against jihadis travelling by boat. One report from 2016 stated the US and its allies had sunk over 100 IS boats up to that point, with 65 of them destroyed in a single month. The group has used barges, motorboats, and rowboats to travel around the area.

IS fishing propaganda (Credit: Weddady).

The Islamic State’s military strategy includes a significant media warfare component, and some part of this has been leveraged to weaponize the maritime domain. The Islamic State movement was early to recognize the US Navy as central to American power projection, with IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani boasting that “Allah’s law” is “being implemented despite” the opposing military coalition’s “legions, arsenals, planes, tanks, missiles, aircraft carriers, and weapons of mass destruction.”

Further solidifying this weaponization of the maritime domain, another IS figure lamented in March 2015 that “today, Worshippers of the Cross and the infidels pollute our seas with their warships, boats, and aircraft carriers and gobble up our wealth and kill us from the sea.” The group’s supporters responded to this statement with optimism, saying IS will “take to the sea in what is only a matter of a short time,” forecasting the “creation of an Islamic fleet by the Islamic State,” and saying that an IS navy would aim to sink “warships and [commercial] ships… and to threaten their shores and lines of communication… an entire fleet, God willing, not just a single ship.”

For the Islamic State, the seas have also been viewed as a way to infiltrate the soft underbelly of Europe and to attack and invade its enemies in the West. One propagandist suggested that a Mediterranean maritime presence could “bring us closer to conquering Rome sooner rather than later.”

In a particularly notable video intended to show off the skills of its forces, fighters flaunted their amphibious capabilities by swimming in the Tigris and maneuvering in small boats.

Aside from threats, IS’s propaganda apparatus has produced photos and videos of militants paddling, fishing, selling their catches at local markets, and even scuba diving — such imagery was intended to show the serenity of life in the caliphate and the high spirits of the Islamic State’s rank and file.

Another IS fishing propaganda photo (Credit: Terrormonitor.com)

However, some of this activity served more practical purposes. As the Islamic State’s caliphate territory was rolled back by the US-led military coalition, the organization exploited the fishing industry as a source of funding. In 2016, Reuters reported about how the group turned to farming and selling fish in Iraq to finance their operations. It should be noted, though, that the Islamic State and its previous iterations had reportedly been involved in the industry since at least 2007 when AQI was fighting the Americans following their 2003 invasion.

IS-associated militants on a boat in the Lake Chad region (credit: Evan Kohlmann).

Even with the loss of land control in Iraq and Syria, IS guerrillas continue to operate along the region’s river systems. And with the organization’s international expansion and the establishment of a global network of insurgent hubs, the group’s branches, from the Sulu-Celebes Sea to the Lake Chad Basin, are more actively incorporating maritime activities into their insurgency campaigns.  

Lucas Webber is a researcher focused on geopolitics and violent non-state actors. He is cofounder editor at militantwire.com and writes a newsletter at sinosecurity.org. You can find him on Twitter: @LucasADWebber

Featured Image: Islamic State video portrays Islamic State fighters using boats to cross the Euphrates (credit: Oryx).

Iranian Maritime Threats: An Opportunity for the U.S. Navy

By Cameron Sothern

The volume of oil that flows through the Strait of Hormuz gives it geostrategic importance. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “In 2018, its daily oil flow averaged 21 million barrels per day (b/d), or the equivalent of about 21% of global petroleum liquids consumption.”1 If freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz were hampered, an energy crisis would ensue. Maritime insecurities anywhere are a threat to the circulation of global trade. In the Persian Gulf and its adjacent seas, these insecurities mostly originate from Iran and its proxy forces, such as the Houthis in Yemen. “By controlling the Strait of Hormuz and placing forces along the Bab el-Mandeb in Yemen, Iran can contest energy flows to US allies as well as to China.”2 This article identifies Iranian maritime threats and proposes a course of action for the U.S. Navy to continue and improve upon its efforts in the region to deter them.

Iranian Maritime Capabilities

The Islamic Republic is well suited to draw on the rich millennial heritage of Iranian society and culture and the significant heritage of the Islamic Revolution, particularly its indigenously derived and sustained participatory model of governance. Iran can use such strengths to help realize the deeply cherished national aspirations of the Iranian people, including the achievement of long-term development and regional ascendance commensurate with the country’s capacities and stature. —Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif3

It is important to note that while the Islamic Republic of Iran is a relatively young state, its heritage stems from the legacy of the Persian Empire, and there are overtones of restoring a similar sense of greatness. Iran’s current strategic goal is to create a regionally hegemonic state. The goal is divided into four pillars: continuity of clerical rule, addressing internal and external threats, stabilizing regional influence, and attaining economic prosperity.4 Iran’s maritime and naval capabilities play an important role in supporting its strategic goal, especially when employed in the “gray zone.”5 By operating in the gray zone, Iran can make incremental changes to the status quo, which currently favors the U.S.-led International Rules Based Order (IRBO). When the United States and its partners in the region attempt to counter Iranian actions, Iran can fall back to its area of access denial, let things cool off, and reinitiate incremental changes.

Within the Persian Gulf, the naval arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Gard Corps, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), operates hundreds of small craft that are used in swarm tactics and special operations. The vessels are cheaper and faster than conventional military vessels, allowing them to respond quickly and in mass anywhere in the Persian Gulf or Strait of Hormuz. The IRGCN harasses military and commercial vessels. Their tactics involve surrounding the targeted vessel and cutting across its bow. The IRGCN has also diverted and detained certain foreign vessels in response to economic sanctions. Examples of aggressive IRGCN actions since 2019 include attacks on Norwegian, Japanese, Saudi Arabian, and Israeli vessels. The IRGCN vessels are often emboldened by ambitious regional commanders, acting without orders from the state or supreme leader.

If Iran were to attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz, it would rely heavily on the capabilities of the IRGCN. As stated above, Iran can move in and out of its area of access denial; but it also has the capacity to expand this area. In such a scenario, the IRGCN would likely lay naval mines and board or attack commercial vessels. Moreover, while not an exclusively maritime capability, Iran has shown an affinity for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to attack land-based infrastructure in the region. Regarding Iran, General McKenzie Jr. stated in the CENTCOM posture statement, “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”6 Iran has employed many of these tactics in the past without consequence, and the protentional for them to do so in a less limited manner could send shock waves through global markets.

Iran relies on two other maritime forces to support its state strategy. The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) is a traditional naval force comprised of surface ships and submarines. The IRIN operates in the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and beyond. The IRIN is an aging fleet and does not present a major security threat. It participates in counter piracy and escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and northern Indian Ocean; however, it is mostly employed by Iran as a diplomatic tool. The IRIN can train with Chinese and Russian naval forces, allowing Iran to project limited power outside of the region. The IRIN has also made port calls in Sri Lanka and China. For now, Iran’s maintenance of a green-water navy is more of a status and reputation builder than a threat to maritime security.

In addition to the IRIN, Iran maintains state control of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL). Iran manufactures much of its own military equipment and relies heavily on the IRISL to export it to Iranian proxies and state actors, often in violation of international sanctions. “Iran’s biggest customers include Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Iraqi Shia militias, but Iran has also provided weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, Palestinian groups, and the Taliban in Afghanistan… other state customers of Iranian military equipment have included Iraq and Sudan…”7 The military equipment includes small arms, ammunition, artillery systems, armored vehicles, equipment for unmanned explosive boats, and communications equipment. These exports benefit the Iranian economy; expand Iranian influence and power; and, when used by proxy forces, support Iranian military objectives.

Breaking Down Iran’s Maritime Threats

Iran’s geographic position and maritime capabilities have allowed the state to continue its pursuit of altering the status quo.8 Recurringly, Iran has acted aggressively to create short-term tension, while retaining the ability to prolong and diversify its actions as a means to avoid escalation to war. It is commonly agreed that Iran’s desire to avoid direct warfare is a result of its experience in the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, in which both sides of the conflict lost tens of thousands.9 In this conflict, Iran learned the necessity of a passive defense. Passive defense tactics focus on denial and deception to mitigate vulnerabilities and increase survivability, ensuring a strong retaliation. “Examples of this [denial and deception] include, using camouflage and concealment, hiding, and dispersing forces, building underground facilities, and developing highly mobile units.”10

These tactics contribute to Iran’s deterrent strategy, which seeks to highlight how long and costly a direct conflict with Iran would be. The denial and deception aspects of passive defense are also used by the IRGCN. “The IRGCN is the primary operator of Iran’s hundreds of fast attack craft (FAC) and fast inshore attack craft (FIAC). These platforms have been the mainstay of the IRGCN since its inception in the 1980s, although the Iranian FAC/FIAC inventory has grown significantly in terms of size and lethality since that time.”11 These vessels are highly mobile and allow for the dispersion of equipment and personnel along Iran’s coastline in the Persian Gulf, which would help mitigate Iran’s losses should they endure a strike.

Iran’s maritime threats closely align with contemporary academic knowledge regarding hybridized maritime threats. The four necessary components of hybridized aggression in the maritime domain are: a state with major power, deniable but clear orchestration on behalf of the state, illegal action, and control over levels of aggression to match responses.12 Iran has performed elements of hybridized maritime aggression in the past, especially through its proxies. In early March 2021, Houthi forces in Yemen used over a dozen drones to attack the Ras Tanura oil facility in Saudi Arabia.13 “The Houthis are increasing their missile salvos against Saudi Arabia because they have no fear of shortages. As the Biden administration and the UN have pointed out, the rebels can draw on covert shipments of Iranian-supplied drone engines, ballistic missile motors, and electronics.”14 The attack on the oil port shows Iran’s ability to direct proxy attacks on maritime infrastructure.

Iran also uses state forces to perform hybridized maritime aggression. While the most blatant example is the use of the IRGCN to place limpet mines on commercial vessels, the conduct of IRGCN vessels at sea also qualifies. In late April of 2021, several Iranian FIAC quickly approached the USS Firebolt and the USCGC Baranof, “To an unnecessarily close range with unknown intent, including a closest point of 68 yards.”15 The article continued, “The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the IRGCN vessels continued their close-range maneuvers.” Again, in May 2021, thirteen Iranian FAC rapidly approached U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels that were transiting the Strait of Hormuz. After failing to respond to radio and horn signals, and coming within 300 yards of U.S. vessels, USCGC Maui fired warning shots towards the Iranian FAC.16

The conduct of these vessels was hazardous and violated the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, which establishes standard practices for vessels maneuvering in proximity to one another. The Iranian FAC/FIAC acted without regard for proper communication, signaling, or the safety of life at sea. Although none of the incidents resulted in a collision or loss of life, the risk was significant, as was the potential to escalate tensions between the United States and Iran to dangerous levels. The variety of Iran’s maritime aggression, from proxy attacks on oil ports to dangerous maneuvering at sea, highlights Iran’s ability to use varying levels of maritime tactics and fulfills the requirements to categorize Iran as a hybrid actor in the maritime domain.

A Course of Action for the U.S. Navy

Several actors and ongoing initiatives are working towards greater security in the Persian Gulf. These include U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and its naval element, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which oversees the operations of U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). Comprising 34 member states, “CMF’s main focus areas are counter-narcotics, counter-smuggling, suppressing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and engaging with regional and other partners to strengthen relevant capabilities in order to improve overall security and stability, and promoting a safe maritime environment free from illicit non-state actors.”17 Additionally, the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) was formed in July 2019 to provide updated information for merchant vessels that transit the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.

Many states benefit from the security provided by these initiatives and contribute to them, but the U.S. Navy plays an especially important leadership role. In addition to the frequent presence of a U.S. carrier strike group and independently deployed destroyers within and outside of the Persian Gulf, the latter of which often support CMF operations, the United States has led the multinational Combined Task Force 152 (CTF 152), one of three task forces under the CMF, 10 times. CTF 152 oversees maritime security operations within the Persian Gulf. Other states that have commanded CTF 152 have done so four times or less.18 Due to its large capacity and leadership experience, there are several things that the U.S. Navy should do, or oversee, to further increase Persian Gulf security.

The U.S. Navy should continue to increase its mine countermeasure and air defense capabilities. Anti-mine capabilities will create higher assurances of safe navigation and further mitigate the threat of naval mines. It is already part of CENTCOM’s effort to increase the number of Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships and Sea Dragon helicopters to protect the navigation of vessels in the Persian Gulf.19

The threat of drones, rockets, and missiles to vessels, port facilities, and other key points. The U.S. Navy should work with CENTCOM and regional states to solidify potential targets and work collaboratively on air defense. The March 2021 drone attack on Ras Tanura oil facility was thwarted by Saudi Arabia, who received early warning from U.S. systems and a U.S. airborne early warning aircraft.20 This has also been identified by CENTCOM as a significant threat and area for further regional development.

An additional approach to limiting Iranian proxy groups is the continuation of patrols by CTF 150 and CTF 152, which patrol within and outside of the Persian Gulf, respectively. These patrols often intercept weapons and narcotics shipments, although they are not explicitly targeting shipments from Iran. In May 2021, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard intercepted, “…dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers.”21 Participation in CMF is not mandatory, but the United States could encourage additional states to participate and help manage their contributions.

The U.S. Navy should continue to work with other naval forces and regional states to quantify Iranian capabilities. Quantifying Iran’s capabilities will help decision makers in the U.S. Navy, U.S. government, and U.S. partners to create more accurate risk assessments in order to dispatch the most appropriate resources to mitigate or respond to threats.

There are diverging legal perspectives between the United States and Iran regarding passage through the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Navy should continue to exercise its right to transit passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran recognizes its own maritime laws, which incorporate a modified version of innocent passage through the Strait of Hormuz.22 The United States recognizes the Strait of Hormuz as an international strait and does not recognize the strait as territorial waters of Iran. Therefore, the United States makes its passages according to transit passage, which is the movement of a vessel from one part of the high seas/Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to another part of the high seas/EEZ. In transit passage, U.S. vessels and aircraft maintain normal operations, such as flying in a defensive formation.

Conclusion

In combination, these actions could further mitigate and deter Iranian maritime threats while supporting the IRBO. As a highly capable and influential naval force, the U.S. Navy should continue to strongly advocate for and lead maritime security efforts in the Persian Gulf and its adjacent seas. An increased naval approach to the region will provide the United States flexibility and mobility in addressing challenges. While Iranian maritime threats present an immediate challenge in the Persian Gulf, they also prompt larger questions about how the U.S. Navy can better address gray zone operations and hybrid aggression in the maritime domain. Considering the economic and military strength of the United States relative to Iran, the United States should focus on Iran to gain insights into effective strategies that could apply to similar challenges elsewhere, such as those posed by Russia in the Black Sea and China in the South China Sea.

Cameron Sothern is a 2021 graduate of the California State University Maritime Academy. He holds a BA in Global Studies and Maritime Affairs summa cum laude and has been accept to attend the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in November. 

References

[1] Barden, J. (2019, June). The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint. U.S. Energy Information Administration. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39932#

[2] Clark, B., Walton, T. A., & Cropsey, S. (2020). American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage. Hudson Institute, 72.

[3] Zarif, M. J. (2014). What Iran Really Wants: Iranian Foreign Policy in the Rouhani Era. Foreign Affairs, 93(3), 49–59. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.csum.edu/stable/24483405?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents

[4, 7, 11] Defense Intelligence Agency. (2019). Iran military power: Ensuring regime survival and securing regional dominance. Defense Intelligence Agency.

[5] Mazaar, M.J. (2015). “Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict.” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. War College Press, p.1–7. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2372.pdf

[6, 19] General McKenzie Jr., K. (2021, April). POSTURE STATEMENT OF GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE, JR., COMMANDER, UNITED STATES CENTRAL COMMAND BEFORE THE SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE. U.S. Central Command. https://www.centcom.mil/ABOUT-US/POSTURE-STATEMENT/

[8] Eisensdadt, M. (2020-b, January). Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran’s Asymmetric Way of War. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/operating-gray-zone-countering-irans-asymmetric-way-war

[9] Kurzman, C. (2013, October). Death Tolls of the Iran-Iraq War – Charles Kurzman. Death Tolls of the Iran-Iraq War. https://kurzman.unc.edu/death-tolls-of-the-iran-iraq-war/

[10] Office of Naval Intelligence. (2017). Iranian Naval Forces: A Tale of Two Navies ((DOPSR Case 17-S-0836)). https://www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel%20agencies/iran/Iran%20022217SP.pdf

[12]  Ralby, I. (2017). Examining Hybrid Maritime Threats. Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence: Cutting the Bow Wave, 13–17. http://www.cjoscoe.org/infosite/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/CJOS_COE_Cutting_the_Bow_Wave_2017_Final_compressed_v2.pdf

[13-14, 20] Knights, M. (2021, March). Continued Houthi Strikes Threaten Saudi Oil and the Global Economic Recovery. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/continued-houthi-strikes-threaten-saudi-oil-and-global-economic-recovery

[15] U.S. Navy Office of Information. (2021, April). IRGCN Interaction with U.S. Naval Vessels in the North Arabian Gulf. United States Navy. https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/Press-Releases/display-pressreleases/Article/2587098/irgcn-interaction-with-us-naval-vessels-in-the-north-arabian-gulf/

[16] U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs. (2021-a, May). Unsafe and Unprofessional Interaction with IRGCN FIAC in Strait of Hormuz. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. https://www.cusnc.navy.mil/Media/News/Display/Article/2602006/unsafe-and-unprofessional-interaction-with-irgcn-fiac-in-strait-of-hormuz/

[17-18] Combined Maritime Forces. (2021, May). CTF 152: Gulf Maritime Security. CTF 152: GULF MARITIME SECURITY. https://combinedmaritimeforces.com/ctf-152-gulf-security-cooperation/

[21] U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs. (2021-b, May). USS Monterey Seizes Illicit Weapons in the North Arabian Sea. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. https://www.cusnc.navy.mil/Media/News/Display/Article/2600829/uss-monterey-seizes-illicit-weapons-in-the-north-arabian-sea/

[22] Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 433. https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%201833/volume-1833-A-31363-English.pdf

Featured image: April 2020 – Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels approach the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) at close range while conducting joint interoperability operations in support of maritime security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

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.