Turkey - a new ‘Eastern Question’ emerges; but this time it’s different

The Eastern Question was a phrase coined by the Great Powers in the late 18th century, about what to do with the declining Ottoman Empire and Turkey, dubbed 'the Sick Man of Europe'. Today, one hundred years on from the defeat and break up of that Empire, President Erdogan's Turkey is back on the world stage and wants to be recognised as a regional power, with its own agenda. How should the US, EU and NATO react to that ambition?

Importance of History and Geography

A quick reminder of Turkey's history and geography should tell anyone that the modern day region of Anatolia has had great relevance to yesterday's world and more importantly, to its future. It is a majority Sunni Muslim country, it has a population of 75 million people, 20% of whom are Kurds. Geographically, Turkey sits strategically between Western Europe and the Middle East, as well facing Russia to the north, facilitating key trade routes. Its most western region is inside mainland Southern Europe. It controls the Bosphorus Straights at Istanbul and the Dardanelles (Gallipoli) further south, both strategic shipping bottle necks. It is nearly 1000 miles wide, having borders with Greece (including all the Aegean Greek Islands), Bulgaria, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Syria and has a sea border with Russia, Ukraine (including the Crimea) and Romania. It has control over the head waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that Syria and Iraq rely on. Oil and gas pipelines, both current and planned, are of huge importance to the region. 

Going back through history, today's Turkey was home to Troy, which played such a key role in the Empires of Hittites, Trojans and Greeks. Turkey was then the core of the Byzantine Empire and subsequently of the Ottoman Empire, which at its height ruled North Africa, through the Middle East and onto Bulgaria and Bosnia. Ironically, European powers, threatened previously by Ottoman advances in the 16th and 17th century, (stopped at 'the Gates of Vienna'), wanted the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, as it checked the expanding Russian Empire and prevented Russia from having a Mediterranean Naval Port, whilst allowing Western European Empires access to India and the Far East. One such concern led to the Crimean War of 1854, where Britain and France supported Turkey against a non-existent Russian threat. Seventy years later at the end of World War 1, after its defeat at the hands of the British Empire, Turkey fought a successful, but brutal war against Greece from 1919-1922, which shape today's borders and ethnicity of Greece and Turkey. The plight of the Armenians and the alleged genocide committed by the Ottomans remains a highly sensitive political issue within Turkey. On the break up of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish regions were not given their own nation state and ever since they have lived as either Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis or Turks, a legacy that remains to this day.

Turkey then remained neutral during the Second World War (a key fact rarely appreciated by those forces opposing the Nazis) and was a key ally within NATO during the Cold War, protecting 'NATO's southern flank'. Its armed forces remain one of the largest in the world. At the same time, it formed close trading agreements with EU and most recently has had to take in nearly three million refugees from Syria. It is a country of great beauty and has a character of people who are welcoming and friendly to guests - hence Turkey remains a strong tourist destination.

A sleeping giant?

The Cold War period (1946-1990) and some years thereafter, perhaps gave the impression that Turkey was a country with few problems and no real voice outside of its own borders. This near 70 year period has hidden the fact that for the majority of the past 5000 years, Turkey has played host to some of the greatest empires that Europe and the Middle East have ever seen. However, the situation now in Turkey is very different to that of the Cold War period. A combination of globalisation, information technology, the consequences of the Arab Spring (and war in Syria), the Kurdish question, a new and closer relationship with Russia, Russian intervention in the Crimea and Syria, and a reluctance within the EU to progress membership talks for Turkey, has brought about an entirely new dynamic. President Erdogan, who remains popular internally, is developing a strong nationalistic agenda, one which is fast distancing itself from European liberalism and embracing a more conservative Islamic character. Added to this, Turkey is pursuing a more outward looking diplomatic policy, with the aim of strengthening Turkey's position and influence in the region, which is not always in line with its NATO partners. One only has to look at President Erdogan's angry reaction to President Trump's announcement of the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to realise that things are not as they were in terms of warm relations with the West. It is just a little ironic that today's question of the of control of Jerusalem was last argued about in 1853 and was part of the reason for the Crimean War. 

Is the West living in a state of denial?

All this flies in the face of nearly 100 years of a Turkish policy to become more westernised, a policy introduced by the great leader who created the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk. The US, NATO and the EU can no longer depend on Turkey to be the trusted ally that it was for the second half of the 20th Century. The US and NATO find themselves in the strange position of continuing to act as if nothing has changed, perhaps one could argue, living in a state of denial. On the one hand Turkey remains a member of NATO, hosting US airbases (key strategic locations for the US's involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia). On the other hand in Syria, there is a political stand off between US Forces on the ground fighting against ISIS (using the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish Force) and the Turkish Armed Forces who are determined to defeat the YPG, who they consider terrorists and a long term threat to Turkey's internal security, where as mentioned, Kurds make up 20% of the population. There are also accusations by Turkey that the US was behind the recent unsuccessful military coup that has been so ruthlessly dealt with, with the purge of tens of thousands of officers and government officials. Meanwhile, Turkish relations with President Putin's Russia have warmed, with cooperation in Syria, and with Turkey buying 'state of the art' Russian anti aircraft missile systems, (whilst at the same time they are procuring the US's 'state of the art' Joint Strike Fighter). One wonders how close this new relationship with Russia would have to get before Turkey's membership of NATO becomes completely meaningless.

In addition, a deteriorating situation between Turkey and the EU on things like human rights, free speech and reform of the judiciary in Turkey may jeopardise the EU's funding programme for Turkey.  Furthermore, the Turkish/EU agreement to prevent the flow of migrants and refugees into mainland Europe maybe at risk, a topic that is threatening the unity of the EU and feeding anti-immigration political parties throughout Europe. If one adds the long standing issue of the Turkish control of Northern Cyprus (taken by military invasion in 1974), the Aegean Islands disputes and the subsequent disagreements about Eastern Mediterranean offshore oil and gas rights, one can understand that there are a series of complex issues for Europe and Turkey, any one of which could lead to unwanted diplomatic confrontations and possibly worse.

Wicked problems

It is difficult to see how longer term regional stability is going to be achieved without a recognition  of the changed situation in Turkey and what are going to be some of the likely consequences. For President Erdogan, there are huge risks to his policies, not least that of damaging his country's trade with the US, EU and many Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Alliances with Russia, (historically an enemy, with a weak economy) Iran (Shia as opposed to Sunni) and Qatar (currently in a stand off with Saudi Arabia), though done for reasons of short term geo-political expediency, run the risk of undermining Turkey's position in NATO, its relationship with the US and its economy. 

Turkey has real concerns about how to deal with its Kurdish population and the connected terrorism from within both Kurdish paramilitary groups and jihadist groups. Whilst the US is fully supportive of Turkey in cracking down on any form of terrorism within Turkey, the US has announced a strategic decision to remain in Northern Syria with their Syrian Kurdish allies, not so much to defeat ISIS, but to contain what the US and Israel see as the growing threat from Iran and Hezbollah, who now have control or influence of a corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, to the Israeli border. For the US, the aim is to contain Iranian expansion; for Turkey, it is about preventing the formation of a Kurdish heartland on their border. There seems little room for compromise, even with US diplomatic efforts, as recently seen by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Turkey to try and smooth over differences. Meanwhile, the war in Syria and Yemen continues, the Saudi/Qatar blockade is still in force, the Israel/Palestine issue shows no sign of an agreement and a growing hostility from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran (and vice versa), means the region is never far from further crisis. How Turkey tries to influence proceedings is uncertain, but they are certainly a new unpredictable stakeholder to the geo-politics of the Middle East.

It is even harder to see how the EU can offer any further strengthening of a relationship on the way to EU membership, given a general suspicion of President Erdogan's drive to return to a less western liberal society in favour of a more conservative Islamic ideology.  His threats to flood Europe with refugees and immigrants are hardly the starting point for ever closer relations. However, from President Erdogan's perception, it must look more and more like the EU that is 'the sick man of Europe', not Turkey, (with issues such as split parliaments across Europe, Brexit, Eastern European disagreement, immigration and Southern European financial problems).This situation sends a twin message to Turkey that firstly EU membership is not available in the short to medium term and secondly that joining the EU should no longer be a priority or may not even be in the long term in the national interest. Instead, they are likely to turn their focus on trade and military links with Russia, parts of the Middle East and North Africa and move towards creating a more conservative religious society. This course of action has its own risks, both internally (political opposition from moderates, the power of social media and the internet, potential upsets to the economy and threats from terrorism), and externally where Turkey may be viewed as an unreliable place to do business. 

Learning from history and understanding geography, to shape a better future

The region of what was known as Anatolia (modern day Turkey and more) straddles trade routes, multiple national borders (many disputed) and contains political, cultural, ethnic and religious differences that have all resurfaced in this post Cold War environment. History tells us the region will continue to play a key role in future world order. This may or may not be an example of what Samuel Huntingdon called 'the Clash of Civilisations', but the West (and others) would do well to understand what Huntingdon meant.

The 'Eastern Question' that was posed by the Great Powers of the late 18th century and the events surrounding the start of the Crimean War of 1854 may not directly fit today's scenario, but they seem ominously similar, reminding us all of the quote, "history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes". Turkey, though it may have many issues of its own, is no longer 'the sick man of Europe' and is fast becoming (to use the same analogy) 'the recovering man of the Middle East'. It is indeed looking outwards as a regional power, with a strong hand in many areas when it comes to negotiation. This geo-political change must be acknowledged by all regional stakeholders if stability is to be achieved. Anyone wishing to attempt to help deliver peace and prosperity to this region would firstly do well to read the history and study the geography of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.

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