Modern Turkey straddles the land bridge linking southeastern-most Europe with southwestern-most Asia. In modern times, nearly all of Turkey’s territory lies on the Asian side of the divide, occupying the entirety of the Anatolian plateau — a thick, dry and rugged peninsula separating the Black and Mediterranean seas. Modern Turkey, with its Asiatic and Anatolian emphasis, is an aberration. “Turkey” was not originally a mountain country, and the highlands of Anatolia were among the last lands settled by the Turks, not the first.
The core of Turkey is not composed of the high plateaus and low mountains of Asia Minor. Instead, the Turkish core is the same territory as the core of the Byzantine Empire that preceded it, namely, the lands surrounding the Sea of Marmara. This lowland (called Thrace on its European shore) is not home to a vast, fertile plain like the middle of the United States, nor is it cut by a wealth of navigable rivers like Northern Europe. Such lowlands ease the penetration of peoples and ideas while allowing a central government to spread its writ with ease. One result is political unity; rivers radically reduce the cost of transport, encouraging trade and thus wealth.
The Sea of Marmara region has none of these features, but the location and shape of the sea, in many ways, encourages political unity and the creation of wealth. In terms of political unity and agricultural production, the region’s maritime climate smoothes out its semiarid nature. Similarly, its position on the flanks of the mountains of Anatolia grant the sea-hugging lowlands access to a series of broad valleys that rise at a grade insufficient to make agriculture difficult but sufficient for the cooler, higher air to wring out rain — thus watering the entire valley structure. Additionally, those extreme western Anatolian valleys are broad enough that they give rise to relatively few independence-minded minorities; central authority can easily project power up into them. Combined with the flat lands on the European side of the sea, the result is a sizable core territory with reasonably reliable freshwater supplies — and one that remains part of a singular political system because of the maritime transport on the Sea of Marmara. It may not be a large, unified, well-watered plain — split as it is by the sea — but the land is sufficiently useful that it is certainly the next best thing.
In terms of trade and the capital formation that comes from it, by some measures the Sea of Marmara is even better than a navigable river. Access to the sea is severely limited by two straits: the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. In some places, maritime access to the Turkish core is a mere mile across. This has two implications. First, Turkey is highly resistant to opposing sea powers. For foes to reach the Turkish core they must make amphibious assaults on the core’s borderlands and then fight against an extremely determined and well-equipped defending force that can resupply both by land and sea. As the British Empire learned famously at Gallipoli in World War I, such an approach is a tall order. Second, the geographic pinches on the sea ensure that Marmara is virtually a Turkish lake — and one with a lengthy shoreline. This complete ownership has encouraged a vibrant maritime trading culture reaching back to antiquity and rivaling the economic strength of nearly any river basin. As a result, the core of Turkey is both capital-rich and physically secure.
The final dominant feature of the Turkish core region is that, while it is centered around the Sea of Marmara, the entire region is an important tradeway. The Sea of Marmara links the Aegean (and from it the Mediterranean) Sea with the Black Sea, granting Turkey full command of any trans-sea trading and providing it with natural, nearby opportunities for economic expansion. Turkish lands are also in essence an isthmus between Europe and Southwest Asia, allowing Turkey nearly as much dominance over European-Asian land trade as it enjoys over Black-Mediterranean sea trade.
This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that the trade that flows via the land route absolutely must travel through Turkey’s core, granting Turkey all of the economic benefits of that trade. Combined with the maritime tradition this land grants to its inhabitants, the Ottomans and Byzantines both managed to dominate regional — and in many cases global — trade for centuries. For example, partnership with the merchant cities of Italy’s Po Valley granted the Turks exclusivity over European-Asian trade for centuries.
As with all isthmuses, however, the land funnels down to a narrow point, allowing large hostile land forces to concentrate their strength on the core territory and to bring it to bear against one half of the core (with the other half being on the other side of the sea). This is precisely how the Mongols’ Turkic cousins — the forebearers to today’s Turks — dislodged the Byzantines. In short, Turkey’s core is more vulnerable to land invasion than sea invasion.
- Establish a blocking position in Anatolia.
- Expand up the Danube to Vienna.
- Develop a political and economic system to integrate the conquered peoples.
- Seize and garrison Crimea.
- Establish naval facilities throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Many empires form after a country has already consolidated control over its local geography. For example, once England consolidated control over Great Britain, it was logical for it to expand into an empire (in large part because there was nothing left to do at home). There was nothing that required England to do so, of course. The empire obviously enriched England and made it more secure, but even if England had remained limited to Great Britain, it would have been a powerful, successful and secure entity.
This is not the case with the Turks. The Sea of Marmara offers many advantages, but it is neither a large region nor one without regional competitors. Reduced simply to Marmara, the Turks lack both strategic depth and a large population. They can limit their access to the world within their mini-Mediterranean, but in doing so they invalidate many of the economic benefits of that sea. The Marmara region thrives on trade; isolationism greatly circumscribes that trade, and with it the Turks’ options. And if the Turks turned inward, that would restrict trade between Asia and Europe, virtually inviting a major power to dislodge the plug.
Addressing these shortcomings forces whoever rules the Marmara lands to expand. Just as the Japanese are forced to attempt expansion to secure resources and markets, and as the Russians are forced to attempt expansion to secure more defendable borders, the Turks find themselves at the mercy of others economically, politically and militarily unless they can create something bigger for themselves.
Establish a Blocking Position in Anatolia
Before the Turks can expand, they first must secure their rear, and that means venturing into Anatolia. As noted earlier, the Sea of Marmara region is a rich, unified, outward-oriented region. But none of this is true for the rest of what comprises modern-day Turkey, namely, the Anatolian Peninsula.
Anatolia is much dryer and more rugged than the Marmara region, starkly raising the capital costs of infrastructure and agriculture. While it is a peninsula that would normally generate a maritime culture, its coastline is smooth, greatly limiting the number of good ports. Mountains also rise very rapidly from the coast, so unlike the Marmara region, there is little hinterland to develop to take advantage of the maritime access. There are notable exceptions — the flat coastal enclaves of the Antalya and Adana regions — but the norm is for an extremely truncated coastal identity. Anatolia’s valleys are also higher, narrower and steeper than those at the peninsula’s western end. This encourages the development and independence of local cultures, thus complicating the matter of central control. Taken together, Anatolia is as capital-poor, parochial and introspective as the Sea of Marmara region is capital-rich, worldly and extroverted.
Because of this, the Turks had little interest in grabbing all of Anatolia early in their development; the cost simply outweighs the benefits. But they do need to ensure that natives of Anatolia are not able to raid the core and that any empire farther afield cannot use the Anatolian land bridge to reach Marmara. The solution is creating a blocking position beyond the eastern end of the valleys that drain to the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. The specific location is unimportant, but by most measures, it is better to have that block very close to the western end of the peninsula, no more than one-third of the way down the peninsula’s length. For as one moves east, Anatolia becomes higher, dryer and more rugged; one certainly would not want to move past the 36th meridian, where the Mediterranean abruptly stops and Anatolia fuses with Asia proper, since this would expose the Turks to more and more land-based rivals.
The strategic benefits of this block are nearly unrivaled. Just as Anatolia is difficult to develop or control, it is equally difficult to launch an invasion through. A secure block on Anatolia starkly limits the ability of Asian powers to bring war to Turkey, which can use the entire peninsula — even if not under Turkish control — as a buffer and be free to focus on richer pastures within Europe.
Expand up the Danube to Vienna
The Danube Valley is the logical first point of major expansion for the Turks for a number of reasons. First, at only 350 kilometers (220 miles) away from the Marmara, it is the closest major river valley of note. Second, there are no rival naval powers on the Black Sea. The Black Sea is too stormy to sustain a non-expert navy, most of its coast is rugged and its northern reaches freeze in the winter. Only the Turks have ice-free, good-weather, deep-water ports (mostly on the Sea of Marmara) that can maintain a sustained competition in the region, practically handing naval superiority to them. Consequently, it is extremely easy for the Turks to leverage their naval expertise to support initial gains in the eastern Balkans. (Water transport is far more efficient than land transport, whether the cargo is commercial or military in nature.) Third, the Danube is a remarkable prize. It is the longest river in the region by far and is navigable all the way to southern Germany; ample tracts of arable land line its banks.
The Other Ottoman Territories
The Modern Era: Same Neighborhood…
Modern Turkey faces two considerable obstacles in its development in the modern age: Its routes for expansion are difficult and the nature of the Turks has changed.
First, the expansion challenges. Turkey chose to isolate itself from the world after losing everything so completely in the First World War. Its empire gone, the Turks needed to find a different raison d’etre and there simply were no options available. The Ottoman Empire was successful because it had been able to leverage its geography for economic gain — the land bridge between Europe and Asia and the Turkish Straits were the global trade nexus for 300 years. Not so in the 20th century. Deepwater navigation allowed Europe to access the Far East directly and resulted in the rise of the Americas, turning the Eastern Mediterranean from the crossroads of global commerce to an isolated backwater. And that was only the beginning.
The twin disasters of defeat in World War I and the Great Depression were brutal to a people who were accustomed to wealth and respect. Ankara managed to stay out of World War II, but largely because none of the belligerents chose to involve it. The last thing the Allies wanted was to risk Nazi control of the Turkish Straits, and the last thing the Axis wanted was the Anatolian land war that would have been required to hold the straits.
In 1946, Turkey’s slim menu of options narrowed to one: Western alignment. The Soviet Union had risen as much as Turkey had fallen during this period and by the end of World War II had stationed troops on Turkey’s Caucasus and Balkan borders. Soon Moscow had military advisors in Iraq and Syria. Far from being at the center of global commerce, Turkey found itself surrounded by some of the least dynamic and most closed economies in the world, at the crossroads of nothing. The only possible opening to wealth was in economic integration with Europe, but the Turks’ traditional route for that integration — the Danube — was now an internal Soviet waterway. Any economic development the Turks were going to do had to be funded solely by the Marmara region, and lack of proximate trading partners meant any trade could not be under terms imposed by Ankara. Against this sort of economic and security backdrop and with the Soviets backing rebel forces within Turkey, it is no wonder that Turkey became a sort of Western protectorate, first joining NATO and later joining the equivalent of a free trade area with the European Union. It simply had no other viable options.
With the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s neighborhood evolved again, this time into a form reminiscent of the early days of Ottoman expansion. In the final years of the Cold War, the Soviets went from influencing — if not outright controlling — most of Turkey’s borders to simply disappearing. In that same period, no fewer than seven local wars erupted in the Balkans and Caucasus, while the Americans launched Desert Storm against Iraq. The ossification of the Turkish neighborhood was gone, replaced by shattered geography in which multiple major powers were now seeking to craft their own spheres of influence.
Today, Russia is resurgent in the former Soviet Union, the European Union is debating whether to absorb all of the Western Balkans (or just the choice bits), and the Americans and Persians are arguing over what the power balance in Mesopotamia will be. In all of these questions, Turkey is seen a secondary player at best. The Europeans have long considered Turkey a spent force with its most glorious role in the European project perhaps to be an energy transit state. Russia’s resurgence has, in part, targeted Azerbaijan, the one piece of the post-Soviet space where Turkey had made some degree of progress since 1992. Only the United States envisions a role for Turkey beyond its borders, and even that role is thought of in Washington as a proxy position for American interests, first in Iraq and second in the broader region. For a power with such a grand imperial history, such rapid-fire changes are humbling and aggravating in roughly equal measure.
Yet Turkey not only still exists, it also is about to reappear on the global scene. The Turks’ quiescence of the past 90 years has been the case only because the region’s political geography shifted into one that constrained Turkey’s options and limited its contact with its neighbors. However, the constellation of forces that created that containment shattered at the end of the Cold War. Turkey is now free to re-engage its immediate neighbors and (perhaps more important) those neighbors are free to re-engage Turkey. The world of 2010 has presented Turkey with a neighborhood that can overwhelm it with disturbing ease should the Turks not end their isolation, and just as in the early Ottoman days, the Turks have realized that they must expand or die.
So re-emerge they shall, but it will not be easy, and even the obvious choices for expansion pose challenges and risks. For one thing, the Balkans is home to no fewer than 12 major indigenous ethnicities, to say nothing of the hyphenated groups such as Bosnian-Serbs and Greek-Albanians. With the notable exception of the Danubian Valley, the Balkans is crisscrossed with mountain chains, forests and peninsulas, creating a mess of a region in which no single local power can dominate the others. Nearly every one of the 12 ethnic groups has made a bid for supremacy, and those who have not have all sought favor with an outside power which has become involved in the region. Every group has major and multiple axes to grind with nearly every other group, and most groups are even split among themselves over who sided with whom and when. The result is a local geopolitics that is thorny to the point that it can kill — and has killed — empires. And it is not without empires even today. The entirety of the Balkans are EU and NATO members, applicants or protectorates, sharply limiting Turkey’s ability to reclaim its former realm. And this is the “best” part of Turkey’s neighborhood in terms of a low cost-benefit ratio.
Then there is the Caucasus, home to not only the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis — who have no shortage of disrespect for each other — but also the Russians and Persians. The two major mountain chains of the Caucasus are home to literally dozens of smaller groups, many of which are constrained to tiny mountain redoubts. The most infamous of such groups are the Chechens. Compared to the Balkans, land in the Caucasus is harsher, the mountains higher and steeper and the opportunities for wealth more distant. The Caucasus is neither perched on the edge of one of the world’s richest continents nor is it a way station on a transcontinental trade route like the Balkans. Instead, the Caucasus suffers from close access to the Eurasian steppe, which has brought the Caucasus endless waves of invaders. There are very good reasons why this is one of the last regions to which the Ottomans ever expanded.
Finally, there is the region upon which the Turks are likely to focus their attention in the next few years: the Levant. The geography is ostensibly simple — a thin coastal strip backed by a mountain chain — but the key word here is ostensibly. There are multiple ridges in the Lebanon Mountains, and the fact that the Jordan River drains not to the coast but instead to the land-locked Dead Sea massively complicates the region’s ethnic structure. Tiny Lebanon alone is home to no fewer than 18 recognized sectarian groups, to say nothing of the diverse politics that wrack the lands that today comprise Syria, Jordan and Israel. Sea power can dominate the coastal strip (as the Crusaders did), and alliances with some local groups against the others can even allow for limited power projection inland. But this region can never truly be conquered. There are too many groups with too many interests clashing with too many other factions. And unlike the Balkans, the Levant has no clear economic artery nor even reasonable barriers that could isolate any one section of the region from the rest. The mountains are just not high enough, with the Euphrates granting a broad and wide corridor so that the powers in Mesopotamia and Persia can play the Levantine game from time to time.
And unlike the Balkans or Caucasus, there are no overwhelming powers in the Levant. The Americans are leaving, Persia lacks the ability to project power beyond its immediate neighborhood and Israel has no interest in expanding its territory. But there are reasons for the relative lack of great-power interest. The entire combined Middle East, from Morocco to Iran, boasts an economy that is but three-quarters the size of Spain spread over a region larger than all of Europe. The region is a convenient place for the Turks to cut their teeth and ease their way back into the international arena after a 90-year hiatus, but it is not a region the Turks can use to fuel a return to greatness. The cost-benefit ratio is simply too high. It is a cost that the Turks are extremely familiar with, since some of the debris of empire in the region is debris from their own former empire.
The second challenge limiting modern Turkey’s development, that the nature of the Turks has changed, is due to shifts in the country’s political geography.
Modern Turkey holds very little of the territory that has historically fallen within its sphere of influence. Crimea was lost to Russia in the late 18th century, the Balkans were carved away bit by bit in the 19th, and finally its Arab territories fell away in the early 20th. Turkey retains only a single piece of non-core territory: the Anatolian Peninsula.
Unlike the rest of the territories that Ottoman Turkey or the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire held at their heights, Anatolia is of questionable use. It lacks usable rivers like the Balkans and clear strategic value like Crimea. It is not a road to a greater prize like the Levant. It cannot even reliably feed itself as Mesopotamia can. Farther east on the peninsula, the land becomes steeper, drier and rockier, even as the valleys shrink in size. In short, all of the benefits of the core Marmara region steadily wither as one moves east before disappearing altogether as the land merges with the Caucasus and Persia. Given Anatolia’s aridity, elevation, steepness and neighbors, developing the region requires a mammoth expenditure of resources for very little return.
The marriage of the capital richness of the Sea of Marmara with the capital poverty of Anatolia — locked away from the world for 90 years — has changed Turkey and the Turks radically.
First, it has created a balance-of-power issue, which did not exist during imperial days. Since modern Turkey was shorn of the bulk of its empire in 1920, capital generated in the Sea of Marmara region largely lost the ability to invest in locations other than Marmara and Anatolia, and the trickle that remained after the Ottoman fall all but dried up during the Cold War. Over the course of three generations, the Turks have steadily made Anatolia their own, investing in infrastructure, education and slow-but-steady urbanization. As Anatolia developed, it not only generated its own merchant class but also steadily expanded its presence in Turkey’s bureaucracy, police forces and military. By the 2000s, combined Anatolian cultural and economic strength had matured sufficiently to challenge the heretofore-unassailable hold of the Sea of Marmara region on Turkey’s political, cultural, economic and military life. It would be an oversimplification to say that the current disputes between Turkey’s secular and religious factions are purely geographic in origin, but it is an equal oversimplification to assert that they are purely based on the secular-religious split. The two overlay and reinforce each other.
Second, Turkey’s cultural outlook has evolved so substantially over the past three generations that the Ottoman Turks might not even recognize their modern brethren. The Ottoman Turks, like the Byzantines before them, were an extremely cosmopolitan and confident culture. Their easy access to the maritime and trade possibilities of the Sea of Marmara region — combined with the security granted by the sea’s very limited access points — gave the Turks easy access to capital and the ability to easily and cheaply protect it.
Expansion into empire only entrenched this mix of openness and security. The greater Danube basin brought the Turks into contact with productive region after productive region, yet Ottoman Turkey lacked the demographic strength to simply displace the locals and repopulate the land with Turks. The solution was to integrate the peoples of the valuable territories into Ottoman society. The Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs and Hungarians may, of course, dispute the assessment, but these nationalities enjoyed more social and economic rights than any other subject peoples until the onset of democracy as a governing system in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Eventual expansion to Crimea, the Nile and Mesopotamia only deepened this inclusiveness.
But that world ended for the Turks 90 years ago. Since then, they have been left with the rump of Anatolia, a zone with an arid climate and rugged topography that has more in common with Greece or the Caucasus than the Danube basin. The land held few fertile regions (only a pair of small coastal plains in the south), no navigable rivers and a relative dearth of other resources. Unlike the Danube region, where the Turks needed the active participation of the local populations to make use of the land, in Anatolia there was little useful land in the first place. As a result, there was little reason to grant political or economic concessions to non-Turkish populations. By extension, a lack of political integration predominated. Turkey’s relations with the Kurds and Armenians of Anatolia were far more similar to its more hostile relations with the Greeks or Montenegrins than they were with the more favorably received Romanians or Bulgarians.
The end result of this transformation from an “imperial” political geography that included the Danube to a “republican” political geography that was limited to Anatolia is that Turkey is no longer the multiethnic polity it once was. The Turkish political demographic has shifted from a proactively multicultural governing system to that of a dominating Turkish supermajority that attempts to smother minority groups out of public life. This change in mindset from “dominant but inclusive” to simply “dominant” is reflected across the political landscape well beyond the issue of interethnic relations.
Consequently, modern Turkey is divided internally, is no longer predisposed to political compromise and lacks the natural routes for economic expansion that made it great in its previous incarnation. Moreover, the global trade that fueled its expansion in the past has moved away from the region. Simply put, Turkey is no longer a land of united, rich and worldly traders, as the Ottomans were. Ninety years of absence from international affairs have forced the Turks to find cultural refuge in the Anatolian Peninsula. This experience transformed them into a people with characteristics more similar to those of the insular Greeks than the more open Romanians.
And the split isn’t simply between Turks and non-Turks. Internally, there is a deep, and perhaps unbridgeable, split within Turkish society between the “secular” faction of the Sea of Marmara region which sees the country’s future in association with Europe and the “religious” faction of the Anatolia which wants to pursue relationships with the Islamic world. (It is worth noting that neither of these definitions is absolute. There certainly are secularists within Anatolia and there are devotees of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) within the Marmara region — for example, the AKP holds the Istanbul mayoralty.)
Both groups have any number of advantages and disadvantages. The Marmara group — typically referred to as the secularists — is heir to Turkey’s historical legacy. They control most of the trade with Europe and from it most of the country’s income and merchant activity. They dominate both the courts and the military and are credited with the large-scale development that has driven Turkey over the past three generations. But both the NATO alliance and the European Union, organizations that are far too strong for the Turks to break, block their link to the country’s former imperial territories, thus limiting this faction’s power base to Marmara alone. Marmara was not enough for the Ottomans, and alone it will not be enough for the secularists.
The Anatolian group — currently represented by the AKP — increasingly controls the country’s political life, and with the rising population of Anatolia vis-a-vis the Marmara region, it increasingly holds the hearts of the people as well. Where the secularists embrace the military and Occidental aspects of Turkey’s Ottoman past, the Anatolians embrace the religious and the Oriental characteristics. After all, the Ottomans held the Islamic Caliphate for centuries. That link has allowed the Anatolians to extend their influence throughout the entire Islamic world. But despite efforts to forge economic links to the broader Middle East, the simple fact remains that there is little to reach to economically (with the possible exception of Israel, which is politically problematic for an Islamic-rooted group like the AKP).
And so Turkey rages with a power struggle between two groups of different geographies, neither of which holds a vision of the future relevant to the political geography of the present.