Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs

The Ottoman Empire

The Republic of Turkey rests in one of the most strategically important areas of the globe.  As Turkey attempts to expand its sphere of influence to include Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, Strike Source’s ongoing geopolitical series will review Turkish history and current developments to explore why Turkey remains an important player in world affairs and what actions the United States should adopt regarding her controversial NATO ally.

The Ottoman Empire projected enormous power over three continents for hundreds of years.  Descended from hardy horsemen of the Asian steppe, the Ottoman Turks established their pre-eminence over the Anatolian plateau well before conquering the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople in 1453.  Ottoman rule extended far into the Balkan peninsula in Europe, even reaching the gates of Vienna in 1529 and 1683.

Large swaths of Africa fell under Ottoman sway, including Egypt and stretches of the North African coastlands of present-day Algeria and Libya.  Ottoman provinces included present day Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.  The Ottoman Empire’s Anatolian heartland held minority Greek, Kurdish, and Armenian communities.  The Empire was truly transcontinental, holding the hinge of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Russian movement south brought conflict with the Ottomans.  Several critical geographical facts guaranteed this conflict.  The Ottoman capitol, Istanbul, stood on the critical straights bottling the Black Sea, European Russia’s only major ice-free ocean outlet.  The mere presence of the Ottoman Empire on the Black Sea straits thwarted Russia’s fervent desire to break out of the Eurasian landmass and onto the ocean. 

As the Russian Empire expanded south into the Caucasus mountains, the two empire’s borders collided.  Both nations felt threatened by minority populations in this rugged hinterland.  Russia struggled to control Muslim Chechens.  Turkey ruled a large population of Christian Armenians.  The powers used internal religious tensions against their rivals.  In these mountainous lands, total control by a far-off government remained elusive, trust of the neighbor, even more so. 

One of the facts of geopolitical maneuver in the 19th century was British consolidation of a worldwide empire based on sea power, and Russian consolidation of a trans-continental empire based on land power.[1]  Russia, constantly attempting to break out of encirclement in the center of Eurasia, ran into rivalry with Britain, protecting her colonies and maintaining dominance on the sea.  Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire leaked territories to nationalist independence movements and other great powers. 

Despite the slow Ottoman deflation through a never-ending series of wars, the Empire served a useful purpose for Britain in the 19th century as a balance against Russian power.  So long as the Ottoman Empire existed, Russian fleets could not challenge Britain in the Mediterranean Sea or Indian Ocean.  One of the several causes of the Crimean War (1853-1856) which pitted the allies (United Kingdom, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire) against Russia was Britain’s desire to keep Russia in check.

The Kingdom of Italy defeated the Ottomans in the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912), depriving the Empire of Libyan provinces.  The Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro) followed suite and waged war on the Empire closer to home in the First Balkan War (1912-1913), where the Ottomans were effectively pushed out of Europe except for Eastern Thrace.

History showed it was easier to shed a convenient ally than a traditional enemy.  Britain’s need to counter Germany outweighed her need to contain Russia, resulting in Britain joining the World War on the side of France and Russia, the old Ottoman foe (1914).  The Ottomans, stuck on a common border with Russia, had no such flexibility.  Turkey joined the war with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria).

Ottoman war aims were not always in line with German designs.  Enver Pasha, one of a triumvirate of dictators running the Empire, dreamed of a pan-Turkic expansion into Central Asia at the expense of Russia.  Defeat in The Great War saw the Empire reduced to the Anatolian heartland and fighting the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) to stave off territorial ambitions of Turkish rivals.  Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) surfaced as an inspiring military commander and succeeded in preserving Anatolia as a Turkish country.  Mustafa Kemal’s transformative leadership led to the end of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the secular Turkish Republic.

[1] Spykman, N. J. (1942). America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1st ed.). Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. 182-183.

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