Turkey has the right to protect its national interests

Turkey is a regional power, a direct neighbor of Middle Eastern states and their historic trading and political partner. The West continues to ignore its national interests only at the risk of its own security.

A map showing Turkey's difficult geopolitical surrounding
Aside from Syrian war-related security challenges, Turkey faces historic rivals and other threats to stability in the region once ruled by the Ottoman Empire. © macpixxel for GIS

In a nutshell

  • Circumstances have forced Turkey to become assertive as a regional power
  • Europe and the U.S. have a dangerous tendency to overlook Turkey’s vital national interests
  • It is shortsighted for the West to demand that Ankara support its goals in the Middle East while offering Turkey little in return

Geography awards a privileged geostrategic and economic position to Turkey. It sits on a natural hub of the Mediterranean, where thousand-year-old land and maritime trade routes meet and cross. This location, though, also exposes Turkey to numerous geopolitical challenges. Some of them pose grave risks to its security and are stress-testing its foreign policy. It is important to understand the delicacy of Turkey’s situation in both business and politics.

The Turkish Straits, which consist of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus, are all parts of the sovereign sea territory of Turkey. This gives it control of the waterways from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and further on to the oceans, that are critical especially for Russia. Turkey is also the land bridge from Europe to the Middle East, South Asia and even Africa. It is a regional power – in many cases, the most important one – in the Black Sea area, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

During the times of the Ottomans, an empire of which today’s Turkey was the core controlled most of the territories listed above and much of the rest of North Africa. Through the course of late 19th and early 20th centuries, Turkey gradually lost control of North Africa and parts of the Balkans.

Modern state

At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 abolished it and the remaining Turkish territories fell under the occupation of Britain, France, Italy and Greece. However, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turks managed to push out the occupying powers. They had to recognize Turkey’s sovereignty as a national state in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

Turkey reformed itself successfully as a modern nation state and moved its capital from Istanbul to a less vulnerable location, the centrally located Ankara. Its state doctrine was to avoid intranational tensions and focus on Turkey’s integrity and international position.

In today’s multipolar world, Turkey is forced to resume its role as a regional power.

In the bipolar world of the Cold War (1947-1989), Turkey was a formidable and loyal partner of the West in its dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union. Today, Turkey fields the second-largest army in NATO, after the United States.

In today’s multipolar world, Turkey is forced to resume its role as a regional power. Its security and territorial integrity simply require it. Criticized as they may be, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the government of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are taking on this historic responsibility. They strive to enhance Turkey’s position as a regional power, economically and politically. Economically, the country profits increasingly from its role as a bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa. Turkish Airlines’ tremendous network, with its hub in Istanbul, is just one example attesting to that.


Facts & figures

A global symbol of modern Turkey’s reach

Turkish Airlines, the national flag carrier airline of Turkey, is the Nr.1 worldwide carrier by number of countries served. In addition to 47 cities in Turkey, TA flies to more than 250 destinations in 110 countries. Its network is especially dense in Europe (113 cities), Africa (51 cities) and in the Middle East (34 cities). It is one of the few airlines that offer a regular service to all Central Asian countries.

By passenger count, TA ranks among the world’s top 10 airlines. It has a modern fleet of more than 300 planes and a hub in Istanbul. The city’s third airport, to be opened for business in October 2018, will have the capacity to serve 150 million passengers per year and will rank among the most important air travel centers globally.

Turkish Airlines is a significant factor enhancing Turkey’s geostrategic position.

Russia and Europe

An assertive Russia became Turkey’s largest external problem starting in the early 18th century. Russia challenged Turkey in the Black Sea, in the Balkans and in the Caucasus. One of Moscow’s objectives, especially in World War I, was to take over Istanbul. It had a strategic and spiritual importance for Russia: Constantinople, as Russians called it, was the center of Orthodox Christianity, the Eastern Rome. The city avoided occupation as defeated revolutionary Russia had to bid for peace in 1917.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Turkey’s interests were widely ignored by Europe and the U.S. In 2005, the European Union half-heartedly started accession talks with Turkey, with the EU side constantly putting the bar for acceptance higher. It was always an “accession if,” instead of making Turkey a straightforward offer for inclusion in “the four freedoms” that are the pillars of the common market, without the political union that some EU member states had opposed from the start.

This rigged process has poisoned the European-Turkey relationship and hurt the pride of the Turkish people. Moreover, the U.S. and many European countries continue to interfere in Turkish affairs, criticizing Ankara – while at the same time requesting its support for their policies in the Middle East. This ignores the elementary fact that Turkey’s own long-term interests, as a direct neighbor of Middle Eastern states and their historic trading and political partner, may run counter many short-term, fast-shifting European and U.S. objectives.

This creates a perception in Ankara – legitimately so – that the West demands support from Turkey but does not give anything back. There is a feeling of betrayal in Turkey. In the inconsistent policies of the West in the Middle East, the only consistent element appears to be its disregard for Turkey’s vital interests. In Europe’s recent refugee crisis, Turkey’s helpful and humanitarian role in curbing the flow of Syrian and Afghan people into the EU was only reluctantly rewarded.

Immediate neighbors

A major security problem for Turkey is the U.S. military backing for Kurds in northern Syria. As opposed to the Kurds in the autonomous regions in northern Iraq, the Kurds in Syria are suspected of assisting in terrorist attacks in Turkey.

Aside from the war-related security challenge, Turkey has suffered the loss of a major trading partner that was Syria.

These days, Turkey’s strategic interests in the region are mainly challenged – and this is nothing new – by Russia and Iran. Both those states, however, are neighbors and solid, enduring relations with them are crucial for Turkey.

Russian-Turkish trade has remained strong despite political flare-ups. Russia’s political activities, on the other hand, in the unstable Balkans, the Caucasus and, especially, in Syria, are undermining Turkey’s national interests. At the same time, the West’s shortsighted policies are pushing Turkey into even closer partnership with Russia, especially on energy and defense procurement issues.

Syria, an important neighbor to the east, has become a battlefield with several intervening parties and a maze of conflicting interests. None of the solutions for ending the war advanced by the Western powers, the U.S. and Europe, nor those proposed by Russia, nor those supported by Iran, the government in Damascus and the assorted rebel groups, account for the security concerns of Turkey, which is right next door.

Aside from the war-related security challenge, Turkey has suffered the loss of a major trading partner that was Syria. The U.S.-driven United Nations sanctions against Iran have also burdened Turkey, especially its Eastern Anatolia region.

Russian agitation and subversion in the Western Balkans – Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro – spells trouble for Ankara as well. The stability of these countries, with their mixed Islamic and Orthodox Christian populations, is precarious, while the EU proves weak and indecisive in the face of rising Russian influence. The feud cultivated by Greece over the Republic of Macedonia’s right to use the historic name is also damaging.

Black and Caspian seas

On to the Caucasus: it is important for Turkey that the states in that region, especially Azerbaijan and Georgia, do not become fully fledged Russian satellites. Their strategic position between the Black and Caspian seas matters to Ankara, as does Azerbaijan’s role as an oil and gas producer, and Georgia’s role as an energy hub.

Critical as those issues are for Turkey, it needs to safeguard its economic relations with Russia. Turkish firms are vested in Russia’s domestic market, especially for construction and agricultural products. Visitors from Russia make a huge difference to Turkey’s tourism industry.

Iran is another player that wants to strengthen its power in Turkey’s neighborhood. It is involved in a protracted feud with several Sunni Arab countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, over dominance in the Middle East. Also, Teheran is attempting to establish a direct overland route from Iran through Syria all the way to southern Lebanon, to more effectively supply arms to the Shia Hezbollah group operating in that area. The disarray in Syria can potentially open direct access for Russia and Iran to the Mediterranean Sea.

New paradigm

Throughout the area that encompasses Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish issue plays a significant role.

Finding itself in such an intricate and difficult environment, Turkey has changed its regional paradigm. The country now engages in an advance strategy to defend its core security interests. In this context, the Horn of Africa, which controls access from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, is strategically important to Turkey – all the more so as Iran consolidates its role in Yemen. Turkey’s increased visibility in the Persian Gulf follows the same political logic. Its deployment of troops in Qatar could prove a stabilizing factor in the increasingly open conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s current military intervention in northern Syria, essential for control of the border, may be crucial to the country’s long-term security. Ankara probably had no other choice than to intervene. Considering the stakes for Turkey’s security, the government felt it had an obligation to act.

This web of dangerous, often deadly challenges faced by Turkey needs to be taken into consideration in interactions with Ankara. A better understanding of Turkey’s needs and legitimate concerns is essential. Continuing to ignore Turkish interests could have disastrous consequences for Europe’s security, trade and economy.

Europe needs Turkey as a friend, and this is the role Ankara wants to play. In return, though, it requests respect. If the U.S., especially, intends to pursue its political goals in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, it must finally come to terms with this simple truth: without a friendly Turkey on its side, it is bound to fail.

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