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As the Turkish offensive into northern Syria gains momentum, a pattern of Turkish expansion and protection emerge. With plans for a ‘safe zone’ Turkey once again becomes a key international player, maintaining its historical position.

Back in 1853 the Crimean War broke out, a conflict engaging an unusual alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia, against the might of the Russian Empire.  Fast forward 166 years and the American President has thus removing the only buffer preventing a Turkish advance. 

Turkey again finds itself at the centre of attention, dominating the airwaves and headlines. Modern Turkey, much like its ancestor the Ottoman Empire, exerts great power and influence in determining the fate of its own people and others. Turkey is a great landmass caught between two continents, a gateway between east and west, its fate cemented by its geography and, as history shows us, a nation capable of exerting enormous power and influence in whichever direction it looks.

As the Roman orator, Cicero, said, “to be ignorant of history is to always be a child”.  Thus, the emerging significance of Turkey in determining the fate of a region, its people, and its future, is no surprise. The Ottoman Empire was, after all, a six-century old empire, one of the largest and longest surviving in the world, which ruled a multi-cultural domain that functioned with economic prosperity and military might.  

Today, Donald Trump’s recent decision to take a step back from the Middle East and give a seemingly free reign to Turkey has caused cries of outrage on both sides of the political establishment, left and right.  After concluding a phone conversation with Turkish President Erdogan, Trump’s announcement shocked and stunned people on all sides.

With not a word uttered about the Syrian Kurds, the President and his team followed the initial statement with somewhat contradictory tweets and comments which can be summarised as locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. There was no mention of the fate awaiting the  Kurds who have worked both with the US and independently against ISIS and been a crucial player in that fight.  

The crux of the matter is because Turkey is in a strong position geographically, and politically as a member of NATO, the options of other NATO states are less than most would like to admit.

President Trump can impose economic sanctions on Turkey, or attempt to mediate a deal for the Kurds and Turks, but Pandora’s Box has already been opened which ensures a tumultuous series of events for the region.

In 1853, the Crimean War broke out as a consequence of rising western imperial powers such as Britain and France, seeking to preserve the Ottoman Empire in a bid to limit the growing power of Russia.  Today, the same international players such as Turkey and Russia remain crucial to how these events play out. A vital difference however, is that in 1853 the Ottoman Empire was considered the ‘Sick man of Europe’, today, Turkey’s position is not fragile in military might or bargaining power. Western powers sit on the side-lines in contrast to centuries gone by.  Whereas the Ottoman Empire was shrinking, its descendant Turkey, is expanding and has the power to envelop surrounding territory.

So, where next for Turkey?  Whilst it’s true that Donald Trump could exert real pressure on Turkey’s economy, the USA like other NATO partners, would do well to hold off from creating further tensions within such institutions. Turkey’s offensive meanwhile poses all-encompassing ramifications for the region.

With the ISIS threat suppressed but still present, many fear that terrorism will find strength in this new power play because the Turks and Kurds are distracted by conflict with each other.  Meanwhile, an ever burgeoning refugee crisis looks set to continue amid growing upheaval, displacement and human tragedy.

With six centuries of power under its belt, modern-day Turkey finds itself grappling with the same issues as before: whether to turn east or west and how to use its geography to its advantage as well as defend what it sees as threats from neighbours.

Turkey has a pivotal role to play in defining the trajectory of events.  In 1853, the Eastern Question posed by the Crimean War, emerged out of a combination of religious fragility for minorities combined with fears of expansion.  This was set against a backdrop of a widening chasm of opportunity to fill a vacuum of authority where power had been dwindling for years.  Today it is worth noting the similarities as well as the differences.The ‘Sick man of Europe’ is now flexing its muscles and forcing Western onlookers to pose another very different Eastern Question.

Jessica Brain


1 Comment on "Turkey: Sick Man or Strong Man?"

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