Turkey is no stranger to tumultuous times. As the Republic of Turkey and as the Ottoman Empire before that, the country has weathered foreign invasion, military coups and civil strife. Today, Turkey has found itself once again in a trying time. The country faces significant militant threats in its territory and on its borders at the same time that instability and declining tourism jeopardize its economy. While Turkey's military undergoes a massive reorganization, the country must contend with a hostile government in neighboring Syria, whose powerful Russian ally is just now beginning to mend ties with Ankara. What's more, the July 15 coup attempt and its aftermath have strained Turkey's relations with NATO.
Some of Turkey's problems may appear arduous — and they are. But the troubles Turkey is grappling with today pale in comparison with those of previous eras. Time and again, history has shown that Turkey's geographically advantageous position and its martial tradition ensure its continued consequence in European and Middle Eastern geopolitical developments, regardless of the challenges it faces.
The Rise and Fall of the Ottomans
Geography has determined the course of Turkey's history since long before the country emerged in its current form. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire, having finally defeated and supplanted the Byzantine Empire, assumed control of the crucial geographic space at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Its powerful army, sustained by a well-developed economic, bureaucratic and technological base, enabled the Ottomans to conquer vast swaths of Europe and the Middle East. Before the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, the Ottoman Empire was one of Europe's greatest powers, and it did not relent in its conquest of the Continent until the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
Much as geography played a central role in the Ottoman rise, it also facilitated its decline. With the discovery of new maritime trade routes from Europe to the Americas and the Far East that skirted the empire's territory, its influence and economic might diminished. At the same time, its position on the Bosporus and the Dardanelles and around the Black Sea, however strategic, attracted the attention of other aspiring empires, particularly the Russians. The two juggernauts fought at least 11 wars (including the Crimean War), cementing their long-standing rivalry.
Between the Ottoman Empire's entry into World War I and the end of the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923), Turkey endured the gravest period in its history, and its very survival as a sovereign entity was in doubt. Still, the country prevailed: Victory in the struggle for independence, and the subsequent establishment of the Republic of Turkey, brought it back from the brink. And though the Turks lost an empire in the process, they retained their strategic position on the Bosporus and Dardanelles, buffered to the east by the Anatolian heartland.
A Strategic Ally
During World War II, the country's location, along with its large army (despite a lack of armored vehicles), moved the Axis and Allied forces alike to seek an alliance with it. As Axis forces began invading Russia in 1941, the Turkish army — positioned within striking distance of the oil fields responsible for 90 percent of Russia's oil production that year — could have helped to deal the country a devastating blow. Turkey, moreover, would have provided the Axis a springboard from which to attack British and other Allied interests in the Middle East. At the time, Commonwealth forces were stretched too thin to heavily defend the territories, where German-backed uprisings were already occurring.
The Allies, too, were eagerly courting the Turks. Ankara's cooperation would have facilitated the dispatch of supplies to Moscow and siphoned German troops away from the invasion of Russia to try to contain Turkish forces. Winston Churchill was so keen to bring in the Turks that he ordered British Gen. Archibald Wavell to divert the bulk of his troops from Libya, where he was staging a highly successful offensive against the Italians, to Greece on Feb. 12, 1941. Churchill reasoned that Turkey would be more likely to intervene if a reinforced Greece could hold the Germans at bay for a while, but this proved to be a miscalculation. The move instead gave the Axis powers time to fortify North Africa (prolonging the war there until 1943) while doing little to prevent the Germans from overpowering the Greeks. Turkey, perhaps heeding the lessons of World War I, sat out the conflict until the final months, when it joined the side of the winning Allied powers.
In the years immediately after World War II, Turkey's position on the Bosporus and Dardanelles once again ignited tensions with Russia. The Soviet Union pressed Turkey to allow it free access through its straits, but its plan yielded unintended consequences. While Russia had long coveted control of the Dardanelles and had fought numerous wars to expand its borders to Turkey's detriment, NATO saw Turkey as a means to block the Soviet Union's reach into the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Moscow's advances caused Ankara to turn toward the alliance, and the United States and United Kingdom responded favorably. In 1947-48, the Americans established the Truman Doctrine, which devoted significant aid and support to the Turks.
In light of Russia's actions and its long-standing interest in Turkey's territory, Ankara's choice was clear enough. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, just three years after its creation. For the rest of the Cold War, Turkey remained a key part of the bloc through periods of crisis and instability, including numerous coups, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and enmity with fellow NATO member Greece.
A Major Power, Despite Its Problems
Now Turkey is back in the throes of instability. Conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a deep-rooted insurgency that began more than three decades ago, is in full swing. Between that and the recent coup attempt, Ankara's attention is focused inward. Meanwhile, dangerous threats at its borders are compounding the country's domestic upheaval. Though these problems will inevitably hinder Turkey in the years ahead, it will nonetheless maintain its strategic role in the region.
Turkey derives much of its enduring leverage from its membership in NATO. Since the most recent coup attempt, the Turkish government has leveled accusations against the West, mostly at Germany and the United States, alleging their complicity in the uprising. (Given the United States' reputation for meddling in Turkey's affairs — for example, in the country's 1980 putsch — the allegations, however paranoid, are understandable.) Notwithstanding the tension, NATO's interest in Turkey will not wane any time soon. Much as the specter of the Soviet Union pushed NATO to support Turkey throughout its various crises during the Cold War, NATO's recent frictions with Russia have reinforced Turkey's importance to the bloc. In fact, with Russia building up its presence in the Black Sea after reclaiming Crimea, Turkey's role in NATO has not been so crucial since the end of the Cold War. And for the United States, Turkey is critical to the air campaign against the Islamic State. Because much of the campaign focuses on the northern regions of Syria and Iraq, access to Turkish air bases is vital.
Engulfed in and surrounded by conflicts, Turkey is relieved that its membership in NATO is secure. After all, its involvement in the bloc allows it to engage with Russia from a position of strength, even as it tries to mend ties with Moscow. (To that end, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug. 9.) Moreover, Ankara can use its influence in NATO to exact concessions from Moscow, for instance by offering to curb its support for the NATO Black Sea initiative if Russia will accommodate its interests in Syria. Even so, understanding the limits of its influence, Turkey will be careful not to abuse its membership in NATO. Therefore, Ankara is unlikely to take any drastic measures, such as expelling the U.S. military from the country, with its allies.
The coup attempt in Turkey has exacerbated a number of Turkey's problems, especially where its internal stability is concerned. For Ankara, the coup came at a bad time, disrupting the military at the height of a fight against insurgents and external militant threats. Nevertheless, as history has demonstrated, it would be a mistake to discount Turkey. Though Ankara may be distracted with its own troubles in the short term, its geographic advantage will ensure its continued importance in the world.