Turkey: The Eastern Question is back

Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent
@Diplo1on Twitter

image copyrightReuters
image captionKurds on the Syrian protest against alleged Turkish military operations against their community

History has a strange way of imposing itself upon the present.

Back in the early 1990s, when I was on my way to join the first British troops despatched for peace-keeping duties to Bosnia, I stayed overnight at a Vienna hotel. In the lobby, there was a series of 19th Century maps of the Hapsburg Empire.

There they were, all of the old names - Bosnia Herzegovina, the Croat lands - names, long consigned to the history books, that were now the currency of nightly news reports, marking out the boundaries of this latest tragedy in the Balkans.

Later, standing in Sarajevo's old Turkish market, one had the clear sense of being in a historic border zone; a frontier between Europe and the old Ottoman lands to the east.

It was a reminder that for much of the 19th Century, Western diplomacy had been obsessed with what became known as "the Eastern Question."

This was the fear as to what might happen as the Ottoman Empire - then seen as "the sick man of Europe" - slowly relinquished its grip on its various possessions.

Who might step into the breach? One obvious concern was Russia. Britain and France had already fought one campaign to bolster Turkey and limit Russia's influence in the Holy Land - the Crimean War of the 1850s.

Crimean War:

  • Fought over Tsar Nicholas I of Russia's plan to carve up the European part of Turkey
  • Britain and France objected to Russian expansionism, but favoured a diplomatic settlement
  • Russia occupied the Danubian Principalities (Modavia and Walachia) in July 1853, prompting a military response from Turkey
  • Britain and France entered the fray the following spring, after the Russians ignored a demand to evacuate the Danubian Principalities
  • The allies fought a year-long campaign in the Crimean peninsula, including three major land battles, one of which, the Battle of Balaclava, ended with the British "Charge of the Light Brigade"
  • Eventually, the Russians were forced to evacuate the key naval base of Sevastopol, in September 1855
  • 25,000 British, 100,000 French and up to a million Russians died, almost all of disease and neglect
  • At the Treaty of Paris, signed on 39 March 1856, Russia returned southern Bessarabia and the mouth of the Danube to Turkey. Moldavia, Walachia and Serbia were placed under international administration

Do you see a pattern here? Again those familiar names and themes; the Crimea; Russian influence in the Middle East.

Times change - but geography doesn't, and strategic interests have as much to do with geography as they do with anything else.

Thus, Europe now faces what might be called "a new Eastern Question".

Ambitious Turkey

It is not so much Turkey's weakness that is the problem today; it is maybe more a question of Ankara's over-reach.

Turkey has seemingly achieved the impossible.

I remember some years ago interviewing the then Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Bookish, a former professor, he was the proud architect of Turkey's new foreign policy, one of zero problems with any of its neighbours.

Now, Mr Davutoglu is Prime Minister. And in the intervening years, Turkey seems instead to have developed problems with almost all of its neighbours and erstwhile regional partners; be it Syria, Israel, and now, crucially, Russia.

Moscow and Ankara find themselves on different sides in the Syrian crisis; Moscow backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, and Turkey in the vanguard of those countries most eager to see his departure.

A kind of proxy war has turned hot, with Russia bombing Syrian opposition groups backed by Turkey and encouraging Kurdish forces to press ever closer to the Turkish frontier.

Turkey's shooting down of a Russian warplane last November - a plane that on best evidence had only briefly intruded into Turkish airspace - worsened the tensions.

image copyrightReuters
image captionImages of what is believed to have been a Russian jet being shot down by Turkey last November

More recently, the Russian-backed Syrian offensive on Aleppo has sent new waves of refugees heading for the Turkish border and worsened Ankara's fears about Kurdish success.

This "new Eastern Question" impinges upon Western Europe in two crucial ways. First, Turkey is a member of Nato.

If it gets itself into a spat with the Russians, this could have dramatic consequences for the alliance as a whole.

It was noticeable at the tail-end of last year that the Nato allies' very public support for Turkey in the wake of the shooting down of the Russian Sukhoi jet, was tempered, at least in private, by a good degree of amazement and concern that Turkey had chosen to behave so rashly.

Migrant problem

But there is another security dimension too, and that relates to the great wave of refugees, asylum seekers, call them what you will, that are battering on Europe's doors.

They, of course come not just from Syria. But the crisis there and the terrible dislocation that it has produced is an important driving factor.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMigrants and refugees continue to cross into Europe from Turkey

Turkey is a conduit for some of this population movement, and this means that the EU must measure its relations with Ankara cautiously.

The implicit threat is there. If the Europeans do not help Turkey with this problem, then Ankara could simply open the gates and send a reinforced human wave westwards.

This could be one reason why western Europe has been largely mute in the face of the Turkish military's onslaught against its own Kurdish areas.

And it may also be why Turkey's self-serving involvement in Syria has similarly been so little criticised.

Apart from opening some of its air bases to help with the US-led air campaign, Turkey has acted in large part to deal with what it sees as a strategic threat from the Kurds, rather than weighing-in against the so-called Islamic State.

Turkey is doing pretty much everything it can to upset Moscow. Just a few days ago, Mr Davutoglu visited the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to discuss "strategic cooperation" between Turkey and Ukraine.

But bolder Turkish threats to intervene on the ground in Syria - a step that might put them in direct confrontation with the Russians - seem to be just that, threats, at least for now.

image copyrightEPA
image captionTurkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) visited Ukraine to discuss cooperation between the two countries

Few analysts are giving much hope to the forthcoming "ceasefire" in Syria, seemingly brokered by the US and the Russians.

The hope must be that at a minimum it may allow an opportunity for aid to reach some embattled areas.

But if the fighting does continue; if the Syrian government and its allies continue to gain ground, Turkey may well get to a point where it feels it has to act.

The "new Eastern Question" may be delayed, but it isn't going to go away.

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