Turkey. Is Ankara the main regional power in the East Mediterranean?

The second out of three analyses on the eastern Mediterranean

Regional power

Is Turkey a regional power in the east Mediterranean?  An analysis through the geopolitical school of thought will try to make a significant contribution to this large debate. Zbigniew Brzezinski defines two notions of State to describe the countries in the Eurasian region: geopolitical pivots and geostrategic actors. The first one refers to its geostrategic position and its importance in the region. The second one refers to States which have a real capacity of exercise their power and influence outside their borders[1]. Four criteria can define a State in order to classify it as a regional power; i) formulation of the claim to leadership, ii) possession of necessary power resources, iii) employment of foreign policy instruments and iv) acceptance[2]. All the aspects cannot be analyzed here, thus a special focus will be taken on Turkey’s geographical aspect in order to understand its position as a regional power. The purpose of this analysis is to give a general overview of Turkey on the map.

Turkey’s geographic strength and weakness

Geopolitics is defined by Philippe Moreau Defarges through an intellectual approach: “Wonders about the relationship between space (…) and politics: how does spatial data affect politics? And, why, how does politics use space[3]. The first part of this analysis will consist in understanding the geographical environment of Turkey. It will allow us to understand, which position Turkey plays in the region and in the Mediterranean, what are Turkey’s strengths and weakness through its geography. (In order to understand properly this analysis, we encourage you to consult a map of the region.)


The first, and one of the most important geographical characteristic of Turkey, is the control of the Bosphorus. It allows Turkey a total control of the Black Sea and provides leverage in negotiations against six countries which have access to the Black Sea[4]. Even though there are alternative trade routes, the maritime transportation is the most used, and eventually cost-effective. In 2015, 43.544 ships have crossed the Bosphorus (21.831 ships coming from Black Sea, and 21.713 ships going towards the Black Sea) [5].

Turkey direct neighborhood

It is interesting to have a look on the map of Turkey and the region, in order to understand its neighborhood and its space in the region. The first element that can be highlighted is that Turkey is surrounded from every part by four powerful entities: the European Union in the West, Russia in the North, Israel in the South and Iran in the East. It places Turkey at the center of four different cultures. In the East the Turkish State borders with another entity: the Kurdish “nation”, the only nation without a state. This is a real issue for Turkey which has classified its main political forces as terrorists and threatens to national security.

Another particularity of its geographical position is the region instability. In the South, the Syrian crisis, the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the East, the Caucasus with the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2008 an open confrontation broke out between Georgia and Russia. In the North, the Ukrainian crisis is far from being stabilized, considering also the Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In the West, there is still rivalry with Greece about Cyprus.

The unique position on the map of Turkey is key to understand its role both on the international and regional scene. It is an interesting actor for any move from the other powers in the region. Turkey’s geographical position might also be the source of a feeling of a “besieged fortress”.  Any decisions that Turkey may take in the region can be counterbalanced by the other actors in the region.

Complex network of alliances, Turkey’s pragmatism

Turkey’s position on the map leads to a complex network of alliances and forces the country to act with pragmatism within the region. Turkey can take advantage of the relations between its neighbors. The NATO membership allows Turkey to secure its border from all the other powers in the region. This alliance started during the Cold War with the US containment policy of communism. Today it allows the alliance, and particularly the US, to have military bases in Turkey. This first alliance also provides Turkey with a total control of Bosphorus and its Mediterranean border. The relation with NATO shows Turkey’s pragmatism within its alliances: on one hand it has allowed the West to have “an advanced sentinel”[6] against the North (Russia) and also an advanced military base for the West operation in the Middle East, on the other hand it has allowed Turkey to receive moderate pressure from the West on how and what Turkey has been handling in the region. Another complex relation that’s worth highlighting is the relation with Russia. The countries shared a history of rivalries and conflicts. However, relations have been improving in the last decade on account of the trading performances and relevant economic benefits. Even though a downturn has been registered due to political issues in 2015-2016, now the relations between the countries remain stable. Furthermore, economic relations between the two countries depend heavily on the political disputes – as during the crisis in 2015-2016, -51% of commercial exchange with Russia has been recorded and -50% of commercial exchange in 2009 just after the Georgian war[7]. Turkey’s position on the map makes it more than buffer zone. It allows the country to curb Russian influence over the Middle East and, concurrently, to keep political leverage in negotiations with Russia. Turkey’s need to protect its zone of influence in the Caucasus is carried out through close ties with Azerbaijan in order to restrain an old ally of Russia: Armenia, which had and has many political and historical issues with Turkey.

Turkey has an actual influence in the region

This analysis aims to highlight Turkey’s strength and weaknesses related to its position in the region. The country has the geographic potential to be the main power in the region. It is situated in the intersection point of four cultures and it controls the access to the Eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea. Its neighboring countries are clearly limiting capacity to undermine Turkey’s potential as regional power. Turkey has an actual influence in the region. Its leverage has been proven in the Syrian crisis, in which Ankara is greatly involved. Turkey has the potential to be the “main” power in the region, through strong military, defense (NATO), and geographic advantage. However, it struggles with other international actors to impose itself in the region. Given the complex situation of the region, the weaknesses and strengths of the main actors, it is not possible at this stage to clearly distinguish a main regional power.

Aurélien Bertholet

MA in International Relations at the Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve

References and notes

Bozarslan. “La Turquie : puissance régionale et forteresse assiégée ?”, Politique étrangère, n°1 – 2003 – 68ᵉ année. pp. 93-102.

Çiğdem Üstün, “Theoretical Analysis of Turkey as a Regional Power”, Department of Political Science and Public Administration Gediz University – İzmir. P.13.

Marchesin, P. (2002). « Géopolitique de la Turquie à partir du Grand échiquier de Zbignew Brzezinski ». Études internationales, 33(1), 137–157.

[1] Marchesin, P. (2002). « Géopolitique de la Turquie à partir du Grand échiquier de Zbignew Brzezinski ». Études internationales, 33(1), 137–157.

[2] Çiğdem Üstün, “Theoretical Analysis of Turkey as a Regional Power”, Department of Political Science and Public Administration Gediz University – İzmir. P.13.

[3] Philippe Moreau Defarges. Introduction à la géopolitique. In: Politique étrangère, n°1 – 1995 – 60ᵉannée. p. 267

[4] Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia.

[5] Bosphorus official website, Yearly ship statistics of Bosphorus strait – 2015, http://www.bosphorusstrait.com/2016/09/20/yearly-ship-statistics-of-bosphorus-strait-2015/

[6] Marchesin, P. (2002). « Géopolitique de la Turquie à partir du Grand échiquier de Zbignew Brzezinski ». Études internationales, 33(1), 137–157.

[7] Turkish Statistical Institute, http://www.turkstat.gov.tr