A history of the Ottoman Expansion towards the Seas
The Ottoman Empire grew exponentially from a minuscule piece of land of Anatolia. Ertugrul — the progenitor of the Sultanate that ruled the Eurasian lands — laid the foundations of the Empire upon which Osman I and his successors erected the Ottoman edifice.
The rendezvous between the Ottomans and their conterminous neighbors started during the reign of Osman I. He started expanding from Sogut into the Byzantine lands — consequently founding Yenisehir and conquering Bursa. Meanwhile, he avoided any major conflict with the neighboring Muslim Beyliks of Candar, Germiyan and Karasi. He left a footprint for his successors towards the Black Sea — conquering on the lines of Sakarya river — and the sea of Marmara by capturing Bursa.
The Byzantine base in Anatolia was gradually growing; first by the victories of Osman I and then the expansionist policies of his son Orhan I. This made Adronicus III — the Byzantine Emperor — indignant. He along with his Grand Domestic, John Cantacuzine, led an expedition towards Nicomedia. They were, however, defeated by Orhan and retreated. Soon, after the death of Adronicus III, a civil war engulfed the Byzantine Empire. This brought John V — the 9 years old king — and his proteges at loggerheads with the Grand Domestic — John Cantacuzine.
The Grand Domestic asked Orhan to help him against his adversaries. Orhan I helped him consolidate power in Thrace. It was during the reign of Orhan I that the Turks enmeshed themselves in the politics of the Eurasian seas bordering the Balkans. In a result, the Byzantines awarded Cimpe Castle to the Ottomans in Gallipoli — this proved to be the first stronghold of the Ottomans in Europe. Suleyman Pasha — Orhan’s son — soon sieged and occupied Gallipoli.
From here, Murad I started incursions in Bulgaria and Serbia. He subdued the area up till the Danube river. Following the vicissitudes of fate, the Ottomans reached their apotheosis during Suleiman the Magnificent who infiltrated Central Europe and his influence stretched as far as the Crimean Khanate. These victories and accolades brought the Ottoman Empire at the threshold of disputes with Russia and the Great Powers in the Balkan Sea and Greece and other Mediterranean neighbors in the Aegean and beyond.
Slave-trade was the bedrock of the Crimean Khanate — slaves were transferred from Russia to Asia. As the Tsardom of Russia grew stronger, the Crimean Khanate was unable to conduct raids. After the Russo-Turkish War 1768-1774, Russia and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca — the Crimean Khanate became independent of Turkey and Russia elicited the port city of Azov and formed a strong presence in the Black Sea. The Crimean Khanate was, soon, annexed by Catherine the Great beefing up Russian sea-power.
The Crimean Khanate was the first territory to untether itself from the Ottoman Empire. The pervasive revolutionary ideas emanating from France were imbibed in the Balkans incessantly. Additionally, the Greeks were the pioneers to propound nationalism and subsequent irredentist claims.
In 1821, the Greeks revolted against the Ottoman Empire. The European Milieu was not in favour of nationalism as the Bourbons gained the French throne again and the Concert of Europe was obliterating the nationalist predilections wherever it raised its head. The Greeks looked up to the Russian Tsar as he was the protector of ecclesiastical subjects in the Orthodox World. The Tsar, however, was won over by Metternich — the Austrian Diplomat — who persuaded the Tsar to maintain the status quo in Europe.
Alexander I was succeeded by Tsar Nicholas. Meanwhile, the Ottomans sought help from their Albanian Ruler of Egypt — Muhammad Ali Pasha — against the Greeks. He sent his son Ibrahim Pasha to quell the rebellion, in which he was successful. A crevice became palpable between the Pashas of Egypt and the Ottoman Sultan on the areas of influence post-Greek War of Independence. To their dismay, both Egypt and Greece sought complete Independence from the Ottoman Empire begetting maritime boundaries among Egypt, Greece and today’s Turkey.
During the Egypt-Ottoman row, the French solaced the Egyptians and Russia intervened on the behalf of the Sultan — these erratic alliances shows the fickleness of European polity. As a result, Russia elicited concessions in the Dardanelles and augmented its political power in the Black Sea by the treaty of Unkiar Skelessi — no foreign warship was to enter the Dardanelles.
The London Straits convention upended the concessions elicited by Russia in the Unkiar Skelessi as the Great Powers agreed to maintain the balance of power in Europe — the Dardanelles was closed to every kind of warship including that of the neighboring Russia and, the Master of Seas, the Great Britain.
Another European theatre — the Crimean War — in the Black Sea bereft Russia of her gains in the Black Sea. Russia championed the cause of Orthodox subjects in the Balkans. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, echoed a similar ecclesiastical claim. Both, Napoleon III and Tsar Nicholas I, tried to champion the ecclesiastical cause in the Porte — not because of their predilections, but to gain support of the hoi polloi by a diversionary foreign policy. The Crimean War ended with a Russian defeat whilst the Ottoman Empire was backed by France, Great Britain and the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinian (an Italian Kingdom).
This led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1856) which demilitarized the Black Sea completely. The Sea became open to all commercial ships and Russian fortifications around the Black Sea ceased to exist. Russia denounced Black Sea Clauses as soon as the Franco-Prussian war ended. France and Britain were unable to take any action. In the World War I, the Allies vied to occupy the Dardanelles in the Gallipoli campaign. However, it proved to be a fiasco. With the signing of the Montreux Convention, Turkey again helmed the stewardship of the Black Sea.
The Brannigan Mediterranean — Neo-Ottomanism and Natural Resources
With the discovery of natural reserves and the evolution of International Law in general and the Law of sea (UNCLOS) in particular, Turkey has developed maritime disputes with her neighbours. Greco-Turkey relations have been descending on a downhill since the exploration of the natural reserves in the Mediterranean.
The geo-economics fabric of Mediterranean is now loosely held at the contempt politics of Turkey versus Greece — with mild interventions of France, European Union and the Northern Belt of Africa.
All predominant stakeholders have sought ways to influence the political-paradigm shifts of the region in their favour. However, they are met with intricate and overtly nuanced interests of each-other that has resulted in part mass-political confusion, and part stalemate internally as well as for the surrounding geo-proximities.
This has largely been the case for the past few months with affairs taking a rather radical turn every now and then. However, this time around, its pragmatic projection can vividly be observed at the behest of Greece’s aggressive and demanding pursuance on European Union to ‘severely sanction’ Turkey, resumption of the French naval operations in the Mediterranean, the theatrical display apropos the constant trade maritime boundaries’ violations, the paradoxical meeting-instance of Greek-Turkish delegations at NATO HQ, Brussels and the deepening divide between the NATO nexus.
Now, while we understand why Greece and Turkey are involved in an economic-political quarrel, we must first understand why France — a country that is geographically afar from the two has its ground established in the Mediterranean, especially between the Aegean Sea — the water body that separates Greece with Turkey.
The plausible answer to this is that the French Navy wants to, or has historically attempted to over-see and gather security input — mainly in relation to any or so naval operations within, or other naval activities that are taking place from Tyrrhenian Sea all the way to the Aegean Sea.
As the only nuclear armed state of the Mediterranean and a permanent member of the Security Council; the assumptive responsibility to over-see security shifts dawns on France – or at least, it has itself contemplated as such throughout its history.
This, of course, isn’t settling to the regime of Erdogan who has denounced the French Navy for actively siding with Greece interests in a move to besmirch Turkey’s interests as of late.
Greece and Turkey have, countless number of times, disputed over the proper establishment of ‘exclusive economic zones.’ A few questions thereof have been where these economic zones start and end and the criteria to which they are to be established.
The primary reason why the dispute tends to heat-up is because the regions of Aegean Sea and towards the east/south east of Turkey — along Cyprus; are embedded with reserves of natural gas and oil deposits. Since the two countries haven’t yet mutually agreed on a formal instrument or agreement — the billion-dollar projects which were meant to start two decades ago are still to this day kept behind veil.
The Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos, under the larger banner of Dodecanese Islands, are especially closer to the South East coastal border of Turkey — and at least once every other year; a portion of the two navies standoff on an asymmetrical clash over the disputed claim of natural reserves.
Now, to understand what happened in August this year — the events that led up to the recent major clash; we need to first be cognizant of the involvement of the Northern Belt of Africa in tearing up the geo-economic fabric of the region.
Libya — which sits atop the Belt and has Mediterranean on its north — signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of the Republic of Turkey on the delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean’.
This was historic on two fronts: one, this was the first time the two countries signed an agreement and thus this provided a new undercurrent towards the eastern dynamics of the Mediterranean. Two, it gave both countries exclusive right to claim bed resources of the Ocean.
Greece termed this deal as “void” and “geographically absurd” as it rejected the presence of some of its islands under the deal’s shadow.
The source for the untoward ‘backlash’ was now assertively stated in the form of a major problem, which is that the Libya-Turkey Maritime Zone overlaps the Egypt-Greece Maritime Zone and as a result The Republic of Cyprus — which Turkey refuses to recognize — and Egypt labelled the agreement as “illegal”. This meddles with the Oil and Gas exploration exercise and is considered as the gist of the crisis.
While in the view of European Union; the agreement “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third States, does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third states”.
This issue, in the eyes of Turkey’s co-rivals, became even more tendentious last month when ‘Oruc Reis’— one of the three surveying ships that were sent for observatory purposes entered a maritime boundary which Greece claims was theirs. The two surveying ships sent for observatory purposes prior to Oruc Reis were Barbaros and Yavuz. Both of them were equally showered with shades of virulence from Egypt and Greece as was Oruc Reis.
Greece threatened to bring the issue up in multilateral forums of European Union, NATO, and the United Nations Security Council. But this, in essence, had been the status quo of the region – as in, surveying ships sent by Turkey, Greece condemning and showing resentment and warnings issued by European Union.
The dynamics have taken a radical standing since last month when the Greek frigate collided head-on with the Turkish frigate, which were both assigned to patrol the narrowing maritime confines of the region.
In the latest chain of events, according to Turkish news agencies, last week during the gathering at NATO headquarters in Brussels — the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg convoked both military delegations in “military de-confliction” talks (1). These were undertaken to remedy the situational crisis in the Mediterranean with emphasis on avoiding future clashes – such as that of last month.
According to Greek news agencies, the only problem here was that these talks were rejected by Greece – as in, they had completely denied that the talks even took place. This was then projected by the Greek authorities as merely an additive nuance in the ongoing efforts made by Turkey to avoid possible sanctions.
Clouded in a perfervid foreign policy exchange — Greece, Turkey and now France —all have laid a redoubtable stance with even more redoubtable official statements, hackneyed at each other in a not-so promising quagmire for the regional peace.
For example, one: President Erdogan said – in relation to Greece that, “They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences,”
Similarly, Macron urged Europe to adopt a “united and clear voice” on its policy towards Turkey, declaring Ankara is “no longer a partner” in light of its conduct in the Mediterranean and Libya. “We Europeans need to be clear and firm” with President Erdogan and his “unacceptable behaviour” (2), Macron made it clear to the reporters ahead of the Ajjacio Summit.
The internalized operations of Mediterranean are no more schematic, but if seen through a purgatory lens; quite dramatic and even more mercurial. While Sergey Lavrov – the Foreign Minister of Russia has offered to mediate. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of the state, is due to visit Cyprus in efforts to defuse the Mediterranean crisis.
Albeit the Russo-States paradigm has now interfered within the crisis on a positive note — that is with the promotion of dialogue, we still have to see if the positive note treads on the worthwhile curve for the better devolvement of the already evolved quandary.
It is but a surprise that the Eastern Mediterranean Crisis will soon be unravelled, without the active incentive to leverage regional interests over national interests. Conclusively, with the growing labyrinthine that is present in the Mediterranean, stalemate of political paralleling, in a mesh of overlapping interests and vacuums was inevitable.
While the stakeholder dance to a plight-filled stalemate; the only palpable solution to the problem has now become a demarcation by consensus between Greece and Turkey or jointly submitting the dispute to the ICJ.
The gist is that apropos to the Mediterranean, everything contemporarily is only bound to inference and predilection, what happens in the coming weeks will all be a theatrical showpiece.
About the authors
- Asad Yaseen: Asad is a writer based in Lahore and has completed a Masters in Islamic History and Bachelors in European History and International Relations. Asad has tought History & Pakistan Studies at a school in Lahore Cantt and has been writing for major newspapers and magazines both at home and abroad.
- Abdullah Hamid: Abdullah is a researcher-writer; a full time student of Law – International, and Commercial, and a teacher of ‘Oratory, Debates and Model United Nations’. He has formerly represented Pakistan in International debating competitions and now renders his services as a writing-debates coach to three schooling institutions, based in Lahore.