The word strategic is often applied loosely in relation to countries, regions and geopolitics, but if one place can truly define the word it is perhaps the narrow waterway that divides the city of Istanbul. The Bosphorus Strait connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, at its narrowest point it is only 700 meters wide but it represents a border between Asia and Europe as well as access to global trade for the Black Sea States.
Istanbul straddles the two continents, connects two major seas and marks a fusion of European and Asian culture and now numbers 17 million people. The city has been the focus of fierce diplomatic intrigue and war for centuries thanks to its unique, valuable location making it an ever tempting target for ambitious rulers and expanding empires.
Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire
Istanbul was once called Constantinople, named after its founder the Roman Emperor Constantine it soon became the most powerful and wealthy city in Europe and the pinnacle of the Byzantine Empire, a position it claimed for nearly 1000 years until its decline along with the Byzantines. The rise of the Ottoman Empire and its invasion of the Byzantine Empire, culminating in the siege and capture of Constantinople in 1453 marked the eclipse of that great power and for many scholars the event signaled end of the medieval era in Europe. The conquest also represented the rise of a new power that would dominate the Middle East and much of Eastern Europe for centuries.
The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire
In particular control of the Bosporus gave the Ottomans control of the key trading routes in the region and cemented their ability to control the Silk Road trading routes to the Far East. Militarily it gave the Ottoman’s fantastic leverage over their northern neighbours, bottling up Russian naval ambitions to their coast. However over time the opening up of oceanic sea routes by the Spanish and Portuguese diminished its importance as Western Europe could ignore the Silk Road to trade with China and India, instead looking across the Atlantic and Pacific for trade.
All this time other powers eyed the straits jealously, in particular the rise of the Russian Empire to the north and its desire for free access to the Mediterranean and beyond was a major contributor to the numerous wars between the two great empires and the mid nineteenth century Crimean War in particular.
The Great War
On land the capture of the city gave the Ottomans the impetus to move West and seize much of Eastern Europe only being halted at the gates of Vienna, that was the high point, over time slow decline took hold of the empire. Its last stand was the First World War where despite its technological disadvantage it successfully threw back the British assault on the Bosporus focused on Gallipoli. Churchill’s doomed plan was to seize the Ottoman capital and knock a major German ally out of the war, while at the same time provide a supply route to their Russian allies and further encircle the remaining Central Powers.
The Turks bravely repulsed the British Empire forces, famously many of them coming from Australia and New Zealand and attention in the war shifted elsewhere. The Ottomans won the battle, but the result of the war eventually dissolved the Ottoman Empire and led to the birth of the new Turkish Republic and with it a desire to move away from what was seen as a capital soaked in the old fashioned corrupt ways of the Sultans and their court and instead make a fresh start in a new capital in centrally located Ankara.
Istanbul and Reinvention
For other cities this might have might have resulted in decline and obscurity, but Istanbul’s geography ensured its continuing relevance and since losing its capital status it has grown into a powerhouse, the most populous city in Europe, the commercial hub of Turkey and indeed the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Geopolitics of the Straits
Now with many predicting a global shift of world trade and investment away from the Atlantic and towards Eurasia and one dominated by China rather than Western powers, Istanbul looks set to profit. The Bosphorus holds a pivotal position on the Eurasian landmass, 2.9 million barrels of oil pass through Istanbul every day, which is a small amount compared to the Straits of Malacca, but still highly significant. In addition large quantities of trade also pass through Istanbul, grain and all the rich agricultural produce of Ukraine while in the other direction goods from the rest of world flow to the Black Sea states such as Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia. All of this can be cut off in a stroke by the Turkish Government.
The option to block the Strait on one level provides Turkey a great deal of leverage over its northern neighbours, but cutting off access to the Bosphorus would provoke a massive international reaction and intense political pressure, even the threat of military intervention, but the fact that Ankara is able to take this measure ensures that any move against them will have be weighed up against this possibility.
The Russian invasion of Crimea gave it a new platform to project power in the Black Sea, this along side military engagement in Syria and the growth of Tartus naval facility in the country enhanced its role in the Middle East and made travel through the Bosporus route ever more important, but any expansion of Russian naval power is ultimately frustrated by the narrow strait as its fleet and exports and imports can be bottled up in an instant.
Beyond the Bosphurus Turkey is a significant regional power player and its long standing President Erdogan is keen to extend its influence further into Africa, the Balkans and Middle East. This neo-Ottomanism is perhaps the inevitable result of Turkey’s power and economic success, others see a power with Imperial designs which needs to be checked. What ever its current stance, the Bosphurus gives Turkey a permanent geopolitical trump card.