What kind of bridge?

Julian Sayarer

A second Turkish drillship arrived in disputed waters off Cyprus last month to begin gas exploration. The boat, Yavuz, takes its name – like Istanbul’s new, third bridge over the Bosphorus – from the Ottoman sultan ‘Yavuz’ Selim I, who suppressed minority unrest in 16th-century Anatolia. The nickname translates as ‘resolute’ or ‘grim’.

The EU has said it will impose sanctions on Turkey, as requested by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. Large drilling contractors have abandoned the Turkish project under pressure from the oil majors. In response, Turkey is training up its own workforce of offshore drillers. Ankara contends that, without its involvement, the Turkish population of Northern Cyprus stands no chance of sharing in any windfall from gas reserves in Cypriot waters. But the longstanding problem of Turkey’s lack of domestic energy resources is as likely an explanation.

The US Congress has ended a decades-old embargo on weapons sales to Cyprus. The government in Nicosia (Lefkoşa to the Turks) has joined an energy alliance with Greece and Israel, which is also in a dispute with Lebanon over the rights to gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. (Cyprus isn’t isolated from conflict in the Middle East: a stray Syrian missile recently exploded over the island.) Under the premiership of Alexis Tsipras, Greece made a substantial pivot towards the US.

Turkey, meanwhile, has taken delivery of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems. The first batteries were installed last month on the Syrian frontier. The US, concerned about the integrity of systems information, has ejected Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet programme, and Turkish pilots in the US have been grounded from training flights in the new aircraft. It isn’t possible to have US aircraft along with a Russian anti-aircraft system.

Meeting with Erdoğan at the G20 summit in Osaka in June, Donald Trump is said to have expressed sympathy for the Turkish predicament, and the threat of US sanctions has been postponed till the S-400 system is ‘activated’ next April.

Relations between the US and Turkey have been deteriorating for some time. The US imposed sanctions after an American pastor was arrested in Izmir in 2016; he was eventually released last October. In May 2017, Erdoğan’s security entourage beat up pro-Kurdish protesters outside the White House. But the S-400 acquisition is a more hard-nosed decision, rooted in a reappraisal of Turkey’s regional position. The country is moving closer to Iran and Qatar, and – especially since Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul – looks ready to take its leave of the US axis in the Middle East. Russia pursues its self-interest in the region, sometimes brutally, but at least it’s regarded as a known quantity, unlike the erratic crusading mentality – not to mention Saudi loyalties – of the US. If a multipolar world is emerging, with a more autonomous Middle East, Erdoğan is looking to position Turkey in a leading role.

Turkey has long been described as a bridge between East and West. The suspension bridges that have crossed the Bosphorus since the 1970s are a concrete image of the cliché. For years, people have been taking it – along with its Orientalist undertones – almost as uncontested fact. Without giving it much thought, those who use the metaphor generally intend it positively – but a bridge, though it joins two things, also presupposes a divide. Never mind that the cliché is used more commonly to the west of Turkey than its east. And what sort of bridge, really, do people have in mind? Given Turkey’s stalled EU accession, and the 2016 deal between Brussels and Ankara to prevent Syrian refugees travelling on from Turkey to Europe, the country today looks less like ‘a bridge between East and West’ than Fortress Europe’s drawbridge.


  • 13 August 2019 at 5:41pm
    Ezel Shaw says:
    Over two decades ago, a physicist by profession and a reluctant politician who served as the Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdal Inonu commented on this metaphor, Turkey as a Bridge between East and West. His position was Tata. bridge is intended for crossing--not a permanent location on which tp live (or survive). Cliches have a way of surviving. . . The waters of the Bosporus, under the bridges, are turbulent at times. Car ferries that used to provide transit from one continent to another are mostly gone. With wide-ranging political changes in the region, in Europe, in USA-Russian relationships, and turmoil over land where the refugee issue adds to problems, the bridge, or bridges become more difficult as symbols of indecision. Given the complexity of the situation and the "West's" lack of self image regarding formally (and formerly) held positions on human rights, unexpected alliances and decoupling within the region, and strains on economic resources in times of 'rising expectations' of better communication, new threats, multiple and conflicting political demands, whether one or many, the image o the BRIDGE BETWEEN EAST AND WEST is less tenable. Leadership in Turkey, under President Erdogan, has to work its way out. Can this happen by choosing between EAST and WEST, a designation that goes perhaps further than the Age of the Crusades? Or, is it time to abandon a reference to physical geography (East/West dichotomy) to explain cracks in international visions, policies, values, economic and social strains? A image of the earth from outer space --the whole Planet in danger?--may be more relevant today than the metaphor of the BRIDGE, which was used before ny of the actual bridges were constructed. . . The immediate issue at this point seems to be the drilling for oil offshore of Cyprus. Just at at time when the impact of the the use of fossil fuels raises concerns, how can decision-makers in Turkey and outside, find ways of avoiding the East-West divide, and preventing Civilization--unified in many of its achievements-- from jumping off the bridge?

  • 13 August 2019 at 9:05pm
    jerry tutunjian says:
    It's facile and irresponsible to deploy the misleading metaphor about the Bosphorus bridges symbolizing Turkey as a bridge between the East and the West. No matter how many bridges are built across the Bosphorus (one of them was built by the Germans), Turkey's heart remains in the east--to be precise in Central Asia. It's no wonder that President Erdogan fantasizes about reviving the Ottoman Empire which was the creation of the Central Asian invaders of Asia Minor. It's also cruel to hail a country as a bridge between the east and west when that country's founders eliminated the indigenous people (Greeks and Armenians) of Asia Minor to establish a "purely" Turkic state. There are fewer than 50,000 Armenians and fewer than 6,000 Greeks left in Turkey (mostly in Istanbul). Because they fear widespread Turkish racism, many change their names to hide their identity. A popular curse in Turkey is to call a person "Armenian". Even politicians indulge in the racist curse. It's this state which the West has courted for more than a century--and continues to court--despite Ankara's belligerence towards Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Israel, and Egypt not to mention President Erdogan's frequent insults and threats of Europe. Some bridge.