What kind of bridge?
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.