On a cool day in Istanbul the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge was opened to much fanfare. Hundreds, if not thousands, came to watch Turkey’s President Erdogan unveil a masterpiece in design and engineering. Named after the conquering Ottoman Sultan who expanded the Empire into the Middle East, it has been billed as a ‘bridge to the future’ for the city and the country. But while this third bridge over the Bosphorus may connect the European and Asian Continents once more, the same can’t be said for Turkey with many of its own communities nor its allies.
In an off-the-cuff rambling speech the President used the opportunity to reiterate his core message. ‘We are on a mission and we will keep going,’ he said. ‘Faith is such a big power…we worked hard and God gave us the results,’ he continued. I imagine this is the sort of speech Sultan Selim may have given when his forces massacred thousands of Alevi’s during those conquests in the 1500’s. Modern followers of this mystical branch of Islam, which constitute fifteen percent of Muslims in Turkey, have unsurprisingly been up-in-arms over the name.
‘My dear brothers,’ Erdogan boomed, ignoring the women in the crowd. ‘Every single person is part of the Turkish nation. We are one.’ Erdogan then went on to list some of the country’s indigenous groups including the Kurds. A message that hasn’t been filtered down to the Turkish military as it bombards Kurds within its own borders and those over in Syria.
On Wednesday Turkey launched a full-offensive on the border town of Jarablus. Warplanes, tanks and special forces showed their might as they entered the Isis stronghold. Turkey maintains that ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ is about cleansing the area of Isis, but those watching events here know it’s just as much about sending the US-backed Kurdish militia packing east across the Euphrates River. Turkey is fearful the YPG could lay claim to the belt lands between the two countries if Isis is removed and then offer full support to Kurdish forces within its own border. The offensive was also timed perfectly to coincide and undermine a visit this week by US Vice President Joe Biden.
Given the growing tension between the two ‘allies’, Biden was flown in on a ticket originally meant for the slightly-lower-down-the-pecking-order dignitary, Secretary of State John Kerry. The US hoped by ‘upgrading’ its mission to Ankara, Turkey would be appeased. That backfired. Biden was greeted on arrival by a deputy mayor, a snub if ever there was one, before being roasted by the local media at a press conference.
Biden had hoped he could gain assurances over Turkey’s Euphrates ‘red line’ for Kurdish militia, if he offered more support for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric accused by Erdogan of masterminding the recent failed coup. But Turkey played tough, launching the Euphrates Operation before Biden’s plane touched-down. Erdogan, possibility boosted by his recent reignited friendship with Russia’s President Putin, made Gulen’s extradition a stand-alone issue.
Throughout his visit Biden was questioned about his country’s motives in not immediately extraditing Gulen. Did he not understand he was a ‘terrorist’ they asked. Since the attempted coup six weeks ago, Biden has consistently explained how it’s the US courts and not government which will determine any action. But that fell flat for the Turkish audience. This is one issue Erdogan will not let go. Either the US acquiesces or the Turkish-American relationship and therefore the Nato alliance, cracks.
Turkey’s strategic importance cannot be overstated. It’s the crossroads of Europe and Asia and allows Nato to run operations from more than 20 air-bases, including Incirlik close to the Syrian border. As Turkey cosies back up to Russia and extends the hand of friendship to Iran, it sees the US allegiance as being old hat. This puts US policies on Syria on a knife-edge. A year ago Turkey supported the US aim to remove Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria. It appears Ankara is now about to turn the tables on its ally.
As he opened the newest bridge in Istanbul, Erdogan reminded the crowd that the day had historical context. It was, he said, the first day of the Battle of Dumlupinar in 1922, a key win for the Turks against Greece forces. The outcome of the battle led to victory in the Turkish war of Independence. While that led to the creation of the modern state, in recent years Ankara has looked to reaffirm old Ottoman Empire ties by investing heavily in other Muslim countries like Somalia.
Erdogan’s Turkey is shifting into a position of dominance once more, and projects like the third Bosphorus bridge are pivotal to this. In the next two years Turkey will also open a third airport. When up and fully running it will be the biggest in the world and able to receive 150 million passengers every year. Turkey is indeed looking towards the future, but it’s becoming more and more clear it’s one the US may not like.
Rose Asani is a journalist based in Istanbul