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Turkish Pentagon: Erdogan breaks ground on crescent defense complex

President says new headquarters will 'strike fear in enemies' but embolden friends

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new defense ministry building in Ankara on Aug. 30. (Anadolu Agency)

ISTANBUL -- President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks to "strike fear" into Turkey's enemies as the country breaks ground on a massive "Crescent Star Compound" intended to serve as the new home for the defense ministry.

The planned compound, already dubbed by local media as the "Turkish Pentagon," also will house the armed forces chief of general staff as well as land, air and naval command headquarters. Around 15,000 personnel will work in the complex measuring 13 million sq. meters with indoor space of 890,000 sq. meters. The giant crescent- and star-shaped buildings will be in line with Turkey's flag.

"We will be establishing a structure here which will strike fear to our enemies with its standing and give confidence to our friends," Erdogan said at the ceremony. "I believe that monumental structures like the presidential complex [and] Crescent Star project are also symbols of our nation, displaying power while serving their fundamental purpose."

Erdogan has been showcasing military accomplishments to boost his popularity at home as rising inflation, massive wildfires, floods and a flow of refugees from Afghanistan took a toll on his approval rating in August. The groundbreaking on Monday coincided with Victory Day, commemorating the Turkish War of Independence nearly a century ago.

Erdogan bargained with the contractors live on TV and secured a promise of completing the complex before the slated presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023.

An artist's rendition of the new defense compound was shown at the groundbreaking ceremony on Aug. 30. (Screenshot)

Turkey's intelligence agency, known as MIT, neighbors the planned compound outside of the capital, Ankara. The chief of general staff and force commanders currently are scattered around central Ankara.

Since a 2014 amendment in the MIT law, Turkey has bolstered clandestine operations abroad, ranging from covert renditions overseas to assassinating alleged terrorists with drones.

Floods and wildfires killed around 100 people nationwide in August. Videos on social media and local media showing large groups of Afghan refugees racing across Turkey's border caused a public uproar and ignited a fresh debate on the handling of refugees. Turkey already hosts over 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians, the most worldwide according to the United Nations.

Local pollster Metropoll pegged Erdogan's approval rate at 38% in August, his lowest since June 2015.

Erdogan's recent touting of Turkey's military included his attendance Sunday at the first handover ceremony for a new generation of armed drones built by local defense company Baykar.

The new Akinci drone -- meaning "raider" in English -- has a payload capacity of 1.5 tons, tenfold above the company's famed drone TB2 used actively in military theaters such as Syria, Azerbaijan and Libya. This reaches the level of U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones. Akinci also can fly higher than the TB2.

Selcuk Bayraktar, chief technical officer of family-owned Baykar, is widely seen as the brain behind Turkey's drone program. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated engineer is also Erdogan's son-in-law.

Turkey has signed drone export agreements with more than 10 countries, Erdogan said at the Sunday ceremony.

"Ten years ago, they were not even selling us these vehicles," he said, referring to the U.S. Erdogan said Turkish drones 'changed the game on the field and opened a new era,' adding that Akinci puts Turkey among the top three drone powers globally.

On Aug. 15, Erdogan attended the launch ceremony of the first corvette built in Turkey for Pakistan's navy, joined by his Pakistani counterpart Arif Alvi. Turkey will deliver four corvettes to Pakistan through 2025, with two of them to be jointly produced in Pakistan under a deal that includes technology transfers.

Erdogan also attended the International Defense Industry Fair on June 17 in Istanbul, which drew foreign delegations that included African leaders, ministers and generals despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute and author of multiple books focusing on Erdogan, spoke with Nikkei Asia.

"To his supporters, Erdogan is under attack by external enemies like the U.S. because he's out to make Turkey great and Muslims proud again," Cagaptay said. "Recent military accomplishments also serve his global strong-leader image domestically. However, populist, nativist moves like military accomplishments can put him across the finishing line of winning the next election only if he can also provide economic growth."

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