Erdogan’s guards’ attack on demonstrators outraged Americans
ISTANBUL – Relations between the United States and Ankara continue to deteriorate in the aftermath of a violent incident between Turkish security personnel and protestors in Washington D.C. last week.
On May16, a group that included members of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal security detail attacked protestors outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
“Two or three of them broke through the police [line] and started running toward us, two waving their fists and [with] flying kicks,” Mahir Ayhan, a Kurdish PhD student from Turkey who attended the protest, told The Media Line. “They were calling us son of a bitch, traitor, dogs, these types of things.”
Ayhan was attacked by “Rambo-looking guys” who can be seen in footage of the incident wearing earpieces and military-style fatigues.
“They were targeting [our] faces and head purposefully,” said Ayhan, who needed to visit the hospital twice for spinal injuries.
Several people were wounded badly, including one of Ayhan’s friends.
“The doctors told her she might not be able to drive a car for a year.”
Joshua W. Walker, a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who formerly worked on Turkey for the State Department, and who has also done public relations work for the Turkish government, says incidents like this hurt the already fragile relationship between Washington and Ankara.
“I think that people are just so fed up, and so sick and tired of dealing with this type of incident, because it makes everyone look bad […] and it shows how difficult a partner Turkey is. So unfortunately, I think a lot of people in Washington are writing Turkey off,” Walker told The Media Line.
The State Department summoned Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kılıç following the attack. Twenty-nine US congressmen requested Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who called the attack “outrageous,” to arrest the members of Erdogan’s security detail who were allegedly involved, and Senator John McCain called for Kılıç’s expulsion.
After police in Washington briefly detained two Turkish security guards, Ankara summoned US Ambassador John Bass and complained about the “aggressive and unprofessional” conduct of US authorities, calling for a full investigation into the incident.
Nicholas Danforth, Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, says the Turkish government is likely ratcheting up the incident in order to win political points at home, where anti-Americanism is at an all-time high.
“I could see how they could make this stuff play well domestically, but it just seems like the benefits they get [in Turkey] have to be so minor compared to the sheer shit-show that it’s causing,” Danforth told The Media Line.
Relations between the two countries deteriorated following the attempted military coup in Turkey last July. Ankara accused Washington of a lack of solidarity and of sheltering Muslim cleric and US resident Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey blames for the coup.
Further exacerbating tensions is Washington’s military partnership in Syria with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an armed Kurdish group closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US classifies as a terrorist organization.
Ankara has warned it will step up its attacks on the YPG, and on May 3 senior presidential aide İlnur Çevik said US forces embedded with YPG fighters in Syria were in danger of being hit by the Turkish military.
“I think the fact that they’ve said it so many times means there are circumstances under which they could really go to war against the YPG,” Danforth said.
He says US-Turkish relations have always been troubled, but now they’re reaching a new low.
“We’ve always had issues, but I think it’s getting into unprecedented territory.”
Danforth says another factor is that some of the massive purges following the failed coup in Turkey targeted pro-Western military brass.
“I imagine if all those people hadn’t been purged, if this were ten years ago when there were still those military-to-military contacts, you would have had more sympathy on the American side for Turkish concerns over the YPG.”
However, Walker says Washington’s concession to Ankara to make up for supporting the YPG is to ignore democratic backsliding and major human rights violations in Turkey, where a referendum to permanently expand Erdoğan’s powers was held under a State of Emergency and mired in fraud allegations.
“I think we’ve given them a free pass on all those issues simply because [Turkey] is too important in other areas,” he said.
Danforth says that, despite the fact that Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism hasn’t produced much stability, Washington may support the Turkish president as a safeguard against chaos.
“I can imagine a situation where Turkey gets so unstable that we actually, like it or not, grudgingly end up supporting Erdoğan because we see him as the only guarantor that Turkey’s not going to completely fall apart,” he said.
Walker says the US-Turkish alliance is far too important for either partner to neglect, and thinks Washington is also partly to blame for the decline.
“The trouble is, we don’t have a strategy on Turkey in Washington, and as a result, everything is kind of reactive right now,” he said.
“I just don’t think Turkey has gotten the attention that it deserves, and there’s certainly not the level of expertise in the government right now to support the kind of reset of relations that we desperately need.”
Walker says the Pentagon is working with the YPG because it’s the best partner for taking the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, which is one of the Trump Administration’s primary goals in Syria.
He says Washington should reconsider its support for the YPG after taking Raqqa, in favor of rebuilding relations with Ankara.
“[Supporting the YPG] is a very short-term tactical choice that the United States has made. I don’t actually believe that in the long-term the US can afford to continue this pattern because Turkey is just too big, it’s too important, and long-term, there are much better strategic options,” he said.
“After Raqqa’s out of the picture, I’ve got to believe that for the rebuilding, you’re going to need Turkey more than ever.”