US-Turkish relations go from bad to worse
Washington - US-Turkish relations, under strain because of differences in Syria, took another plunge after bodyguards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat and kicked protesters, including American citizens, during his recent visit in Washington.
Both governments summoned the other’s ambassadors to issue protests over the May 16 incident outside the residence of the Turkish envoy in Washington. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, said the Turkish bodyguards’ actions were “completely indefensible” and demanded an apology.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution accusing the Turkish security guards of violating the rights of free speech and assembly and saying that the Turkish officials involved should be brought to justice. Committee Chairman Ed Royce said the United States should start efforts in Turkey to counter the “indoctrination” of Turks by the Erdogan government.
That sort of tension is highly unusual between NATO allies and two countries that regard each other as strategic partners. The row erupts when Turkey is becoming a political hot potato in Washington, with reports that a former adviser to US President Donald Trump worked as a paid lobbyist for Ankara and blocked an offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria because Erdogan opposed the plans.
The suspicion that Turkey may have tried to steer US policy by giving money to Trump advisers is another blow to Turkey’s image in Washington following the video clips of the melee outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. In one clip, Erdogan is seen looking at the melee from a distance; some Turkish critics of the authoritarian leader said the Turkish president might have ordered his guards to attack the protesters.
An editorial in the Washington Post spoke of “sickening images of protesters being chased, kicked and bloodied by black-suited members of Mr Erdogan’s security detail.” It added a piece of advice to the Turkish leader: “Mr Erdogan and his thugs can stay home.”
District of Columbia Police Chief Peter Newsham condemned the “brutal” attack and had two members of Erdogan’s security detail detained. They were released under international diplomatic rules. The US State Department summoned Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kilic to protest the behaviour of the bodyguards.
Turkey countered by summoning the US envoy John Bass to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara to tell him about “aggressive and unprofessional actions” by US police officers against Erdogan’s entourage. Turkey said the bodyguards stepped in when efforts by local police to contain the anti-Erdogan protesters failed and pro-Erdogan demonstrators were injured.
That is not the way the United States sees it. A subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had a hearing May 25 during which witnesses told of being beaten by Erdogan’s security guards. A resolution adopted by the full committee that same day said: “Turkish security forces acted in an un-professional and brutal manner, reflecting poorly on President Erdogan and the government of Turkey.”
It also said: “The United States should take steps to strengthen freedoms for the press and civil society in countries such as Turkey, and combat efforts by foreign leaders to suppress free and peaceful protest in their own countries.”
Royce told a panel in Washington on May 23 that the United States should establish “platforms” on social media as well as on radio and television to bring pro-democracy messages to Turkey, as Erdogan, who is accused by critics of suppressing dissent, had made a free debate in Turkey impossible.
“I think we have not been as forthright and strong an advocate for freedom in Turkey as we should have been,” Royce said. “We need something that will assist people in Turkey to at least be able to listen to Turks who want to explain why freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly are important.”
Royce said a “process of slow indoctrination” by the Erdogan government was going on in Turkey.
In his May 16 meeting at the White House, Erdogan failed to convince Trump to stop American support for Kurds in Syria, seen as enemies by Ankara. Trump’s Syria policy calls for a local rebel force, led by Syrian Kurds, to attack the ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
According to the McClatchy news service in Washington, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn in January halted a plan by the administration of former President Barack Obama for an attack on Raqqa. It was not disclosed at the time that Flynn had been paid more than $500,000 to represent Turkey in Washington, the report said. Flynn is also a key figure in the scandal surrounding alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign team and Russia.