Turkish officials, under pressure to prove loyalty to their autocratic president, are casting fresh blame on the United States over a violent clash last week between Turkish security guards and protesters in Washington.
And there’s not a whole lot the Trump administration can do about it.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned the U.S. ambassador in Ankara to lodge a formal protest days after Washington police intervened to stop Turkish security officials from beating up protesters. The violence near the embassy came soon after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Donald Trump at the White House, and video caught Erdogan watching some of the skirmish.
The May 16 melee was an astonishing glimpse into the growing hostility between America and Turkey, two NATO allies at odds over how best to fight Islamic State terrorists, among other disputes.
The State Department summoned Turkey’s ambassador for a dressing down and publicly condemned the brawl last week, but the White House stayed quiet. A senior administration official wouldn’t rule out future action by Trump but acknowledged Monday that Turkey is such a critical anti-terrorism partner that the U.S. is limited in how much it can retaliate.
“This is the hand we’ve been dealt,” the official said, noting that the fissures date to former President Barack Obama’s tenure. “It is not surprising for Turkey to demonstrate some behavior that we would not expect from one of our closest allies. There are just frictions within the relationship.”
The fallout also shows the lengths Turkish officials will go to maintain their standing with Erdogan amid a crackdown at home. News of Turkey’s protest Monday came as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley landed in the Turkish capital.
“The Foreign Ministry and the diplomatic corps is increasingly focused on Turkey’s domestic politics rather than improving relationships with other countries,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “What matters is them demonstrating loyalty to the point of absurdity. Everybody is absolutely going out of their way and is super sensitive to any potential slight to Erdogan’s or Turkey’s honor.”
In a statement Monday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry alleged that U.S. security personnel—presumably the D.C. police—had taken “aggressive and unprofessional actions” and that American officials were responsible for “lapses of security” during Erdogan’s visit. The statement came days after the Turkish Embassy claimed that the anti-Erdogan protesters were affiliated with terrorists, and that the people who attacked them outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence were “Turkish-Americans” who “responded in self-defense.”
“It has been formally requested that the U.S. authorities conduct a full investigation of this diplomatic incident and provide the necessary explanation,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The Turkish statement came as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley landed in the Turkish capital for a visit.
The Turkish government’s framing of the incident has infuriated some leading U.S. lawmakers, including GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who said Turkey’s ambassador “should leave” the United States.
Tensions have heated up between the two nations on several key matters. The Turks are angry that the Trump administration has decided to directly arm Kurds battling the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey argues that those Kurdish forces are affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey labeled as a terrorist outfit by Washington and Ankara. But the Trump administration considers the Kurds in Syria vital soldiers in the mission to destroy the Islamic State.
Turkey also is upset that the United States has not handed over Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim preacher that Erdogan blames for a failed coup attempt in Turkey nearly a year ago.
At the same time, some corners of the U.S. government have expressed alarm about Erdogan’s increasing power as well as his crackdown on opposition leaders, journalists and others whom he has deemed a threat.
Last week’s brawl wasn’t the first time Turkish security officials resorted to violence in Washington — they did so last year when an Erdogan appearance at the Brookings Institution drew protesters. The Turkish security officials involved in the melees have legal immunity under international diplomatic conventions, so they can’t be prosecuted by U.S. authorities.
Months after the Brookings incident, after Erdogan survived the coup attempt, some of his aides suggested that the United States may have had a role in trying to overthrow him—claims that drew a sharp retort from the Obama administration.
Turkish society is highly polarized now, and Erdogan has resorted more and more to violence against his opponents, said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Turkish president “does not want to be seen as being pushed around by the U.S. because that makes him look weak domestically,” said Cagaptay, whose book, The New Sultan, chronicles Erdogan’s rise.
Cagaptay said the Trump administration must push Erdogan to do more to heal the divisions in Turkish society. Otherwise, he predicted, the violence in Washington could be replicated on a large scale inside Turkey, destabilizing a geo-strategic ally and causing long-term national security headaches for the United States and NATO.
For its part, the Trump administration has sent mixed messages about where it stands on Turkey and Erdogan in particular. In April, Trump congratulated Erdogan after Turkish voters approved a much-disputed referendum expanding the powers of the presidency, but the State Department chose to highlight alleged discrepancies in the vote and urged Erdogan to respect Turkish citizens’ human rights.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed that U.S. Ambassador John Bass had been summoned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, but she said the State Department has made its concerns about the incident with the protesters known as well.
“The conduct of Turkish security personnel last week was deeply disturbing,” Nauert said. “The State Department has raised its concerns about those events at the highest levels.”
Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that when it comes to Turkey, it’s important for the Trump administration to be as public as possible in its denouncements of unacceptable behavior. So long as Erdogan keeps jailing anyone he believes insufficiently loyal, however, it’s possible his subordinates will keep lashing out against the United States.
“I would put this in the category of trolling,” Cook said. “It’s all geared toward domestic public consumption.”