US-Turkey relations hit rough patch after rough and tumble Erdogan visit
WASHINGTON // The Trump administration is facing growing calls for a forceful response to violence on American soil by Turkish presidential guards who were briefly detained this week but then set free.
The unseemly incident is adding to US-Turkish tensions compounded by a spat over US war strategy against the extremist group ISIL in Syria.
The United States said Thursday it had summoned Turkey’s ambassador to the state department, where the No 2-ranked US diplomat raised concerns about the security detail for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington, after the guards were recorded on video violently breaking up a protest. US lawmakers demanded stronger action.
Republican senator John McCain said the government should “throw their ambassador the hell out” of the US.
The calls came as the Trump administration acknowledged it had released two members of Erdogan’s detail after holding them briefly after the incident, which took place outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the US capital on Tuesday. Even as officials vowed an investigation, the guards were already safely back in Turkey with Mr Erdogan, dampening any prospects for holding them accountable.
Local police and lawmakers initially speculated that diplomatic immunity prevented the US from holding the men. A US official said Thursday that wasn’t the case. Instead, Mr Erdogan’s guards were released under a globally recognised custom under which nations don’t arrest or detain visiting heads of state and members of their delegations, said the official, who wasn’t authorised to comment publicly on the matter and requested anonymity.
The guards’ release left the US struggling to point to anything that amounts to accountability. It also fuelled the perception that the US allows Turkey’s leader to bring strongman tactics with him when he visits the US capital. Last year, Turkish security officials manhandled several journalists at a Washington think tank where Erdogan was set to speak.
“There must be consequences,” representative Steny Hoyer, the No 2 Democrat in the House, said Thursday.
The state department called the latest incident “deeply disturbing,” insisting there would be a “thorough investigation that will allow us to hold the responsible individuals accountable is of the upmost importance to us.”
The fracas erupted as Mr Erdogan arrived at the ambassador’s residence following a meeting with US president Donald Trump. Videos show people pushing past police to confront a small group of protesters across the street.
Attacking with their fists and feet, men in dark suits and others are seen repeatedly kicking one woman as she lay curled on a sidewalk. Another person wrenches a woman’s neck and throws her to the ground. A man with a bullhorn is repeatedly kicked in the face. In all, nine people were hurt.
“This isn’t Turkey. This isn’t a third-world country,” Mr McCain said on television show MSNBC.
Another video shared on social media Thursday showed Mr Erdogan watching the melee unfold from the back seat of his vehicle. He later exits the vehicle and peers toward the chaos.
Turkey’s embassy blamed the violence on demonstrators, saying they aggressively provoked Turkish-American citizens gathered to see Mr Erdogan. The embassy alleged, without evidence, that the demonstrators were associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by the United States.
The violent capstone to Mr Erdogan’s visit spoke to the sky-high tensions between the US and Turkey, Nato allies that have increasingly sparred over US strategy toward defeating IS militants in Syria.
To Turkey’s dismay, Mr Trump has decided to arm and partner Syrian Kurdish militants in the impending fight to retake the key city of Raqqa. Washington considers the Syrian Kurds an effective force against ISIL. Turkey sees them as a PKK extension and existential threat to Turkish sovereignty.
In its protest against Mr Trump’s decision, Turkey’s foreign minister demanded Thursday that Mr Trump dismiss the US envoy in charge of the anti-ISIL coalition, Brett McGurk.
And Mr Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul two days after meeting the US president, said he was putting Washington on notice that his forces won’t hesitate to attack US-backed Kurds if they threaten Turkey.
“We are already telling you in advance: Our rules of engagement give us this authority,” Mr Erdogan said. “We will take such a step and we won’t discuss it or consult with anyone.”
The Trump administration rushed to Mr McGurk’s defence.
State department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Mr McGurk has “the full support and backing” of Mr Trump and secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Still, Ms Nauert sought to acknowledge Turkey’s misgivings about terrorism by the PKK and other groups.
“We respect those concerns, and continue regular consultations with our Nato ally on this and other topics of mutual importance,” she said.
* Associated Press
Updated: May 19, 2017 04:00 AM