In Turkey / Türkiye

By Cengiz Çandar, Al-Monitor, May 17, 2017

Donald Trump welcomes Recep Tayyip Erdogan to White House on May 17, 2017 (Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

“The mountain gave birth to a mouse” is a well-known Turkish saying for describing the disappointing results after big expectations. For hours, I had been contemplating whether the White House encounter between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be described by this saying. After all, following a soured relationship between Erdogan and former President Barack Obama, the Turkish president apparently had extended a mea culpa to Trump.

Even Trump signing a decree to directly arm the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) could not undo the high hopes pinned for the May 16 White House summit. Erdogan’s reaction had been that when he would come face to face with his American counterpart, he would be able to persuade him to change his mind: The United States under Trump would dump the “terrorist” YPG for its staunch NATO ally, Turkey.

Erdogan’s White House meeting with Trump was trumpeted as a “turning point” in Turkey’s relations with the United States. There are three major issues to assess the success of the visit and thereby come to a conclusion of whether it was a turning point:

  • a change of Washington’s position on the YPG;
  • the extradition of Turkey’s public enemy No. 1, Fethullah Gulen, to Turkey; and
  • the release [from arrest in New York in March 2017] of Reza Zarrab, the pivotal character of Turkey’s corruption case of 2014, which is seen as the biggest potential headache for Erdogan.

In the aftermath of the Trump-Erdogan meeting at the White House, my conclusion is this: The mountain didn’t even give birth to a mouse. It didn’t give birth to anything.

Considering myself a veteran of Turkish visits to the White House, I have to admit that I had never witnessed such a unique visit. In the past, I have been in the Oval Office and in the press room with former Turkish presidents and prime ministers: Turgut Ozal, Tansu Ciller, Suleyman Demirel, Bulent Ecevit and Erdogan. I was also present during Erdogan’s first visit to the White House in December 2002 when he was received by George W. Bush in the Roosevelt Room. I do not remember any meeting that lasted for only 22-23 minutes.

A turning point or a milestone summit between the presidents of Turkey and the United States at a time when their relations are deeply strained, and it lasted only 22 minutes! That means each president spoke around 10 minutes, including the translations, to address the most crucial issues on the international agenda and those concerning their strained bilateral relations.

The 22-minute “turning point” summit was followed by a joint press conference that lasted about the same length, with Trump speaking less than five minutes and saying nothing significant and Erdogan reading a text that reiterated Turkey’s stand on the thorny issues.

“There is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region. Taking YPG and PYD [Democratic Union Party] in the region — taking them into consideration in the region, it will never be accepted, and it is going to be against a global agreement that we have reached,” Erdogan said.

During the joint press conference, both tried to be cordial to each other, but they were unable to conceal the mundane atmosphere dominating the Roosevelt Room where the joint press conference was held. While Erdogan was talking, Trump’s body language gave the impression that he was somewhere other than next to his Turkish counterpart. Perhaps his mind was busy with the scandal reigning in Washington about his disclosure of classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Untypically, the two leaders did not receive any questions from the crowded press corps.

Nobody from the American media was really interested in the divergences between Turkey and the United States, and they behaved as if the president of Turkey was not in the room. Interestingly, during the press conference, the discrepancy in Erdogan’s Turkish and the English translation that Trump heard was noted and circulated on social media within an hour. That means what Trump heard in English was different in meaning or what Erdogan intended to mean.

The scandalous part of the visit was not confined to the translation of the joint press conference. Kurdish-American activists were holding a demonstration at the Turkish ambassador’s residence to protest Erdogan’s visit to Washington and it turned into a battleground when Erdogan’s bodyguards and his supporters attacked the demonstrators. Nine people were wounded, and American police had difficulty taking control of the situation.

The joint press conference was followed by a working lunch where the delegations took part. After the lunch, Erdogan’s visit — which was advertised by his team as “a turning point” in Turkish-American relations — ended.

I do not remember there ever being a visit of a Turkish president or a prime minister whose one on one with the American president lasted only 20 minutes, was followed by a joint press conference and a lunch with the delegations, but no questions from the press were asked. The Erdogan-Trump meeting is unprecedented in this regard.

In terms of the three main stumbling blocks on the road of Turkish-American relations, none of them look to be removed. The state of relations is not much different prior to Erdogan’s visit to Washington.

Before coming to Washington, Erdogan met with almost all of the major nationalists/autocrats [sic] in the international system — Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India and Xi Jinping of China. But he needed to get the endorsement of the leader of the strongest nation in the world, the president of the United States of America. However, luck was not on Erdogan’s side this time. Erdogan arrived in Washington from China at a very peculiar period when a scandal involving Trump that put his presidency at stake became the order of the day in the U.S. capital.

Trump and his team had neither time for Erdogan nor the appetite to meet his demands. The official Turkish statement on the Erdogan-Trump talks was issued by Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. It only consists of four sentences. There is nothing there to suggest that the two countries overcame their deep divides.

Most interesting of all, the White House’s assessment of the meeting with Erdogan, almost diametrically opposed to that of Kalin’s, emphasized the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson, which was not mentioned by the Turkish side at all.

The White House issued this readout of the meeting: “President Donald J. Trump met today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to discuss how to further strengthen the deep and diverse relationship between our two countries. President Trump reiterated the commitment of the United States to the security of our NATO ally Turkey and the need to work together to confront terrorism in all its forms. President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States. President Trump told President Erdogan that he looks forward to seeing him next week during his upcoming international travel.”

Most probably, history will record Erdogan’s recent visit as the most unsuccessful presidential visit ever to Washington.

Erdogan came away from Washington meeting with Trump ’empty-handed’, May 17, 2017

I think Turkey is going to have to take what it gets here, especially if the U.S. does move forward with cooperation with Russia against ISIS and other terrorist groups. The Kurds are going to be essential to that, Jim Jatras, former U.S. diplomat, has told RT.

U.S. President Donald Trump met Turkish President Recep Erdogan on May 17 in the U.S. capital. The two leaders discussed a broad range of issues. Ankara and Washington’s greatest disagreements are on the questions of Kurdish fighters in Syria and the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

RT:   How would you describe the atmosphere of the Erdogan-Trump talks?

Jim Jatras: I would describe it as correct. I wouldn’t call it cordial; I wouldn’t call it hostile. But I don’t think there was a whole lot of substance to it. I think Mr. Erdogan basically came away empty-handed, that’s if you look at their comments after their meeting, which consists mostly platitudes. There were no questions taken that I don’t think there was a whole out of agreement on much of anything; that Trump paid lip service to the idea that PKK are terrorists, but of course the YPG in Northern Syria; that the U.S. is working closely with, the Turks consider terrorists. He’s not going to get any movement out of Mr. Trump on that.

RT:  Erdogan claims Turkey wants better ties with the U.S. But how possible is that, in view of Ankara’s stance on the Kurdish military considered by America as a leader in the fight against ISIS. What chance for a successful partnership between Ankara and Washington?

Jim Jatras: I think Turkey is going to have to take what it gets here, especially if the U.S. does move forward with cooperation with Russia against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. The Kurds are going to be essential to that. And everybody in Washington knows that, and the Turks know that. The best that Erdogan can hope for is some kind of assurance from Washington that there will not be any further expansion of the Kurdish zone to the west, and that they will not be allowed to in any way threaten Turkish territory. Other than those kinds of assurances, I don’t think that Mr. Erdogan could expect very much and he will have to go along with what’s offered to him.

RT:  It seems some journalists present were much more interested in U.S. relations with Russia, not Turkey. Why is that do you think?

Jim Jatras: Of course, we’re in another frenzy here with the entire media, which is very hostile to Trump are busy chasing their tails. We’ve got the story about classified information that Trump supposedly told Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov and Mr. [Sergey] Kislyak, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State – everybody has denied the accuracy of the Washington Post story. This is fake news by any account. They are running on with it, splitting hairs, every word, trying to find something they can throw at the White House.

* Ammar Waqqaf, Director of Gnosos, a British think tank that focuses on crises in Syria and the Middle East spoke to RT also:

RT:  What’s your take on the latest visit of Erdogan to Washington?

Ammar Waqqaf: A large part of the Erdogan and Turkish leadership rhetoric is targeted domestically to their own electorate, to their own people to bring Turkish public opinion up to speed with whatever they want to do. Part of it is only a message toward the U.S. [Yesterday he was] in Washington – he would want to be as friendly as possible in order to get as much as possible from President Trump. He said Turkey would have to be a little bit cautious regarding the U.S.… He is not going to pick up a fight with President Trump. He obviously knows that President Trump is not to be messed with in terms of rhetoric…

RT:  The extradition of Fethullah Gulen still remains a key issue in Turkish-U.S. relations. What do you make of it?

Ammar Waqqaf: In a sense probably the U.S. recognizes that the entire Fethullah Gulen rhetoric and issue is more targeted toward the domestic affairs of Turkey, rather than as an international affair or dispute. They do not wish to concede on that, and they find it probably an opportunity for them to reinforce the image of their judicial system and the democratic values that they have: someone who is not convicted cannot be expedited, and so on, and so forth. This would go on for a long time, but for Turkey – or for the Turkish president – the more he uses the Gulen affair, the more he is able to mobilize part of the Turkish electorate behind him against others. We’ve seen that clearly during the coup d’état that happened a few months back. He’s carrying on with the same way.

Erdogan’s guards may go unpunished after DC attack on Kurdish protesters, May 18, 2017 (with video reporting)

The U.S. State Department has confirmed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail was behind the attack on Kurdish protesters in Washington, DC on Tuesday. Police believe “there could be a diplomatic immunity issue.”

The U.S. is communicating its concern to the Turkish government “in the strongest possible terms,” the State Department said in a statement about the attack. Twelve people were injured after protests outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence, DC Police Chief Peter Newsham announced in a press conference. One of those injured was a police officer, while all nine people hospitalized have been released. Two arrests have been made in connection to the attack, according to the Washington Free Beacon.

According to Newsham, “there could be a diplomatic immunity issue.”

Reports say scuffles broke out on two separate occasions, at first instigated by a supporter of Erdogan wearing yellow, who allegedly pushed a woman down during an argument. Shortly thereafter, a brawl broke out but was disrupted by the DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

When Erdogan’s presidential security detail arrived, police had the Turkish nationalists and Kurdish protesters separated. Clashes again broke out after a man wearing a suit broke through the MPD’s cordon and attacked a Kurdish man. After police lost control, a multitude of pro-Erdogan protesters rushed their opponents.

“Yesterday, we witnessed what appeared to be a brutal attack on peaceful protesters,” Newsham said, adding that some of the pro-Erdogan group had firearms on them, compounding the difficulty faced by MPD officers.

Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency reports that Erdogan’s guards rushed in to disperse the protest because MPD “did not heed Turkish demands to intervene.”

While the MPD is powerless to arrest or detain members of Erdogan’s security detail due to agreements such as diplomatic immunity, they can be charged for those crimes, allowing officers to arrest them should they return to the United States in an unofficial capacity. The president also has the power to ban them entirely.

RT spoke with Ruken Isik, a Ph D student studying the Kurdish women’s movement in Turkey and Syria at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a mother of two.

“I was able to grab my 4-year-old son, tucked him under my arm and ran away,” Isik said. “They could not grab me but grabbed my female friend.”

“In the U.S., you’d never, never expect to be attacked by Turkish President Erdogan’s security guards. And we were there, it was a peaceful protest, suddenly they attacked us,” Isik told RT. “These security guards already left the country and we are shocked because we were attacked on American soil. The U.S. police could not protect us because the security guards were so violent. They were even attacking the American police.”

Isik went on to say that woman and the elderly seemed to be the first targets in the attack. “We’ve been protesting in DC for a long time. You can ask the secret service, the DC police, they all know us. We are peaceful protesters,” she added.

Isik told RT that one of the woman attacked in the incident, whom she spoke with on the phone, was interviewed by the police and Secret Service and has been talking to her lawyer about opening a lawsuit.

Though under a different U.S. administration, Erdogan’s last visit to Washington, DC was also not without incident. Last year, Erdogan’s security officers fought with journalists as he delivered a speech praising democracy in Turkey. They physically removed one journalist from the audience and threw a female reporter to the sidewalk.

The same year, Erdogan was heckled by female protesters in Ecuador, leading to their violent expulsion.

In 2011, Erdogan’s security detail brawled with United Nations security officials, which ended in one being sent to the hospital in New York City.

The Turkish Embassy in DC accused the protesters of belonging to groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization based in Turkey and Iraq. Isik, a self-described activist, told RT that she was protesting due to the imprisonment of journalists, academics, and leaders of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest parliamentary party in Turkey.

Washington DC treated to Turkish-style crackdown on pro-Kurdish demonstrators, by Amberin Zaman, Al-Monitor, May 17, 2017

Arms for Kurds, sheltering of Fethullah Gulen are among the gripes Erdogan is bringing to talks with Trump in Washington,, May 17, 2017

Turkey wants US envoy removed in growing spat over Syrian Kurds


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