Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs, HALC
When Turkish President Erdogan entered the White House this week there was the faint hope that President Trump would take this opportunity to hold the authoritarian despot and so-called US ally publicly accountable. Instead of accountability, we saw the President praise Turkey, and Washington, DC got a taste of what an Erdogan dictatorship looks like.
All eyes were on President Trump’s meeting with Erdogan. Human rights groups, civic organizations, members of Congress, policy experts, and Turkish opposition members waited, hoping that President would challenge the Sultan from Ankara on: Turkey’s threats to complicate operations against the Islamic State; Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents and journalists; the detention of Americans in Turkey; Turkey’s threats and provocations in the Aegean and Cyprus, and the outrageous rhetoric about the United States emanating from Ankara. Instead, President Trump praised the Turkish leader as a stalwart ally. “We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better” Trump said in the Oval Office as he sat beside Erdogan.
Following the meeting, Erdogan stated that “the relations between Turkey and the United States have been erected upon common democratic values and common interests.” Moments later, mistaking DC for Ankara, Erdogan’s henchmen took to the streets and attacked peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Embassy. Two people were arrested and 11 were injured in what DC police called a “brutal attack on peaceful protesters.” The violent assault was documented, and quickly went viral on social media.
The attacks prompted quick responses from members of Congress, who called on the administration to take action. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce sent a letter to the Attorney General and the Secretary of State urging immediate action to hold individuals accountable for the attacks on protesters:
“Alarmingly, this behavior is indicative of the broad crackdowns on political activists, journalists and religious freedom in Turkey that have greatly harmed Turkish democracy in recent years.
To send a clear message that these acts of violence will not be tolerated, I ask that you immediately look into this matter and bring all appropriate criminal charges before these individuals leave the United States.”
The State Department confirmed that Turkish security personnel were involved in the attacks, and issued the following statement:
“We are concerned by the violent incidents involving protesters and Turkish security personnel Tuesday evening. Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest…We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms.”
A number of US senators also condemned the attacks. Senator John McCain slammed the attack on protesters on MSNBC’s The Morning Joe, and called for the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador.
“We should throw their ambassador the hell out of the United States of America… This kind of thing cannot go un-responded to diplomatically.”
Democratic senator Claire McCaskill agreed with Senator McCain, tweeting: “Unacceptable. They were assaulting these people on US soil. Turkish Ambassador should be kicked out of country.”
Senator Chris Van Hollen joined his colleagues in condemning the attacks, and warned that the US standing in the world is diminished when it cheers on authoritarian leaders like Erdogan.
The latest video evidence shows Erdogan watching the attacks between Turkish security personnel and protesters unfold. Erdogan eventually turns and walks into a building with his staff.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Erdogan’s thugs roughed up protesters on US soil. In March of 2016 the Washington Post reported clashes between protesters and Erdogan’s security detail, and in 2014, in New York, Turkish security threatened and pushed around journalists working for a newspaper that was critical of Erdogan.
As was evidenced this week, treating Turkey with children’s gloves has only served to further enable Erdogan. Steven A. Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations highlighted the failure of relying on private assurances and low key, behind the scenes encouragement with Erdogan. At the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Mr. Cook added that the US is setting itself up for more problems if it does not apply pressure on Erdogan. He is absolutely correct.
The outrageous attacks on the streets of DC are yet another example of what happens when authoritarians remain unchecked. Without condemnation from the US, Erdogan will continue to abuse power, silence the media and his opposition, threaten Turkey’s neighbors, and undermine the US.