How to lose US public opinion in 10 minutes?
In the same hours President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was walking out of a relatively positive sit-down with EU leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, a harsh resolution to condemn the violence of Erdoğan’s security personnel against protestors last week in Washington was voted in at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. One step forward, two steps back.
Turkey’s relations with the West in the last five years – if not more – have been no more than a crisis management on different fronts. Turkish diplomacy has occasionally found itself exhausting its time and efforts in Western capitals to contain image-related problems deriving from a substantial machismo in Ankara’s rhetoric.
Although Erdoğan’s first encounter with U.S. President Donald Trump went rather smoothly despite the shadow of Trump’s decision to send heavy weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is declared as a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by Ankara. Instead of burning the bridges, Turkey made a strong case to secure an upper hand in post-Raqqa Syria and get the Trump administration on board for its fight against the PKK. The Turkish concerns were endorsed by Trump, who publicly said he was ready to send some military equipment to assist Ankara. I learned this week from a high level Turkish defense official that Turkey has made no new requests for American military equipment, which proved that the statement by Trump was rather a demonstration of good will.
That could have been it and Erdoğan’s delegation might have left Washington without too much drama if Turkish security details were not involved in a brawl in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Sheridan Circle. A footage showing armed Turkish security guards beating unarmed protestors speedily hit the headlines in U.S. media, which was until that moment focusing on domestic White House scandals more than Erdoğan’s presence in the capital. For them, it was a clear manifestation of how Ankara’s machismo in rhetoric turned into action.
Then we watched seasoned Republican Senator John McCain screaming on live television that the Turkish Ambassador should be thrown out of the country over Turkish security personnel’s violation of the first amendment. Other U.S. lawmakers joined in expressing fury with a common theme that the “Turkish government cannot deploy the same violent tactics they exercise at home here on U.S. soil.” This atmosphere resulted in a resolution by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which urged the State Department to request the waiver of immunity of any Turkish security detail official engaged in assault. House Speaker Paul Ryan went further and asked for a formal apology from the Turkish leadership.
The Sheridan Circle incident has demonstrated that Ankara cannot make things right with the U.S. only through the White House without spending considerable energy on changing the mood in Congress, which may effectively block key decisions on Turkey. Equally important is the damage done over Turkey’s perception by the U.S. public opinion. Unfortunately, Turks are increasingly perceived by Americans as bullies who are ready to pick a fight and thus they should be refrained from.
The Turkish side might be right in terms of their criticism of the Washington DC Metropolitan Police and Secret Service for not implementing the necessary security protocol in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence. One needs not to be an expert to observe the clumsiness of DC police in addressing the events of that day. However, the intervention of Turkish security personnel as such could and should have been avoided for Turkey’s sake.
The Sheridan Circle incident should not only be considered as a simple image problem by Ankara since it sat right in the heart of the “Kurds or Turks” dilemma of the U.S. Naturally, this case will be used by the Kurds and their sympathizers in Washington whenever necessary to further consolidate support for Kurdish aspirations in Syria and Iraq. I am sure the PR companies employed by the Turkish Embassy in Washington are working on this!