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Erdogan: Washington’s Closest Allies in Fight Against Islamic State Are Just as Bad as the Islamic State

Erdogan: Washington’s Closest Allies in Fight Against Islamic State Are Just as Bad as the Islamic State

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington to repair a widening rift with the White House over the future of the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State. Public comments Thursday equating one of the Obama administration’s closest battlefield allies to ISIS itself aren’t going to help.

The Turkish ruler’s appearance at the Brookings Institution was the highest-profile part of a short trip to the U.S. that has been marred by a very public snub from the White House, which has refused to give him a formal meeting with President Barack Obama. Administration aides insist the omission has to do with a scheduling issue, but it is perceived in both the United States and Turkey as a clear sign of White House unease with Erdogan’s crackdown on Kurdish fighters who are the most effective American proxies in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

During his 70-minute address at Brookings, Erdogan returned to a familiar theme: bashing Washington for supporting the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish group he derides as terrorists. Kurdish militants have been tied to several recent bombings inside Turkey, including an attack in Ankara last month that killed at least 28 people. On Thursday, the Turkish leader explicitly equated the YPG and two other Kurdish groups with the Islamic State.

The speech itself was almost overshadowed by the chaos and violence outside Brookings in the run-up to his arrival. One journalist was physically removed by Turkish security personnel; another was kicked by a guard while a third — a woman — was thrown to the sidewalk in front of the think tank. A small group of protesters amassed outside Brookings, with one holding a large sign that said “Erdogan: War Criminal On The Loose” while another used a megaphone to chant that he was a “baby-killer.”

When the protesters tried to cross the street, Washington police officers blocked traffic and physically separated them from the Turkish personnel. A Secret Service agent standing nearby told a colleague that “the situation is a bit out of control.”

Once his speech got underway, Erdogan denounced the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels and said he was “going to improve our relationship with Israel.” Returning to a proposal he has made before, Erdogan also called for the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria. He said it would need to be patrolled with the help of NATO. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton supports the idea, but the Obama administration has to date rejected it out of hand.

Most of his remarks, though, focused on his belief that the Kurdish groups battling the Islamic State with the support of the U.S. are themselves terrorists who are just as violent and dangerous as ISIS.

Without specifically referring to Washington or Obama, Erdogan said the West was wrong to differentiate between the PKK, a Kurdish terror group that has maintained a decades-long guerrilla campaign against the Turkish state, and the YPG and its allied Democratic Union Party, or PYD. Both organizations receive military assistance from the U.S. to help fight ISIS, but on Thursday Erdogan accused the PYD of helping the Islamic State carry out a deadly recent strike in Istanbul that killed five people.

Erdogan also mocked the notion that the YPG should be seen as “good terrorists” because it was fighting ISIS. By that logic, he said the al Qaeda-linked Nusra front, which is also battling the Islamic State, should also be acceptable to the West.

The speech came just two days after the Turkish president used an off-the-record meeting with a group of prominent academics and former government officials to repeat his assertion that the White House has erred by arming and supporting the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.

No officials from the administration attended the three-hour meeting, which was first reported by Foreign Policy. Erdogan had wanted Obama to attend the opening of a Turkish-funded mosque in Maryland during his visit. When the White House declined, the Turks sought a formal bilateral meeting, but the White House has refused to commit to that, either.

The cold shoulder highlights the growing concerns Washington and its key allies have about Erdogan’s stewardship of one of Europe’s most powerful countries, particularly his crackdown on political opponents at home and his alleged refusal to prevent Islamist militants from using his country as a transit point into Syria.

In a January meeting with a delegation of high-ranking American lawmakers, for example, King Abdullah of Jordan said Erdogan “believes in a radical Islamic solution to the problems in the region,” according to notes from the meeting obtained by the Guardian. The monarch told the visiting lawmakers, which included House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, that the “fact that terrorists are going to Europe is part of Turkish policy, and Turkey keeps getting a slap on the hand, but they get off the hook.”

Fears about Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies have also been fueled by the government’s recent seizure of Turkey’s largest newspaper, Zaman, after it was accused of serving as a mouthpiece for Fethullah Gullen, a one-time Erdogan ally now charged with attempting to overthrow the government. After the paper’s staff was gutted and replaced with Erdogan-friendly editors, State Department spokesman John Kirby called the takeover “troubling.”  

Erdogan, unsurprisingly, sees matters very differently. In his speech Thursday, he said broad criticism of his country’s human rights record was “groundless” and the dozens of Turkish journalists imprisoned by his government were tied to terrorist organizations. He didn’t offer any evidence to support the allegation.
The Turkish leader also said that he could accept public criticism, but not with “insults and defamation.” Erdogan didn’t explain how he differentiates between the two.

Photo credit: MARK WILLIAMS HOELSCHER