US Vice President Joe Biden (L) attends a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on the sidelines of the nuclear summit in Washington, DC, on March 31, 2016 (AFP Photo/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)
Washington – Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced noisy protests Thursday as he confronted critics in Washington, defending his media crackdown and accusing the West of turning a blind eye to Kurdish violence.
As the Turkish leader flew in to the US capital ahead of a nuclear safety summit, news broke of another deadly bomb attack targeting police in his country’s southeast, where his forces are battling Kurdish militants.
Against this backdrop his security detail was not amused to find a small group of protesters outside the Washington think tank where he was to speak, brandishing the banners of the YPG, a Kurdish militant group based in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as an affiliate of the PKK, Turkey’s main Kurdish separatist movement, and has declared it a terrorist threat. Washington sees the YPG guerrillas as key allies in its campaign against the Islamic State group.
Just ahead of Erdogan’s arrival at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Turkish security officials clashed with the crowd — both sides exchanging insults and scuffling — before local police were able to separate them.
The Turkish guards also set about the press. One aimed a chest-high kick at an American reporter attempting to film the harassment of a Turkish opposition reporter, another called a female foreign policy scholar a “PKK whore.”
Turkish security tried to prevent two Turkish journalists, one of them working for the opposition daily Zaman that has been seized by the government, from entering.
– Outraged by Turkish tactics –
Brookings staff prevented Turkish officials from driving out the men, who had been invited to cover the event, amid tense scenes.
Meanwhile outside pro-Kurdish demonstrators chanted: “Erdogan, fascist” and “Erdogan, baby-killer.”
The Washington-based National Press Club was outraged by the Turkish tactics.
“We have increasingly seen disrespect for basic human rights and press freedom in Turkey,” club president Thomas Burr said. “Erdogan doesn’t get to export such abuse.”
Global watchdog Reporters Without Borders slammed the guards’ “unacceptable behavior.”
But Erdogan appeared unruffled as he arrived to give a speech and answer questions, delivering a forceful address in which he ceded no ground to critics at home or abroad.
On the renewed battle with the Kurds, Erdogan was clear — for Turkey, the PKK and the YPG are one and the same, vicious terrorists, and no better than the Islamic State group.
“Terrorists unfortunately keep attacking our country,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this anymore. European countries and other countries, I hope they can see the true face of terrorists in these attacks.”
Erdogan complained that, just because the YPG are fighting against the IS group with Western support, some see them as what he derisively termed “good terrorists” and complained that they have backers in Europe.
“I know people are organizing, funding meetings, and are assisting in getting arms to those organizations,” he said.
– ‘Incarcerated journalists’ –
The US-led coalition has made no secret of its ties with Kurdish militias in northern Syria, and US officials say they do not regard the YPG as auxiliaries of the PKK, which Washington does deem a terrorist group.
Erdogan was also firm in his defense of Turkey’s recent crackdown on the press.
Senior US and European officials and international media rights groups have sternly criticized his government’s recent actions against the media, including this month’s seizure of the top-selling Zaman, and the arrest of journalists.
But, pressed on the issue, Erdogan was unapologetic, appearing to relish the question as he brandished what he said was a dossier on the legal cases.
“If you want the details of this, I will be more than happy to share them with you. This is the brief that I have in my hands,” he said.
“Inside Turkish prisons there are no journalists that have been sentenced because of their profession or their freedom of expression rights,” he said, insisting that his presidential election victory had demonstrated his democratic legitimacy.
US President Barack Obama has not arranged a one-on-one meeting with Erdogan during the two-day nuclear security summit, which is being attended by several world leaders, and US officials have in recent months stepped up their criticism of his rule.
“The United States strongly supports freedom of the press and an independent media in every country in the world, including Turkey,” Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters.
Later, US President Joe Biden met Erdogan at his hotel where, according to the White House, “the two leaders reaffirmed the close alliance between the United States and Turkey.”
Biden confirmed the United States regards the PKK as a terrorist group and conveyed condolences for the Turkish victims of recent attacks.