The first protest on Tuesday, May 16, was peaceful and well organized, according to Kurdish Ph.D. student Mahir Ayhan, who spoke to Muftah about the event. Ayhan, who is from Turkey, had taken time off from his studies to join the demonstration against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, organized by Kurdish, Armenian, and Greek groups, in Lafayette park in front of the White House, where Erdogan was meeting with Donald Trump.
Though it was not required, these groups had taken the precaution of obtaining a permit for their protest. The prior notice seems to have given D.C. police plenty of time to prepare. According to Ayhan, the protesters were separated by police tape from a pro-Turkish counter demonstration, and there was plenty of security to manage the crowd.
After a few hours, the protest broke up. Ayhan and a number of other participants knew that, after the White House meeting, Erdogan would be heading to the Turkish ambassador’s residence for a gathering. About a dozen of them decided to walk over to the ambassador’s residence to continue the protest. When they arrived, there were only a few Turkish security personnel and a couple of Turkish civilians outside.
Ayhan asked one of the D.C. police officers,who was on hand for the event, if it was ok for them to protest, and she assured them it was. Just a few minutes later, according to Ayhan, one of the small number of Turkish security personnel attacked a member of their protest group.
It was in the wake of this initial attack by a Turkish security member that a number of cameras started rolling.
— Amerika’nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 17, 2017
The police tried to separate the two groups, but it was obvious there were too few of them to control the situation, Ayhan told Muftah. What started out as a small group of Turkish security personnel quickly swelled to dozens. Ayhan believes, and statements from U.S. officials confirm, the instigators were part of President Erdogan’s personal security detail, and were not embassy staff. The men were swearing at and insulting the small group of protesters; “[embassy] officials would not swear” like this, Ayhan observed.
Footage of pro-Erdoğan goons brutally attacking Armenian, Kurdish and Yezidi protestors in Washington DC. pic.twitter.com/XjpzwbG5zo
— Haidar Sumeri (@IraqiSecurity) May 17, 2017
The second attack, which was recorded from several angles, began when two members of Turkish security broke away from the line of police trying to contain them, and charged at protesters. This triggered a large number of Turkish security and supporters to rush toward the now outnumbered protesters.
Ayhan was attacked by one of a number of men wearing identical military style green shirts and khaki pants. He believes these men were members of the Turkish special forces and had come from Turkey with the President’s entourage. Though it is not yet possible to confirm their affiliation with Turkish special forces, photos show that these men in green were armed and had earpieces, indicating they were there in an official capacity.
The brawl lasted just a few seconds, but it was enough time for at least a dozen people to sustain injuries, including a majority of protesters. Ayhan was badly beaten. “They seem to be purposely targeting the face and head,” he observed. Ayhan went to the hospital and was given some pain medication to ease his injuries, but he is still having trouble with basic movement, like sitting, standing, and walking.
Others suffered even worse injuries. One protester, Ceren Borazan, was choked by one of the security personnel hard enough to pop a blood vessel in her eye. She told Buzzfeed that the man threatened to kill her while he was holding her in a headlock.
— Ceren Borazan (@CerenBorazan) May 17, 2017
Yazidi activist, Lucy Usoyan, identifiable by her Merlot-colored pants in the video, was knocked unconscious, and continued to sustain kicks from several different men, as she lay helpless on the ground.
Even with new Trump scandals hitting the wires like clockwork, the story of the attack outside the Turkish embassy managed to go viral. Images of peaceful protesters, many of them women and older men, being attacked by representatives of a foreign government struck a nerve. The D.C. police department promised a full investigation, in cooperation with the State Department and the Secret Service. The mayor of D.C. issued a statement to the same effect. Multiple members of Congress expressed their anger, including Senators John McCain and Claire McCaskill, who called for the Turkish Ambassador to be “kicked out of the country.” The State Department summoned the Turkish Ambassador for a reprimand. Press Secretary Sean Spicer had no comment on the incident.
According to Howard Eissenstat, Associate Professor of History at St. Lawrence University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project for Middle East Democracy, who spoke with Muftah, there is virtually no precedent for an incident of this sort between civilians and foreign government personnel on U.S. soil – except when it comes to this same Turkish government. Indeed, a very similar series of incidents took place last year, while Barack Obama was president. In April 2016, Turkish security personnel notoriously manhandled journalists and protesters while President Erdogan spoke at the Brookings Institute; just a few months later, they engaged in another fight when Erdogan attended the funeral of boxer Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky.
Just as some incorrectly blamed the Trump administration for helping Turkish officials feel empowered to beat protesters, the increasingly repressive nature of Turkish politics also cannot be blamed. “Plenty of other authoritarian leaders come to D.C. without incidents like this taking place,” Eissenstat observed, “there is something interesting and distinctive that comes with this entourage.”
He believes the behavior of Turkish security personnel can be attributed to several interrelated factors. First, President Erdogan is particularly isolated when it comes to international policy, due to the decline of foreign policy expertise in the Turkish government. Second, Erdogan has never been inclined to pay lip service to diplomatic niceties- often in a very public manner.
Third, incidents like the embassy attack can be spun positively for a domestic Turkish audience, in order to further vilify Turkey’s Kurdish population, especially the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla organization that has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and which both Turkey and the United States classify as a terrorist organization. An official statement from the Turkish embassy essentially blamed the D.C. police for failing to provide enough protection for peaceful Turkish-American citizens who had gathered at the embassy against aggressive “PKK terrorists.” The pro-government Turkish media reported the fight as “PYD/PKK supporters held illegal protest in Washington, US police inadequate, so the president’s bodyguards stepped in.”
Turkish Embassy statement almost asking for an apology from DC, labels protesters as terrorists in front of Amb Residence.. pic.twitter.com/L7WwpYRh56
— ilhan tanir (@WashingtonPoint) May 18, 2017
The Turkish government believes that the PYD is simply the Syrian version of the PKK. In spinning the embassy attack the way it did, the Turkish government is able to at least symbolicly strike back against U.S. government’s continued support of the Kurdish PYD forces in Northern Syria, which they vociferously oppose but are powerless to stop.
The last factor Eissenstat believes explains the actions of Erdogan’s entourage is, simply, that they have gotten away with it in the past, including in April 2016.
But this time a concerted effort has been launched on multiple fronts to try to hold the perpetrators responsible. As noted above, multiple law enforcement and government agencies have vowed to investigate the incident. The online open source investigative platform, bellingcat, has also launched an effort to crowdsource the identities of the perpetrators. The bellingcat investigator who started the campaign told Muftah that campaign’s goal is to at least increase “public awareness that the type of actions that these men carried out have consequences, and that — at the very least — the public will be very observant and conscious of the makeup of future security details of Erdogan.” He also hopes to prevent the men from serving on future security details abroad.
Eissenstat hopes that actions will be taken to prevent future incidents, but, he doubts the American government’s reaction will be harsh enough. Eissenstat spoke positively of the bellingcat campaign, but is also skeptical it will have much impact. “Name and shame doesn’t work if those involved aren’t ashamed,” he noted.
A few days after the attack, another recording of the event surfaced. This one was recorded in front of the ambassador’s residence, shortly after Erdogan arrived.
— Amerika’nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 18, 2017
(Translation: Erdogan in Washington waits for events to end)
Erdogan sits in a car, while the escalating confrontation unfolds about a half block away. A member of his security team relays a message to the crowd of Turkish security personnel and supporters that are gathered ahead. Seconds later, the brawl happens. Erdogan then exits the car. Stone faced, he looks in the direction of the fight, before silently entering the residence. The video implies, but doesn’t prove, Erdogan ordered his security personnel to attack the protesters. Even if he didn’t personally order the beating of Ayhan and his friends, the video makes perfectly clear that Erdogan is not ashamed of the violence being inflicted by his government’s representatives.