WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama met his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington Thursday, the White House said, amid tensions over press freedom and the war in Syria.
Having previously stated the pair were unlikely to hold sit-down talks — a decision widely perceived as a snub by Washington—the White House said the two men had in fact met on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit.
They discussed US-Turkey cooperation on regional security, counterterrorism and migration, it said.
The absence of a presidential meeting on Erdogan’s trip to the US capital had been glaring.
The two countries are meant to be close NATO allies in the thick of a fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.
But tensions have been stirred by Ankara’s attacks on Kurdish militants, some of whom are seen by Washington as the best bet for tackling the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey says the groups are linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a long battle for Kurdish independence.
Turkish forays into northern Iraq have also strained ties.
The White House has been increasingly outspoken in recent months about threats to free speech and democracy in Turkey.
And on Thursday it restated its belief in the need for press freedom in Turkey, amid ugly scenes at an Erdogan speech in the US capital.
As the Turkish leader flew in to the US capital ahead of the 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.”
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.
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.