WASHINGTON — Government crackdowns against protesters in Turkey could test the close ties between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strategically important U.S. ally in a tumultuous region.
The demonstrations in Turkey, now in their second week, cropped up after Erdogan’s visit to the White House last month, which highlighted a variety of issues on which the U.S. needs Turkey’s help. They include quelling the violence in Syria, stabilizing Iraq and stemming Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Erdogan, known for his brash and stubborn leadership style, has responded to the public outcry by questioning the legitimacy of the protesters. On Tuesday, Erdogan told demonstrators his patience was running out, saying of the protests, “we have no tolerance for them.”
He spoke as hundreds of police in riot gear briefly fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at protestors in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, forcing many protestors who had occupied the square into a nearby park. Some groups also clashed with police at one edge of the square, setting off fireworks, firebombs and throwing stones at a police water cannon.
The clash mirrored previous confrontations between Turkish police and protestors, which have also involved the use of tear gas and water cannons. Turkish authorities are trying halt demonstrations, which have spread to nearly 80 cities across the country.
James Jeffrey, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Turkey until 2010, said that in private discussions among U.S. officials “there’s some wincing at the statements by Erdogan.”
But in public, the White House has carefully avoided criticizing the prime minister directly, though the U.S. has urged Turkish authorities to exercise restraint. There also have been no known conversations between Obama and his Turkish counterpart since the protests began.
“We continue to have serious concerns about the reports of excessive use of force by police and large numbers of injuries and damage to property, and welcome calls for these events to be investigated,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “We also continue to urge all parties to refrain from provoking violence.” He did not mention Erdogan.
“This is always the quandary for the U.S. government,” said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When you get that close to an ally, you become very careful about criticizing them.”
That’s the pattern the U.S. fell into with former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who found favour with the U.S. by protecting American interests in the Middle East. The U.S. only turned on Mubarak after the Egyptian people launched mass protests against his government in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring push for democracy that swept through the region.
Despite the unrest in Turkey, Erdogan doesn’t appear in danger of losing power. But the protests have exposed pent-up hostility among many Turks who fear Erdogan is backsliding on his early record of democratic reform and seeking to impose his religious views on the secular nation.
The anti-government rallies started after police launched a pre-dawn raid against a peaceful sit-in protesting plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Since then, tens of thousands of mostly secular Turks have joined the demonstrations, turning them into Turkey’s biggest anti-government disturbances in years.
For the White House, Erdogan’s handling of the challenge to his leadership could complicate Turkey’s close but complex relationship with the U.S.
Since taking office, Obama has taken significant steps to point to Turkey as a model for other majority-Islamic nations pursuing democracy and ties with the West. Three months after winning the White House, Obama put Turkey on the itinerary for his first foreign tour as president, a 2009 trip that was aimed in part at resetting the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world. While touring Turkey alongside Erdogan, Obama cast the ties between their two countries as a “model partnership.”
Since then, the two leaders have spoken frequently by phone and conferred on the sidelines of international summits and at the White House, most recently in May.
Despite the robust relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, Erdogan has created headaches for Obama before. In 2010, Turkey broke with the U.S. and voted against United Nations sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Erdogan also ratcheted up tensions with Israel earlier this year when he called Zionism “a crime against humanity.”
The lengthy civil war in Syria has exposed perhaps the deepest rift between Erdogan and Obama. While both want Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power, the prime minister has become frustrated with Obama’s reluctance to use military force to end the violence.
Erdogan pushed Obama during their recent talks to deepen U.S. involvement in Syria, but the Turkish leader received none of the assurances he sought.
Obama, however, has proven to have some measure of influence over his Turkish counterpart.
Earlier this year, Obama brokered a truce between Israel and Turkey, which had cut diplomatic ties following an Israeli attack on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza. Analysts say Erdogan would have been far less willing to accept an apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had Obama not also been on the line during the phone call.
Aliriza, the Turkey expert at CSIS, said Obama’s success in restarting diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel underscores the influence Obama could have now in shaping the prime minister’s response to the protests.
“There is only one man in this world that Erdogan listens to, and that’s Barack Obama,” he said.