Visiting Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived at the Brookings Institution on Thursday morning to deliver a highly anticipated speech. His country sits at the intersection of some of the thorniest security challenges facing the world: from the ravages of the Syrian war next door to the terrorist violence of the Islamic State to the humanitarian crisis posed by Syrian refugees.
But the event was seemingly upstaged by proceedings outside the venue, where protesters appeared to clash with Erdogan supporters, as well as the controversial Turkish leader's security detail.
A host of journalists in attendance — WorldViews was not — observed the events first-hand:
Punches being thrown as a pro-Erdogan protester crosses the street pic.twitter.com/miKuUis88v
— Ali Watkins (@AliWatkins) March 31, 2016
An editor at Foreign Policy magazine filmed the disturbances and then went on to tweet how D.C. police were being compelled to separate protesters from Erdogan's bodyguards:
This is happening outside Brookings pic.twitter.com/dG4QQZ32xd
— Yochi Dreazen (@yochidreazen) March 31, 2016
Never seen anything like this:a female protester just tackled. DC cops are in the street trying to keep Turkish guards from hurting folks
— Yochi Dreazen (@yochidreazen) March 31, 2016
Another journalist at the magazine reported scuffles between Turkish guards and Brookings staff members. They had a more detailed account here.
In front of Brookings for Turkish Pres. Erdogan speech, one of his security assaulted Brookings employee. It's crazy
— paul mcleary (@paulmcleary) March 31, 2016
Some Turkish reporters considered to be critics of Erdogan and the ruling government's policies were kept out by Turkish security guards. Amberin Zaman, a leading Turkish journalist who reported for the Economist for a decade and a half, was turned away and accused of being a sympathizer of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, an outlawed Kurdish separatist group that both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization.
— Amberin Zaman (@amberinzaman) March 31, 2016
Here: Erdoğan's bodyguards come at journalist Amberin Zaman in front of Brookings. pic.twitter.com/QCX7LCu8q4
— ilhan tanir (@WashingtonPoint) March 31, 2016
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) March 31, 2016
A journalist with the pro-government Daily Sabah pointed to protesters cornering an Erdogan supporter:
Pro-PKK crowd attacked only Erdogan supporter. This woman on the right side. Dozens of people all together pic.twitter.com/GQY83uV8fe
— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) March 31, 2016
A researcher at Brookings filmed the altercations from above:
The mayhem extended into the venue.
A statement from the National Press Club expressed alarm at the incidents. "Turkey's leader and his security team are guests in the United States," said Thomas Burr, the club's president. "They have no right to lay their hands on reporters or protesters or anyone else for that matter, when the people they are apparently roughing up seemed to be merely doing their jobs or exercising the rights they have in this country."
During his remarks inside, Erdogan appeared to dismiss his opponents outside.
"People shouting in the streets don't know what's going on in Turkey," he said.
The Turkish president used the occasion to hammer home some of his now rather familiar talking points. He began by citing Thursday's bombing in the insurgency-hit city of Diyarbakir, which killed at least six people — all believed to be security personnel. No group has claimed responsibility for the blast, though Kurdish militant groups are suspected.
Erdogan once more called out the Western refusal to see the militancy of secular Kurdish groups in the same light as the terrorism of the Islamic State. As WorldViews has discussed in the past, a constellation of Kurdish factions in Syria and Iraq — some with ties to the PKK in Turkey — receive backing from the West.
"The international community doesn't even label terrorists 'terrorists' these days," Erdogan lamented, aiming his ire particularly at the Syrian YPG, a Kurdish militia that has made significant territorial advances on the other side of the border with Turkey.
Erdogan also described the tremendous burden Turkey has assumed in coping with an exodus of Syrian refugees — some 2.7 million arrivals in the space of six years. "Turkey is the country that feels the pain of the crisis in Syria at the closest of all distances," he said.
He lambasted Europe's seeming indifference to the plight of refugees.
"The people fleeing Syria are trying to get away from terror," he said, and insisted that the only solution to both the refugee crisis and the problem of the Islamic State lies in stabilizing Syria and removing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
And Erdogan gestured at growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and the U.S.. "Xenophobia and racism are on the rise, and they are obstacles to the development of human values," he said.
In a brief Q&A session with former diplomat Marin Indyk, Erdogan was challenged on questions of press freedom. Dozens of journalists and critics of the Turkish president have been arrested under various charges. A newspaper linked to the Gulenists, a religious movement at odds with the president, was recently taken over by Turkish authorities.
Erdogan largely skirted the question, instead highlighting the many supposed successes of his long tenure, including significant economic reforms and the defanging of the country's long-meddling military. He also pointed to the majorities won both by him and his ruling Justice and Development Party in recent elections.
"Criticism I have no problem with," Erdogan said, "but insult is something different."
President Obama was not expected to meet Erdogan on this trip, a snub some had interpreted as a sign of tensions between Washington and Ankara. (A meeting was arranged between the two leaders later on Thursday evening.)
"I don't know the precise circumstances of what took place at Brookings," said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in a briefing Thursday. "But obviously our position on this matter, whether it's here in the United States obviously, but also in Turkey, it is that we respect and support the right for there to be independent journalism."
This post has been updated.