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Erdogan's Security Team Violently Clashes With Kurdish Protesters In Washington


Yesterday we spoke about the Trump administration's plans to arm Kurdish fighters working with the U.S. and coalition forces to fight ISIS. Turkey objects to this, fearing it will boost Kurdish separatist groups who have long called for autonomy. And those political tensions played out on the streets of Washington, D.C., yesterday. A protest outside the Turkish ambassador's residence turned violent. Several protesters were left covered in blood. This happened after President Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Anti-Erdogan protesters say they were attacked by his bodyguards.


CORNISH: Nine people were injured, at least two arrests were made, and D.C. police say more charges may be coming. Now, for more, we're going to talk to The Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor. Welcome to the program.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So the video of this clash is startling. You see a protester knocked down and then kicked repeatedly. And then you see men in suits going after some of the protesters. What more can you tell us about what happened?

THAROOR: Well, we're still waiting to hear a few more details about the nature of the clashes and the particular figures involved. We are pretty sure that there were a number of specific bodyguards in President Erdogan's detail involved. So far, the two arrests have involved American nationals, though we don't know much about their identity. And we're trying to see now to what extent this involved the full security detail of the Turkish president. And if so, it's part of an unfortunate theme that surrounds many of his trips overseas.

CORNISH: What do you mean by that?

THAROOR: Well, I mean, just last year, when Erdogan was back in the States for a summit on nuclear security, at Brookings, outside Brookings, there were similar protests and similar unseemly scenes of clashes along Massachusetts Avenue. There have been incidents involving his security detail in Ecuador. And in general, Erdogan is a figure who presides over profound political polarization back home.

He has, in many senses, further deeply divided Turkey and builds his politics on a kind of very vehement nationalism that leads to these kinds of scenes among the diaspora overseas. And at the same time, of course, he is somebody who survived a coup attempt last year. So for him, and presuming for a security detail, opposition and especially vocal opposition - they don't take it very lightly.

CORNISH: Can you tell us more about the protesters in the initial demonstration?

THAROOR: So from what we know they were protesters who are both protesting Erdogan's crackdown in the wake of last year's coup attempt, which has seen hundreds of thousands of people swept up in detentions and including journalists and other members of civil society, as well as supporters of a particular pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey that has been essentially criminalized by Erdogan and has seen its major leaders thrown in jail. So this is a reflection as well of the Kurdish diaspora in the United States and elsewhere who have no sympathy for the Turkish president and see him as a threat to their political aspirations.

CORNISH: This afternoon, the State Department said it's communicating its concerns about what happened yesterday to the Turkish government, quote, "in the strongest possible terms." What kind of response would you expect from Turkey?

THAROOR: We'll see. I mean, I think it's really important to keep in mind that Erdogan in a sense thrives off these kinds of moments. In the build-up to a referendum in April there were all sorts of scenes of Turkish protesters in various parts of Europe who were brought to the streets by Turkish politicians who had been campaigning there.

And so this sense of kind of grievance with the West, of clashes in the West surrounding Turkish leaders plays very differently in Turkey than it does over here. We may see it as kind of the thuggishness of the security detail. But to many of Erdogan's supporters back home, they see it as their leader being defended amid a world of enemies and critics.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, in terms of the arrest and possible charges, what could happen here? Because perhaps there is diplomatic immunity for these bodyguards. How will this all work?

THAROOR: That's a difficult question to answer right now, depending on who is pinpointed by D.C. police. Of course, for many of these figures the diplomatic immunity is available, and many of them may have left the country by the time anything is really clarified. So I don't anticipate any particular extensive prosecutions here. But it does leave a mark on Turkish-U.S. relations.

CORNISH: Ishaan Tharoor writes for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

THAROOR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.