A certain longtime Turkish narrative that explains the world through conspiracy theories has been simple, yet effective: As the thinking goes, everybody hates the Turks and wants to divide Turkey. Otherwise, Turks would be dominating the world order. Colloquially, this is called the Sevres Syndrome, referring to the infamous agreement signed by the Ottomans and the Allies at the end of the WWI.
The Sevres Syndrome has been a factor that impedes rationality for many Turkish citizens trying to make some sense of global dynamics. Rather than going deep into the issues, reasons, and most importantly, facts at hand, many in Turkey have chosen to stick to the “they hate us” narrative, which offers a simple, plausible and powerful explanation to issues that are usually complex and not easily understood.
In the last couple of years, Turkish-American relations have deteriorated at an unprecedented rate. For many Turks, this was simply another example of hatred against the Turks, this time coming from across the ocean. However, even in the more rational circles in Turkey, it is almost impossible to hear critical analysis concerning Turkey’s responsibility in the failing relationship.
Following a couple of very turbulent years in Turkey, which included the attempted coup d’état for which many in Turkey’s establishment directly accused the United States, one of the defining and most symbolic moments of the modern Turkish-American relationship happened on May 17, 2017. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was visiting the still newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump in his first visit following Trump’s presidential victory. In Turkey, all eyes were on this visit as the aim was to mend relations with the United States following the souring of sentiments in the final year of President Barack Obama’s term. Turks wanted no complications during this visit. However, it quickly became obvious that the understanding of the meaning of “complications” between Ankara and Washington differed greatly.
A group of peaceful protesters, most of them American citizens, gathered in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, where they protested against Turkey’s military incursion into Syria. In basic democratic fashion, they were just making a point and manifesting their opinions. President Erdoğan, who at that moment was in the car in front of the residence, saw the protesters, and as seen in the video, gestured at them to his guards surrounding him. The guards instantaneously rushed the protesters, and a melee began. Not worried about being caught on camera, the guards brutally attacked the peaceful protesters. As a result of the attack, one of the protesters, Murat Yasa, sustained brain damage.
The video quickly circulated the globe. For many in Turkey, this was just a thing that happens every once in a while during protests, and the images were not different from the Turkey they had gotten used to. As an example, the image of former Prime Minister’s advisor Yusuf Yerkel kicking a miner on the ground (during the 2014 protests following the collapse of a mine in Soma) was still fresh in the minds of many.
However, the security detail of a visiting foreign delegation cracking the skulls of peaceful protesters in downtown Washington resonated quite differently in the United States. Even with the saturation of the media space with the so-called “Russian collusion” affair at that time, the US media found enough interest to report on the brutal incident in front of a foreign ambassador’s residence. The story filled the front pages and prime time of almost all national media outlets. The beating of the protesters by an official security detail of a visiting delegation on the streets of the US capital city had been simply inconceivable up until that point. In an outrage, many commentators asked for a harsh and swift punishment for the perpetrators, and some, like the late Senator John McCain asked for the immediate expulsion of the Turkey’s ambassador from the US. More importantly, for the understanding of the overall sentiment in the American public, following this incident, many regular Americans, constituents, who had not heard of Mr Erdoğan before, learned of him in a very hard way. The image was created of a brute ready to attack American democracy on the American soil.
Turkish side officially saw the whole visit as a success in which a remarkable start of relations with Mr Trump was started. It seemed as if nobody on that side ever understood how big of a loss of the image for Turkey with the American public this was.
This was not the only incident where Erdoğan’s guards showed their brutal face. In Erdoğan’s recent Bosnia visit, guards clashed with the local police. Erdoğan’s guards did not want to hand their guns at the airport, as the Bosnian police insisted, and Turkish guards chose to respond with violence. Quickly following this, during Turkey’s President’s visit to Serbia, his wife Emine Erdoğan’s guards, decided to enter one of the cafes in Belgrade with their automatic guns. The guests in the cafe were disturbed by the guns, so the waiter and a couple of guests asked the Turkish guards to either leave their guns outside or leave altogether. The request ended with a hustle which ended with Serbian police who detaining the waiter and a couple of guests taking their personal information and statements.
Now Erdoğan seems to be prepping up for a new visit to the U.S. It is yet to be seen what kind of “adventures” Presidential guards will provoke this time!