U.S. President Barack Obama has described Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the world leader in the Middle East with whom he has the closest relationship. But you wouldn’t know it, given the recent insults and reprimands various ministers in the Turkish government have hurled at the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, in addition to the very public backhanded attempt by Turkey to incite Syrian violence towards U.S. ally Israel.
Just a few days after a suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Turkey on February 1, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone, gave a lengthy press briefing which included a few mild rebukes. Ricciardone mentioned Turkey’s jailing of non-violent protesters and a lack of transparency regarding charges against a large number of imprisoned former military personnel and academics, as well as a limitation in Turkey’s international terrorism law.
The response to those remarks created a hailstorm of very public and very blunt attacks by many high level Turkish officials, all of which amounted to “get your nose out of our domestic business or get out.”
Ricciardone, a Fulbright Scholar who is fluent in Turkish, Arabic, French and Italian, was appointed to his current post by President Obama in 2011. The Ambassador has spent many years in various posts in the Middle East, and in 2001 was the Director of the State Department’s Coalition Against Terrorism.
In a reference to the dozens of Turkish nationals who were imprisoned after an alleged coup plot was uncovered, Ricciardone said, “You have your military leaders, who were entrusted with the protection of this country behind bars as if they were terrorists.”
He also said, “You have non-violent student protesters protesting tuition hikes behind bars. When a legal system produces such results and confuses people like that for terrorists, it makes it hard for American and European courts to match up.”
Ricciardone’s remarks ran more than a dozen pages long, most of which were complimentary about the host country. The points about which the Turks took greatest umbrage addressed the jailing of hundreds of members of the military in an alleged military coup.
That plot, known as “Sledgehammer,” was an alleged secularist military plan dating back to 2003. The suspects, all members of the Turkish military, allegedly planned to create havoc through coordinated acts of violence that included bombings throughout Turkey. The chaos would destabilize the government, thereby paving the way for a coup d’état. The Turkish military has successfully pulled out three coups since 1960.
In response to a journalist’s questions at the press event, Ricciardone said:
My point about the justice system though is that you are striving to improve it, your leaders, your ministers, have recognized the flaws in the justice system, among them being lengthy pre-trial detentions, lack of clarity in presenting charges, lack of transparency. Those are things your leaders – not your opposition, not foreign leaders – have spoken about.
But the response has been toxic.
AKP spokesman Huseyin Çelik vehemently censured the U.S. Ambassador for his remarks. Çelik was quoted in Turkish papers as saying on the private broadcasting channel Kanal A, “We are inviting Ricciardone to remain within his boundaries and limits. We are not pleased with [his remarks]; we condemn and denounce them. He should know his place.”
Çelik said of Ricciardone, “You are a diplomat; how can you make a judgment on those issues when you don’t even know the whole nature of the events and how the system works? Who gives you the right to question [the political and legal system]?”
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ also said Ricciardone should avoid making statements which could be considered an intervention into Turkey’s domestic laws. In what sounds very much like a warning, the Deputy Prime Minister said it will be better for both Turkey and the U.S. if the ambassador minds his own business.
“It would be better if Ricciardone minded his own business,” Bozdağ said. “Those are statements that do not bode well for his assignment in Turkey.”
Another Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç, said it was “inappropriate” for Ricciardone to have made his comments, explaining on a private broadcasting network SKY Turk, “there is a problem arising from the personality of the esteemed ambassador,” but, Arınç claimed, the ambassador has issued an apology letter which means “he is conscious that what he has done is not correct.”