(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s Islamist government on Tuesday hit back after the State Department criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for hosting leaders of Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said earlier that the U.S. “strongly objects” to the weekend meeting between Erdogan and Hamas leaders.
Erdogan posted on his official website a photo of his meeting with a Hamas delegation at the presidential mansion in Istanbul. Among the visitors were Hamas political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh and his deputy, Saleh al-Arouri.
Both men are specially-designated global terrorists, and al-Arouri is furthermore subject to a U.S. reward offer of up to $5 million, wanted for “involvement in multiple terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings.” Hamas itself has been a designated FTO since 1997.
“President Erdogan’s continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza,” Ortagus said.
“We continue to raise our concerns about the Turkish government’s relationship with Hamas at the highest levels,” she said.
Turkey’s foreign ministry rejected the criticism, calling Ortagus’ statement “excessive.”
The U.S. is in no position to speak, given its open support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its hosting of Fetullah Gulen, it said, referring in the latter case to an exiled Turkish cleric whom Erdogan accuses of trying to overthrow him in a failed 2016 coup attempt. Ankara has long sought to get Gulen extradited, without success.
Contrary to the ministry statement, the U.S. does not support the PKK, a group engaged in a long separatist conflict with the Turkish state, and which like Hamas has been designated as an FTO since the late 1990s.
The U.S. is, however, supportive of a Syrian Kurdish group, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which was an effective ally in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Syria.
The YPG is affiliated to the PKK, and Turkey says there is no distinction between the two.
Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, tweeted Tuesday that U.S. support for the YPG and “inaction” against Gulen’s group “are the two issues poisoning Turkey-US relations.”
‘I don’t see Hamas as a terror organization’
Hamas, founded in 1987 as the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and rocket attacks, including at least 15 Americans killed between 1993 and 2002.
In 2006 it won legislative elections in Gaza, and the following year violently seized control of the territory, ousting rival Palestinian faction Fatah. It has controlled Gaza ever since.
The so-called Mideast Quartet – the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia – has stipulated that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and be willing to abide by existing negotiated agreements with Israel, if it is to be viewed as a legitimate peace partner.
Erdogan, who has frequently hosted Hamas leaders, rejects the notion that the group – which also draws support from Iran and Qatar – is a terrorist organization.
“I don’t see Hamas as a terror organization,” he told U.S. broadcaster Charlie Rose in a 2011 interview. “It is a resistance movement trying to protect its country under occupation.”
His foreign ministry did so again on Tuesday.
“Describing the legitimate representative of Hamas, who came to power through democratic elections in Gaza and constitutes an important reality of the region, as a terrorist will not contribute to the efforts to establish peace and stability in the region,” it said.
The ministry said the Trump administration should seek a “sincere solution” to the conflict, “instead of using its power and influence in the region to serve Israel's interests exclusively.”
‘We have urged the government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions’
Turkey under the autocratic Erdogan has been an often vexing NATO ally, with deep differences with Washington over a range of issues.
President Trump is often criticized for saying complementary things about Erdogan – he did again in a video clip played on the first night of the Republican National Convention – but his State Department’s criticism of Erdogan this week was arguably stronger than its predecessor’s on a previous occasion when the Turkish leader hosted the terrorist group.
In December 2014, Erdogan met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who was then welcomed onto the platform as a special guest at a congress of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), delivering a brief speech.
Invited at the time to respond, then-State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said he did not have “any comment to offer.”
Pressed again the following day, Rathke said the administration continues to view Hamas as a terrorist organization, and “we continue to raise our concerns about the relationship between Hamas and Turkey with senior Turkish officials.”
“Is that the extent of it?” a reporter asked. “You just say we’re concerned? I mean, this is a NATO ally hosting an avowed enemy of one of your biggest allies.”
“Well, we have urged the government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions and prevent violence,” Rathke replied.
Asked whether the administration had raised the issue of Meshaal’s visit specifically with Turkey’s prime minister – who had ushered the terrorist onto the AKP stage – he said he did not know exactly to whom the objections were aired.
“But we’ve raised it at senior levels with Turkey.”