WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will welcome Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on Wednesday just weeks after the authoritarian leader invaded Syria and attacked U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, unleashing fresh violence and chaos in the Middle East.
The Trump-Erdogan meeting could prove to be a political hornet’s nest, provoking fresh bipartisan anger over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria in what many lawmakers saw as a betrayal of the Kurdish-led forces that helped American troops fight the Islamic State. Trump invited Erdogan to Washington during an Oct. 6 phone call, in which critics say Trump also gave Erdogan a green light to invade Syria.
The White House tete-a-tete – along with an ensuing joint news conference – will unfold as the House opens public impeachment hearings showcasing Trump’s relationship with another foreign leader, the president of Ukraine, even as lawmakers in both parties question Trump’s seemingly warm ties with Erdogan.
More than a dozen members of Congress recently called on Trump to rescind his invitation to Erdogan, saying the Turkish leader’s actions should not be rewarded with a high-profile White House visit.
“President Erdogan’s decision to invade northern Syria on October 9 has had disastrous consequences for U.S. national security, has led to deep divisions in the NATO alliance, and caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., wrote Friday in a letter that was signed by 16 other lawmakers, including two Republicans.
“Now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the United States,” they wrote.
Trump will have to perform a “high wire act” on Wednesday, trying to calm outraged lawmakers in Congress over his dealings with Erdogan, while also trying not to alienate the Turkish leader and NATO ally, said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington foreign policy institute.
Trump is “in danger of offending both sides, or at the very least pleasing neither,” he said.
Regardless, a senior administration official said Trump is convinced that “a full and frank engagement” is essential to addressing the challenges facing the two countries.
“This is nearly a 70-year alliance,” the official said. “It has helped both of our countries through very, very dark times. We are not going to throw it away lightly if there is a way forward.”
Meanwhile, U.S. reporters will almost certainly use Wednesday’s news conference to ask Trump about the impeachment proceedings, “underlining his weakness in foreign affairs,” Aliriza said. He noted that Trump’s foreign policy toward Ukraine sparked the impeachment probe, and now “here he is meeting in a controversial manner with Turkey’s president.”
Erdogan’s visit comes amid reports of ongoing clashes in Syria – and questions about whether Turkish-backed forces have engaged in ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. Turkey’s assault, along with the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria, has already prompted more than 180,000 civilians to flee the border areas, according to the United Nations.
Although the U.S. brokered a cease-fire between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not clear how well that is holding. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighting has continued this week between the SDF and forces loyal to Turkey. Russian and Syrian government troops have also moved in to fill the power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal.
“The combination of the U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria, Turkey’s military offensive and the Syrian government all combined has created the worst-case scenario for that region,” Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, told reporters earlier this week.
She and others urged Trump to use Edrogan’s visit to press him on alleged human-rights abuses and the perilous situation in Syria. But Trump has shown little interest in taking a hardline with Erdogan on Syria.
Instead, Trump will likely focus on trade negotiations and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian-made missile system, the S-400. Turkey received delivery of the Russian weapons system earlier this year, despite stern U.S. warnings against such a move.
The White House responded by canceling Turkey’s participation in the Pentagon’s elite Joint Strike Fighter program, saying the S-400 system could be used to collect sensitive data on the F-35 jet fighter program, making Turkey’s continued participation “impossible.”
Trump is now under pressure to impose stiff sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase, as well as for its Syria attack. The House approved a biting sanctions bill last month aimed at crippling Turkey’s economy and punishing Erdogan personally by requiring an assessment of his net worth.
In a recent letter to Erdogan leaked to Turkish media, Trump warned the Turkish president that he will have to impose sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 purchase soon – unless Turkey agrees not to activate the missile system and allows U.S. verification that it remains inoperative. According to a report in the Middle East Eye, Trump said if Erdogan accepted that proposal, the U.S. would allow Turkey back into the F-35 program and ink a bilateral trade deal worth $100 billion.
Erdogan, however, has said he is not interested in mothballing the S-400. And he will present his own set of demands, including pressing Trump to cut U.S. ties with Kurdish forces in Syria who Erdogan views as a terrorist group, and seeking the extradition of a Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan blames for inciting a failed coup attempt against him.
Aliriza and other Turkey experts said the two men will likely use the news conference to showcase their personal connection, but they are unlikely to accomplish anything that would improve U.S-Turkey relations.
“Erdogan has already got most of what Trump can give — protection from sanctions and carte blanche in Syria,” said Max Hoffman, associate director for national security and international policy at the Center for the American Progress, a liberal think tank.
“That augurs a headline-grabbing press conference to distract from impeachment, but with little follow-through,” Hoffman said.
Lawmakers may be more interested in what Trump and Erdogan discuss privately than anything they say at the joint news conference.
“By not rescinding his invitation, President Trump is once again coddling an authoritarian leader and sending a terrible message,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Since this meeting is moving forward, I urge congressional leadership to seek a full accounting of discussions.”