“I’m a big fan of the president,” Donald Trump said of his guest Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the autocratic Turkish leader whose military and allies recently chased American troops and partners from northern Syria. Then Erdogan stepped to the microphones at Wednesday’s White House press conference and laid into the United States.
Standing in the East Room, the Turkish leader dismissed the U.S. approach in Syria, branded U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters as “terrorists,” rapped Congress over proposed sanctions and Armenian genocide measures, and said the Pentagon’s refusal to supply Patriot missile batteries was an “injustice” that forced Turkey into Russia’s arms.
All these issues can be resolved through dialogue, Erdogan said, painting Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and NATO as better than they actually are, and showing no signs of budging on any of them.
This was exactly the moment senior Republican and Democratic national security leaders tried to avoid. But it was a moment many U.S. and NATO leaders think was necessary.
For weeks, members of Congress from both parties had called on Trump to uninvite the Turkish president, to deny reward to a leader who increasingly has become a pariah of NATO and the democratic community. Instead, Trump invited Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others to meet Erdogan in the White House. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.Y., turned down the invitation and instead delivered a floor speech noting 10 grievances with Turkey and condemning Trump for staging Erdogan’s visit.
Menendez and other critics are furious at Trump for pulling U.S. troops from northern Syria last month at Erdogan’s insistence, which they argue ceded a strategic foothold to Russia and Syria, allowed Turkey and Turkish-backed forces to seize Syrian land, and opened U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters to attack. They are angry that Turkey has cozied up toward Moscow, bought the Russian S-400 anti-missile battery, and willfully disqualified themselves from the network of countries that fly the advanced F-35 fighter jet. And, they argue, Erdogan and his regime have strayed into autocracy, with a long list of human rights and political power abuses that could justify ejecting Turkey from NATO and other in international institutions.
Yet other security leaders say the visit may help keep a bad situation from getting worse.
NATO members, U.S. military leaders, and some lawmakers and appear to be doing all they can to keep Turkey — and the Turkish military — close to Washington, Europe, and the alliance, hoping to prevent Erdogan from moving further down its path toward Russia.
Fighting ISIS, or not
Trump, long known for praising authoritarian leaders, was no less effusive for Erdogan and his government. “Turkey, as everyone knows, is a great NATO ally, and a strategic partner of the United States around the world,” he said. “We’re grateful to President Erdogan and to the citizens of Turkey for their cooperation in the constant struggle against terrorism. He fights it like we do.”
Yet Turkey and Turkish forces do not fight like U.S. troops, it seems. In the weeks since the incursion began, U.S. intelligence, independent human rights watchers, and journalists have documented potential war crimes, including direct attacks on civilians. Trump’s only nod to these allegations came in his prepared opening remarks: “We’ve assured each other that Turkey will continue to uphold what it’s supposed to uphold.”
Among those trying to keep Turkey closer to NATO than Moscow is alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who is in Washington this week to meet Trump and leaders of the global counter-ISIS coalition. He has had the unenviable job of walking the line between Ankara and the rest of the alliance, even as some wonder whether NATO should cut Turkey loose.
“There are different views, but we agree on several things, including that Turkey has legitimate security concerns,” Stoltenberg said in October. Last week in Berlin, he added, “I have expressed my deep concern about the consequences of the incursion into northern Syria, and I also stated clearly that we must not jeopardize the gains, the progress we have made in the fight against ISIS.”
The world will be watching how NATO leaders treat Erdogan in next month’s London summit, looking for cracks in the alliance’s armor.
The press was allowed to watch the opening minutes of Erdogan’s Wednesday meeting with Trump and members of Congress. Some lawmakers kept their remarks cordial.
“As previously stated, we do want to remain very strong allies in NATO. You are very important to us. So we want to bring you back into that fold. We want to discuss the S-400,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, D-Iowa.
Added Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., “My goal here and I think all of our goal here is, at the end of this meeting, we’re in a better position where we’re better allies; where we understand exactly what’s going to happen with the S-400; so it’s not — so Turkey is heading in the direction of the United States, not heading the direction of Russia.”
To that, Trump said, “Right. Very good. It’s true.”
But then Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, piped up. “The Kurds have risked a lot to stand with America to fight against our shared enemies, and there is very real concern that we do not want to see Turkey engaged in offensive action against the Kurds.” He called that and the S-400 buy issues that are “real and significant.”
Erodgan quickly asked to interject, and Trump permitted him. “First and foremost, we have to make a distinction here — the Kurds and the terrorists.” He detailed Turkey’s own Kurdish population and his work to take in refugees, saying, “I assume the ones that you’re referring to as Kurds are either PYD or YPG. These are terrorist organizations and they are the offshoots of the PKK. And I would like to submit to your party some documents, specifically.”
Erdogan continued to cite Turkey’s refugee assistance efforts for Kurds. Trump did not counter Erodgan’s SDF characterization. A reporter shouted a final question about the S-400, and Trump thanked the press and ended the photo op.
“I project that we will work something out with Turkey. I think it will work out fine. Okay? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”