President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 Japan Summit Saturday, June 29, 2019, in Osaka, Japan.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 Japan Summit Saturday, June 29, 2019, in Osaka, Japan. White House / Shealah Craighead

Erdoğan Defies Trump. So Why Do They Get Along?

The two have undeniable personal chemistry, but their countries are drifting apart.

He defied the United States repeatedly, bought Russian weapons, and assaulted American partners in Syria. Now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is headed to the White House for a meeting with Donald Trump. So will he get away with it? Probably.

The past few years show a pretty clear pattern: When Turkey released the detained American pastor Andrew Brunson, Trump lifted sanctions he’d imposed to get Brunson back; when Turkey insisted it would move forward with the purchase of a Russian air-defense system, Trump demurred from imposing retaliatory sanctions mandated by U.S. law. And despite the bipartisan outcry over Turkey’s move against Kurdish forces in Syria, Congress has yet to meaningfully retaliate. The Trump administration, which initially sanctionedTurkey for the incursion, lifted that punishment after getting a cease-fire that left most of Turkey’s gains in place. Senators are complaining about reports that even that agreement is being violated, but so far the administration is still “monitoring” the situation.

So you might think Erdoğan would be in pretty good spirits as he alights in Washington. Sure, he’s unpopular here, but he and Trump seem to have a good personal rapport and are only too happy to work around their respective bureaucracies. (“The U.S. has an established order that we call a deep state; of course they are obstructing,” Erdoğan has said. Trump has made much the same complaint about his own government.)    

“Our president is maintaining a powerful dialogue with Trump,” Ömer Çelik, the chief spokesman for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), told us. He characterized both men as “direct” talkers. “A conversation between two straightforward people continues even during a crisis,” he said.

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Those straightforward conversations have also included Trump telling Erdoğan “Don’t be a fool!” in a colorfully blunt letter dated the day the incursion into northeastern Syria started; and Erdoğan’s dismissal of the missive (“There’s no point to dwell on this letter,” he told reporters after he reportedly threw it away). But on Syria in early October they seemed to have some mutual interests; Erdoğan wanted U.S. troops out of the way, and Trump wanted U.S. troops out altogether.

So at the end of a fateful phone call that month, and at Erdoğan’s insistence, Trump agreed to remove some Special Forces from two outposts near the Turkish border without consulting America’s Kurdish partners. That sudden move allowed Erdoğan to push Kurdish forces from a buffer zone along the Turkish border, for now. But picking America’s NATO ally over its local partner was never going to be enough to make up for what the Turks see as the original sin, committed in the Obama administration, of supporting Kurdish armed groups against ISIS in the first place. Where the U.S. saw capable fighters, willing to sacrifice in large numbers to help defeat a terrorist organization that posed a global threat, Turkey saw the Syrian branch of its own country’s long-boiling Kurdish insurgency, led by the PKK, which is itself listed as a terrorist group by the United States. “The weapons which the terrorist organization uses against us are given to them by our ally,” Çelik said. Erdoğan would prefer Trump stop supporting the Syrian Kurdish fighters altogether.

But he won’t get that. There are some things personal chemistry just can’t fix. “Even when Trump decides something, he sometimes cannot implement it,” Kılıç Kanat, the D.C.-based research director at SETA, a pro-Turkish-government think tank, told us. At the same time, not only is there “total confusion and lack of clarity” about U.S. objectives in Syria, he said, but “Congress is ready to stop any of Trump’s overtures to Erdoğan in the next two weeks.”

Some congressional leaders, in fact, tried to stop the White House visit altogether, with a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 17 lawmakers urgingTrump to cancel. The meeting is still happening, but lawmakers did at least manage to heighten the discomfort: The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution to recognize the Ottoman Turks’ mass killing of Armenians in World War I as a genocide—something Turkey’s advocates in Washington have fought for years. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a co-sponsor of a bill that would sanction Turkey for its Syria incursion, said in a speech yesterday that Trump was “rewarding” Erdoğan for “thumbing his nose at the United States” with “a coveted White House visit.”

Elsewhere in the U.S. bureaucracy, the military continues to support Kurdish forces in much of eastern Syria, save for Turkey’s new buffer zone; the spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS mission even held a joint press conferencewith the Kurdish-led forces’ spokesman this week. The White House apparently supports them, too—a senior administration official speaking on a background call to reporters yesterday emphasized that the U.S. intended to continue the partnership. The only thing standing in the way of sanctions for Turkey’s Syria incursion, which killed more than 100 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who so far has not brought any of at least two such bills to the floor.

Meanwhile, Trump’s own national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told CBS on Sunday that the administration would likely impose sanctions if Turkey doesn’t get rid of its Russian-made air-defense system, the S-400, and “that’s a message that the president will deliver to him very clearly when he’s here in Washington.” (Senior administration officials on the background call emphasized diplomacy, not sanctions.)  

Whether Erdoğan is receptive to any messages from the White House is another question. “This is also a matter of a state’s honor,” Abdullah Ağar, a former Turkish military officer and security analyst, told us. It’s a matter of trust, too—even if Trump offers a “great deal” for Turkey to abandon the weapons system, Erdoğan knows he might not be able to follow through.

Whatever their personal relationship, Trump and Erdoğan are coming together with some requests the other side can’t really honor. The U.S. military won’t completely sever relations with Kurdish fighters in Syria; Erdoğan is unlikely to give up his Russian air defense system. For all the two have in common—including their mutual love of “straight talk”—the visit may amount to a date night in a marriage that’s fundamentally beyond repair.