Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday received the full White House treatment short of a state dinner, a reception meant to mollify a key ally whose had been humiliated only a week earlier when President Donald Trump authorized a Syrian war plan Erdogan had opposed.
Trump met Erdogan at the door, led him to an Oval Office meeting, stood next to him for joint statements and hosted him for lunch. It was a delicate balance after Trump had signed off on a plan vehemently opposed by Turkey that authorizes directly arming Syrian Kurds known as the YPG in the fight to take back the Islamic State capital of Raqqa in Syria.
It was important for Erdogan to be received with “protocol becoming of a top tier ally,” but it was also clear the meeting would not resolve any of the issues dividing Turkey and the United States, said Aaron Stein, an expert on U.S.- Turkish relations at the Atlantic Council.
“The Turks may have told themselves that they had one last chance to convince Trump, but the YPG ship sailed a long time ago,” he said.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Ultimately Erdogan did not get what he wanted from this meeting.
Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
In his brief remarks with Erdogan, Trump stuck to generalities. He spoke of the “common democratic values and common interests” of the two allies, praised their efforts in the fight against terrorism and promised “the relationship that we have together will be unbeatable.”
Despite the lip service and photo ops, however, there were many signs that the White House was distracted – by the firestorm that greeted news that Trump had revealed another nation’s classified intelligence to Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week. The distraction showed.
Trump told reporters he would have a “long, hard” discussion with Erdogan in the Oval Office, but their meeting lasted barely more than 20 minutes, even though the two men were speaking through a translator. Even though the meeting was meant to placate Erdogan, Trump repeatedly mispronounced the Turkish president’s last name.
His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who would usually have been preparing Trump on how to handle the sensitive meeting with Erdogan, was defending the president’s sharing of information with the Russians in a press briefing instead.
“The guy who should have been preparing him, as Susan Rice did with Obama, right to the moment that Erdogan walked through the door, was otherwise engaged,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Turkey had high hopes that Trump’s administration would be more sympathetic to their interests than President Barack Obama’s had been, until the White House’s announcement last week that it was going to directly arm Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Turkey has fiercely opposed any American support for the Peoples Protection Units, known as the YPG, saying the group is linked to an internationally recognized terrorist organization that has carried out attacks in Turkey. Turkish officials have insisted that the only acceptable option for the U.S.-led international coalition is to partner with Turkey’s own forces. The Pentagon, however, considers the YPG the most effective military partner against the Islamic State.
“The question is, given the fact that there was clearly insufficient preparation for this meeting on the U.S. end and it was more form than content, how much of an impact will this meeting have?” asked Aliriza.
Both leaders’ reaffirmation of the importance of U.S.-Turkey ties rang hollow on Tuesday. Erdogan’s pronouncement that his visit with Trump “will mark a historical turn of the tide” and set the “foundation of new era of relations between the two nations” seemed more like wishful thinking, experts said.
“Erdogan is not stupid. He knows he won’t get what he wants,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The question now is if he is going to use the (optics) of this meeting for his domestic base, and as a backdrop to further cement his turn from the West toward Russia and Asia.”
Erdogan met Vladimir Putin earlier this month in Sochi, where he told the Russian president that together Russia and Turkey can “change the destiny of the whole region.” Putin said that “Russian-Turkish relations are attaining a special character.”
The announcement to arm Syrian Kurds, considered terrorists by Turkey, is also being used by Erdogan’s government to stoke anti-American sentiment. In one example that was widely shared by Turkish media, a Turkish officer refused a medal of honor presented to him by the U.S. military at Incirlik Base over the Trump administration’s decision.
Turkey could also complicate matters by striking the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. Last month, U.S. troops were seen patrolling the Turkey-Syria border in armored vehicles, apparently in an attempt to deter Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces from attacking one another.
While the U.S. has made up its mind on partnering with the YPG, Turkey could still “throw a wrench into the gears of NATO,” Rubin said, a move Russia would be more than happy to support. “He can bring NATO to its knees.”
Ultimately both leaders seemed determined to make the meeting look like a success, at least from the outside.
Erdogan showed that he knew just how to flatter Trump, congratulating him on “the legendary triumph that he has garnered in the aftermath of the elections.”
Trump, in turn, praised Turkey as a “bastion against Soviet expansion” and said that “Turkish courage in war is legendary.” Standing next to Erdogan, Trump opened his remarks by speaking about the Korean War, speaking of the “great bravery” of Turkish soldiers who fought with U.S. forces.
“When you have to hearken all the way back to the Korean War to talk about your relationship, (things) aren’t going well now,” Aliriza said. “You talk about the past when you don’t want to talk about the present.”
The fact that Trump was receiving Erdogan at all was controversial in itself. He has acquired sweeping new powers after a controversial referendum in April, and has led a widespread crackdown on the opposition and journalists. Since a failed coup last summer, his government has arrested 41,000 people and purged more than 100,000 from its civil service. On Tuesday, anti-Erdogan protestors gathered outside the White House, and the Human Rights Foundation took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post titled “You Are Not Welcome.”
A bipartisan group of 81 members of Congress sent Trump a letter, urging him to press Erdogan on human rights abuses.
“Erdogan and his allies have mounted an assault on the rule of law, particularly using sweeping state of emergency authorities to stifle fundamental rights including free speech, undermine the independence of the judiciary, and quash any opposition to their undemocratic actions,” they wrote.