Erdogan and Trump at the NATO Summit: Another Display of Solidarity

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s trip to London for the NATO Leaders Meeting on December 3-4 produced mixed results. While he could not have been happy with the lack of a clear response to his demand for support from allies for Turkey’s fight against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the related effort to resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey in northeastern Syria, he was surely gratified by the opportunity for yet another display of his close relationship with U.S. president Donald Trump.

A senior Trump administration official had stated on November 29 that there was no scheduled meeting between the two men on the president’s program and that there was no need for one as the two men had recently met at the White House on November 13. However, Trump not only found time for a meeting with Erdogan but also went out of his way in his public comments at other meetings to laud his close friendship with him and to praise the U.S.-Turkish relationship in the face of growing criticism from some NATO leaders and Congress.

In his comments before leaving for London on December 3, Erdogan chose to avoid speculation about a possible meeting with Trump even as he outlined his goals at the summit. Erdogan said, “Turkey has a critical role in the fight against terror and the prevention of a migration influx and, in this respect, Turkey is an indispensable partner of NATO.” He said that he expected Turkey’s allies “to display strong cooperation against the threats we are facing." Having blocked NATO’s Graduated Response Plan (GRP) to aid Poland and the Baltic countries prior to the summit to show his country’s firm stance on this issue, Erdogan warned, “If our friends at NATO do not recognize as a terrorist organization what we consider to be a terrorist organization and conduct operations against, we will oppose any step that will be taken there.”

Expanding his argument, Erdogan continued: “It is now imperative for NATO to adapt itself to contemporary threats. In this context, we are looking for very strong support from our allies with respect to the ongoing attacks on our country.” Identifying Turkey as “an indispensable NATO partner” because of its role as a bulwark against “developments beyond its southern border affecting not just Turkey but Europe and all our allies,” Erdogan said that he would deliver this message in London “in the clearest fashion while asking for a principled stand against terror.”

Identifying “uncontrolled refugee movement” as an equally important “threat to Euro-Atlantic stability,” Erdogan confirmed that he intended to ask for support on this issue as well at a separate meeting on the margins of the summit with British prime minister Boris Johnson, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and French president Emmanuel Macron. Erdogan said he would give them an update on the latest situation in northeastern Syria after the Turkish military operation and “explain again our plan for the return of refugees to the safe zone . . . between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, 120 km long and 32 km deep. We will then let the world know if they are interested and supportive or if they are not.”

Reflecting the views of the U.S. national security establishment, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had commented on Turkey’s stance on the way to the summit. Esper said, “The message to Turkey . . . is we need to move forward on these response plans, and it can’t be held up by their own particular concerns.” Asked whether the administration would designate the YPG as a terrorist organization, Esper replied, “I wouldn’t support that. We’re going to stick to our positions, and I think NATO will as well.”

Macron also weighed in against Erdogan in his own comments prior to the summit. He said that he supported NATO developing wider goals, including combating terrorism, but added: “I am sorry we do not have the same definition of terrorism around the table. When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fight with us, who fought with us, shoulder to shoulder, against ISIS. And sometimes they work with ISIS proxies.” Macron added, “I understand they now want to block all the declarations of this summit unless we agree with their definition of terrorism. It is not our definition.” For good measure, he claimed it was not “technically possible for Turkey to be a member of the NATO alliance and to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system.”

Macron’s comments were clearly a reflection of his anger at Erdogan’s charge that it was Macron’s brain that was dead and not NATO’s, as Macron had suggested the week before. At his own testy pre-summit meeting with the French president, Trump added his voice to Erdogan’s criticism of Macron’s evaluation of NATO. Trump strongly defended Erdogan by saying, “Well, I can only say we have a very good relationship with Turkey and with President Erdogan—I do. I can’t speak for the president of France.” Turning to northeastern Syria, Trump said, “We pulled our soldiers out, and we said you can patrol your own border now, we don’t care who you do it with.”

In response to a question at his meeting with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg from a reporter wanting to know whether there was “still a place for Turkey in NATO after its invasion of Syria a couple weeks ago,” Trump again said he had “a good relationship with Turkey.” He continued, “We left their border. We’ve been on their border long enough. They’re doing just fine on their border.” Trump’s remarks prompted Stoltenberg to provide his own positive perspective by saying “They’re bordering Iraq and Syria, the only ally that borders that part of the world . . . So, in the fight against ISIS, Turkey has played a key role.”

To the disappointment of Erdogan, the official declaration after the NATO summit did not designate the YPG as a common terrorist threat as he had demanded. It restricted itself to a reaffirmation of a general “commitment to the fight against terrorism” even as it approved the GRP previously blocked by Turkey. In his post-summit press conference, Stoltenberg noted, “It’s well known that there are different views among NATO allies on how to designate YPG and PYD, the Kurdish groups in Syria. That’s publicly known. It was not addressed specifically in the meeting today. But it is an issue which has been discussed among NATO allies, and it is widely known that there are different views on that.” Stoltenberg also commented on the S-400 issue, saying once again that while it was “a national, Turkish decision, many allies had expressed concerns. I also expressed my concerns about the consequences of that decision.”

In his own comments about the summit to Turkish journalists on December 5, Erdogan confirmed that he had responded to appeals for assent on the GRP from Stoltenberg, Merkel, and the Polish president as well as Macron. He added, “After discussing it with my team, we said yes but on condition that you will not leave us alone in our fight against terrorism.” Expressing skepticism about the extent of likely support, Erdogan continued, “When we look at the statements and speeches at the NATO summit, they all say they are against terrorism. Unfortunately, this is not followed by concrete action. We hope that this will not be the case in the future. If everybody stood behind their words, we would have a much easier task in our struggle against terrorism.” Pointedly excluding the United States from specific criticism on this issue, Erdogan continued, “However, we are disappointed to see the cooperation between some of our allies and terrorist groups even as they stress the importance of the struggle against terrorism. All our allies need to take our security concerns as seriously as we take concerns over security threats to the alliance. We stressed this both at the summit as well as in our bilateral meetings.”

Erdogan’s side meeting with Johnson, Merkel, and Macron, which must have been especially awkward because of the Erdogan-Macron spat, had also failed to yield concrete results. A statement issued by the British prime minister’s office after the meeting merely stated that “the leaders said they would work to create the conditions for the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of refugees and that the fight must be continued against terrorism in all its forms” and that they had agreed “that meetings in this format should continue.”

Erdogan confirmed that he had asked for specific assistance at the meeting for Turkey’s efforts in northeastern Syria. He said, “You say, we are grateful to Turkey for hosting almost 4 million refugees . . . The European Union had promised 6 billion Euros in two tranches . . . Only 3 billion was sent and then it stopped.” He said that he had requested “logistical support in helping to jointly secure the area between Tel Abyad and Rasul Ayn” and found understanding on the part of his interlocutors, “especially Johnson” and that they had agreed to meet again in Istanbul in February. A journalist close to Erdogan wrote on December 5 that the original Turkish plan for the resettlement of up to 2 million refugees across the entire area below the Turkey-Syria border from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border at a cost of 23.6 billion Euros had in fact been narrowed to the area between Tel Abyad and Rasul Ayn at an initial cost of 5 billion Euros.

In his response to a question at his meeting with Stoltenberg about whether he would meet with Erdogan, Trump had said, “I may. I have a very good relationship . . . I don’t know if it’s on the schedule. But if it isn’t, I would.” Predictably, Trump managed to find time for an unscheduled meeting with his Turkish counterpart. The brief readout issued by a White House spokesperson, after the Turkish delegation had announced that the meeting had taken place, blandly stated that the two men had “discussed the importance of Turkey fulfilling its alliance commitments, further strengthening commerce through boosting bilateral trade by $100 billion, regional security challenges, and energy security.”

In his own comments on his encounter with Erdogan before his meeting with Merkel, Trump said, “It was a very good meeting. We discussed Syria. We discussed the Kurds. We discussed numerous things.” Confirming once again that he was “getting along very well” with Erdogan, Trump continued, “The border, and the safe zone, is working out very well, and I give a lot of credit to Turkey for that. We pulled our soldiers out . . . They can police their own border, and they have been doing that on the border and the safe zone.” Before his meeting with Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, Trump was asked if he had “convinced Erdogan to get of the S-400.” He responded by saying, “We talked about it a little bit. You’ll be hearing about it.”

It is worth noting that Trump had addressed the issue in longer fashion in line with his previously articulated position before his meeting with Macron. He had said, “As you know, Turkey wanted to buy our Patriot system, and the Obama administration wouldn’t let them.” Reiterating his view that Turkey should receive the F-35s, blocked because of the S-400 purchase, Trump continued by saying that Turkey had “one of the largest orders of F-35s, which is the greatest fighter jet in the world. And now they’re going to go to another country, whether it’s Russia or China. They don’t want to do that; they want to buy the best planes. But they are making it very difficult for themselves, they are also making it difficult in Washington for them to buy that plane. They’ve already put up billions of dollars; they’ve given it to Lockheed Martin.”

In his comments on the meeting with Trump to Turkish journalists, Erdogan made a point of saying that it was “very significant” for the U.S. president to “line himself up alongside the truth” in his remarks at the meeting with Macron. Erdogan then characterized their own meeting as “quite productive” and continued by saying, “We brought on to our agenda some areas of concern and discussed them again. We will focus on our work to raise bilateral trade to $100 billion. We also reviewed the NATO summit and regional issues. The colleagues we assigned to work on the S-400 and F-35 issue will continue their work.”

Although their second meeting in just over three weeks demonstrated in the clearest manner possible the strength of their abiding friendship, the strident comments from Macron at the summit served to highlight the extent to which the Trump-Erdogan axis was at variance with the developing negative opinion on Turkey within NATO. Even more significantly, it stands in contrast to the hardening attitude in Congress, including among some of Trump’s staunchest Republican allies.

On December 3, for example, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee James Risch (R-ID) was quoted by Defense News as saying that Congress would soon move to sanction Turkey. He said, “I’ve told them: ‘You cannot have S-400 missiles and the F-35, you can’t do it.’ And I think they really didn’t believe us.” Referring to his meeting along with four other Republican senators at the White House on November 13 on this issue, Risch added, “I’m hoping that after the discussion I had with Erdogan directly, he now knows where we are that no military hardware leaves the country without me signing off on it . . . I told him: ‘We have five F-35s right here with your name on them. They are not going to Turkey as long as you have S-400s in the country.’” Risch revealed that at their meeting Erdogan had been “presented with a plan that would allow him to get out of the hole he’s dug himself into. He couldn’t have the S-400, but we could get him out of it without there being any financial detriment to them. I can’t go into the details of it, but he didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no.”

Risch noted that he had been willing to hold off on sanctions, even after the House passed the Protect Against Conflict by Turkey Act in a lopsided vote, until he heard that Erdogan had said on his way home that he would not give up on the S-400s. Risch continued, “Well, I’m going to take him at his word. So it’s my intent to move ahead with it sooner rather than later.” In similar vein, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who have long been at the forefront of the pro-sanction sentiment in Congress and have drafted their own sanctions bill, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on December 2 asking him to apply sanctions as required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Referring to Turkey’s test of the S-400 system on November 25, the two senators warned that “The time for patience has long expired. It is time you applied the law.” It remains to be seen how exactly Trump, who has steadfastly resisted the application of CAATSA sanctions on Turkey so far, as he showed by his response to a journalist’s question in London that he was still “looking at it,” will continue to balance his abiding friendship with Erdogan and growing congressional demands for action.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C .

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program