Trump-Erdogan Meeting: Abiding Friendship, Continuing Problems

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Donald Trump at the White House for the second time on November 13. As expected, the strength of their friendship was on full display during the unprecedentedly long portion of his workday that Trump chose to devote to Erdogan. Throughout their almost five hours together—from the formal welcome provided with the First Lady, through extensive bilateral talks in the Oval Office before and after lunch, a joint meeting with five Republican senators as well as an extended joint press conference—Trump endeavored to demonstrate his unshakable admiration for his guest together with his commitment to cooperate in tackling the problems in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
It is a time-honored Washington axiom that every White House meeting is condemned to success as both sides have every incentive to give it such an appearance. This is especially true in this case, as the two leaders seem to have a genuine friendship. However, despite the positive optics of their encounter, it remains to be seen if they will be able to continue to carry the relationship essentially on the back of their affinity with each other at a time when there is undeniable divergence in relations. There has been a proliferation of problematic items on the agenda and an exacerbation of existing issues, along with the growing insertion of a negative congressional factor into the equation. In this context, it is significant that Trump chose to go ahead with the meeting despite numerous appeals for cancellation from Congress, including by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
It is also noteworthy that Erdogan publicly aired his own serious reservations about the invitation, which had been extended by Trump on October 6, and confirmed it only after they had apparently been addressed in another phone conversation with him on November 6. Before boarding his plane for Washington, Erdogan acknowledged that the meeting was taking place in a “painful period” and that the prevailing situation in Washington was “murky,” even as he reaffirmed his belief that he would take the relationship into “a new era” with the U.S. president. Erdogan was thus making it clear that, while he recognized that the atmosphere in Washington surrounding his meeting with Trump was different to that at the time of their previous meeting at the White House on May 16, 2017, he had faith in Trump and wanted to confirm it by traveling to Washington.

Growing Strains

Two and a half years ago, Erdogan had every reason to hope that the new president would eliminate the serious strains that had developed in relations during President Barack Obama’s second term. Having established telephone contact with Trump on the very first day after his election through a trusted backchannel, Erdogan was understandably eager to take full advantage of Trump’s preference for direct interaction at the highest level as well as his demonstrated affinity for strong leaders. However, despite a number of warm meetings at international gatherings following their first meeting in Washington—periodic phone conversations and invariably friendly public comments about each other—the two men have not been able to halt the gradual deterioration in the long-term alliance.
To begin with, the major irritants for Ankara stretching back to the Obama era continued under Trump. The list comprised the continuing residence of Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen in the United States, despite strenuous Turkish efforts to obtain his extradition for involvement in the failed coup attempt of July 2016; the U.S. tactical alliance against the Islamic State with the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK); and the ongoing judicial and executive review of Turkish public bank Halkbank’s evasion of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The lack of positive movement on these issues despite all of Trump’s open and covert efforts did not only lead to increasing discomfort on the part of Erdogan but also to the growing unpopularity in which the United States is seen by the Turkish public. These issues certainly provided a backdrop to Turkey’s decision to go ahead with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The system was finally delivered in July 2019, over sustained objections by the United States, and inevitably made matters worse. Under increasing congressional pressure, the administration then began to phase out Turkey’s participation in the joint production of the F-35 fighter aircraft, while preventing the transportation to Turkey of the manufactured planes formally transferred to Turkish ownership, producing even greater strains in the relationship.
Relations effectively moved into crisis mode after Turkey sent troops, backed by Syrian opposition elements, into northeastern Syria on October 9 in pursuit of a buffer zone cleared of the YPG, following the telephone conversation three days earlier between Trump and Erdogan, which the latter interpreted as a green light to proceed to military action. Although Trump himself veered away from his initial willingness to implicitly accede to Erdogan’s move, most notably thorough a letter he sent on the day Turkey began its operation in which he used extremely undiplomatic language and offered to mediate between Erdogan and YPG commander Mazloum Kobani—returned by Erdogan at their meeting—then threatened to destroy Turkish economy in a series of tweets and actually imposed sanctions on Turkish ministers, the reaction from Congress was more important.
There was immediate and vehement congressional criticism of the Turkish action, as well as of Trump himself, coupled with the introduction of a number of draft bills designed to punish Turkey. While the ceasefire worked out on October 17 between Erdogan and a high-level U.S. team led by Vice President Mike Pence eased the strains between Trump and the Turkish leader, as confirmed by the prompt lifting of the sanctions, congressional resentments lingered. These eventually culminated with two lopsided House votes on October 29, a symbolically important Armenian Genocide resolution and a resolution condemning the Turkish military move in Syria, including sanction provisions, one of which targeted Erdogan himself.
Uncharacteristically, Erdogan chose to refrain from going beyond rhetorical denunciation of the highly offensive congressional action on the very day he was celebrating the ninety-sixth anniversary of the creation of the Turkish Republic. He did not withdraw his ambassador in Washington or announce countermeasures in response as might have been expected. Erdogan also decided against canceling his trip to Washington in order to show in the clearest way possible his faith in Trump’s willingness and ability to counter the anti-Turkey wave in Washington.
In his pre-departure comments outlining his expectations for the upcoming meeting with Trump, Erdogan focused on the situation in northeastern Syria after the Turkish military intervention, in particular, on the need for the complete expulsion of the YPG from the safe zone, the need for a complete break from the YPG and U.S. support for his plan to return Syrian refugees to northeastern Syria. He also confirmed that he would press yet again for the extradition of Gulen.
Trump’s own priority at the meeting was outlined in a letter sent to Erdogan days before his arrival, the existence and contents of which were pointedly not publicized by the Turkish side. The letter proposed that Turkey “not activate” the S-400 system delivered to Turkey in order to allow the resumption of Turkish participation in the F-35 program and progress towards the declared goal of achieving the $100 billion target in annual trade. This demand was underlined by a White House fact sheet released just as the two men were meeting, which explained that it was “vital to resolve this issue in order to achieve progress on other fronts.”   

The Oval Office Discussions  

The two men summarized their long discussions in their press conference at the end of the day and predictably chose to mostly emphasize the positive. In addition to once again declaring himself as “a big fan” of Erdogan and saying that he was “doing a fantastic job” for the Turkish people, Trump said that he had “a great relationship both personally with President Erdogan and with the great country of Turkey.” Erdogan responded by calling Trump “a dear friend” and stressed the “profound cooperation” between them “to open a new chapter in relations . . . by surmounting hurdles through dialogue.” They both reaffirmed their commitment to the pursuit of the $100 billion goal in trade as Trump referred to “tremendous progress” on this issue. Both men also stressed the importance of the ceasefire in northeastern Syria worked out after the Pence trip to Ankara with Trump expressing understanding for Turkey’s desire as explained by Erdogan to encourage the return of Syrian refugees.
However, existing differences were also aired by the two men. Erdogan took the opportunity to complain about the recent congressional resolutions, Gulen’s continued residence in the United States, and Trump’s dialogue with “a terrorist” like Kobani. Significantly, Trump refrained from taking the opportunity provided by a question from a Turkish reporter to condemn Kobani as a terrorist while defending himself by saying, “I also have a dialogue with President Erdogan.” He also confirmed the continuation of U.S. cooperation with the YPG, now focused on the protection of oil fields away from the Turkish border. Trump also indirectly revealed the absence of progress on the S-400 issue by saying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart, together with the two national security advisers, would continue to work on it.

The Congressional Factor

The fact that the Trump-Erdogan discussions in the Oval Office were expanded in a manner without precedent to include five Republican senators was a significant recognition of the growing congressional factor in the equation. By setting up a meeting in which the senators could convey their concerns relating to the S-400’s and Turkey’s military intervention directly to Erdogan, Trump was simultaneously demonstrating to the Turkish leader the difficulties he was facing in managing the  relationship in Washington, while trying to prevent the contagion of the demonstrated House zeal for action to the Senate. Speaking to reporters before they were ushered out, Senator Lindsey Graham characterized it as “an American civics lesson for our friends in Turkey.”
It is not clear if the unusual meeting—which the Turkish leader subsequently confirmed he was happy to accept and in which he took the opportunity to show a video to the senators to underline his argument that the YPG was a terrorist organization—was a success. In fact, all of the senators, with Graham and Joni Ernst to the fore, apparently pushed back on the video and Erdogan’s arguments on the YPG as well as on the S-400’s. Consequently, it seems clear that the combination of unhappiness on both issues will continue to drive congressional sentiment against Turkey, especially in the absence of a miraculous compromise on the missile system. Erdogan’s comments on the plane taking him back that Turkey would not “abandon the S-400’s” suggest that such a formula will be difficult to find.

Without an effective interagency process to implement his verbal agreements with Erdogan, Trump’s ability to impose direction on the U.S.-Turkey relationship is further constrained by his current problems in Congress. It is important to note that Trump met Erdogan on the first day of televised public hearings relating to the impeachment process in the Democratic-led House of Representatives. As a result, his dependence on Republican members of Congress is greater than ever. While they are continuing to side with Trump in the impeachment process, as evidenced by the fact that all House Republicans voted against the impeachment process on October 31, a huge majority of them broke with Trump openly on his  Turkey policy, in distinct contrast to their votes on almost every issue in Trump’s three years as president.
On his way back to Turkey, Erdogan commented that “circles opposed to Trump are the ones who are working actively to undermine relations.” In other words, Erdogan confirmed that he saw his meeting with Trump as bolstering solidarity with a friend committed to preserving his friendship with Turkey while fighting those who wanted to remove him and destroy the relationship. Although Senate action was put off because of Erdogan’s visit, there are indications that possible moves may be imminent in the coming weeks, thus providing yet another test for Trump and the relationship.
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