A human rights crisis is unfolding in Turkey as the government cracks down on journalists and dissidents three years after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan endured an attempted coup. Ruling with an iron fist and a case of paranoia, Erdoğan has been hostile to his people and to the outside world – friend and foe alike. In what appears to be President Donald Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, he wanted to improve diplomatic relations with an inimical leader. Did he make progress in his meeting?
‘Very Good Friends’
Trump hosted the Turkish leader at the White House on the same day as the impeachment inquiry hearings. Despite heightened tensions on many different policies, he offered a warm welcome to Erdoğan in what was considered a much-anticipated encounter.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, almost from Day 1. We understand each others’ country. We understand where we are coming from. They’re highly respected in their country and in the region,” he told Erdoğan in the Oval Office, adding that he is “a great fan” of the Turkish head of state.
The “productive” meeting consisted of plenty of pleasantries, but the two men could not reach a conclusion on several issues. Some of the matters discussed were the acquisition of a Russian missile defense system and the nation’s involvement in Syria.
Speaking at a joint news conference, Trump said that Turkey’s purchase of Moscow’s S-400 military equipment presents “some very serious challenges for us.” He is optimistic, averring that “hopefully we’ll be able to resolve that situation.” Erdoğan did note that he could be persuaded to use the American Patriot system in addition to the Russian platform.
Trump said that he thinks U.S. and Turkey can increase trade to as much as $100 billion, up from the current $24 billion estimate.
On the Syria file, there remains plenty of dispute. The U.S. is upset by Ankara’s push to drive out the Kurdish militia in the region and the government’s treatment of political opponents and journalists. On the other hand, Turkey is perturbed by Washington supporting Kurdish forces that it views as terrorist threats to the country. The Erdoğan regime is also irked that the U.S. did not extradite a Muslim cleric who is accused of putting together a coup attempt against the president in 2016.
However, President Erdoğan believes that the U.S. and Turkey can still work together to finally destroy the Islamic State and bring peace to Syria.
A Complicated Affair
Last month, President Trump aggravated the pro-war left and somewhat invigorated the anti-war right when he announced that he was taking U.S. troops out of northern Syria. To prevent the Turks from engaging in a full-fledged assault against Kurdish civilians and fighters in Syria, President Trump announced sanctions targeting Turkey’s economy and several government officials. In addition to the sanctions, Trump said he was suspending a $100 billion trade deal and would raise steel tariffs back up to 50%.
He revealed that he was “fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy,” should leaders decide to continue their attacks on the Kurds. Trump also penned a letter to Erdoğan:
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.”
Erdoğan reportedly tossed the letter in the trash.
A week later, President Trump announced that the U.S. would remove the sanctions on Turkey because of a “permanent” ceasefire in the conflict between the Kurds and Turkey in northern Syria. Admittedly, Trump remarked that the definition of permanent in this region of the globe is “questionable.” He also confirmed that some troops would stay in the area to protect the crude oil reserves, contradicting several of his aides.
As the two presidents lavished praise on each other, observers may have been wondering if this was all feigned. Like everything else in the Middle East, the political situation in Turkey is complex and irrational, requiring the White House to perform a balancing act of appeasing the Turks and the Kurds. This juggling was on full display during the press conference when Trump claimed that Erdoğan has a great relationship with the Kurds and that some Kurdish forces are “no angels.” At the same time, the president said he enjoyed sublime relations with the Kurds and “we’re with them now, we get along with them.” Can the two things be true at the same time? For an administration that would prefer Turkey as a friend instead of a foe, it needs to be.
Read more from Andrew Moran.