November 14, 2019
On Wednesday, President Erdoğan made his long-anticipated visit to Washington. At the White House, he met not only with President Trump but also senators Joni Ernst, Jim Risch, Ted Cruz, Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham, one of President Trump’s staunchest allies.
Senator Joni Ernst, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, had issued a statement days after Turkey’s incursion in Syria saying:
“The recent actions by Turkey in Syria are dangerously alarming… The United States has worked side-by-side with our Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS; and with our withdrawal from the region, we’re abandoning a strategic partner, emboldening our adversaries—like Iran and Russia—and reversing course on our goal of maintaining peace and stability.
“Today’s action by the administration signals they are ready to apply pressure on Turkey for their aggression, and that’s the right move…”
On October 22, Jim Risch, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a hearing on Turkey’s incursion in Syria, had said, “Let me be clear, Turkey’s misguided invasion into northern Syria now threatens to unravel all of the progress the U.S. and our partners have fought so hard to achieve.”
On October 7, Senator Ted Cruz had tweeted, “It would also be DISGRACEFUL if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do. Kurds risked their lives—for many years—to fight alongside us.”
In a statement issued on September 11, Senator Rick Scott had said:
“I’ve been greatly concerned about Turkey siding with Russia over NATO, culminating in their purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system. As I have previously stated, it is time for the Administration to declare this sale a significant transaction under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), and fully implement the sanctions required under CAATSA. NATO exists to safeguard freedom and democracy – in particular because of the threats from Russia – and Turkey’s actions actively undermine these goals.”
On October 13, Senator Lindsey Graham had said:
“Turkey’s day of reckoning is coming for their outrageous assault on Kurdish Syrians. I’m leading the effort in Congress to work with the President on the most crippling sanctions since the Iran sanctions. Turkeys misadventure in Syria, if left unchecked, will destabilize the Middle East as much as Iran — to the detriment of the United States and our allies.”
In brief, the Senators who joined the two Presidents at the White House were critics of Turkey. Under normal circumstances President Erdoğan would have met congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle in one or two meetings outside the White House. However, at this critical juncture such meetings would probably have done more damage to the Turkish-American relationship than good. So, having Mr. Erdoğan meet with his Republican critics at the White House was a clever arrangement. What the Democrats may think and say about it now and in the future is another matter. And, the implications for Turkey of their being sidelined during the visit remains to be seen.
In his remarks to the press both before and after their meeting, President Trump again heaped words of praise on his guest as he had done during latter’s last visit on May 16, 2017.
On that occasion Mr. Trump had said:
“Today we face a new enemy in the fight against terrorism, and again we seek to face this threat together. The Turkish people have faced horrible terrorist attacks in recent years and even recently. We offer our compassion to the victims, and we offer our support to the Turkish nation.
“We support Turkey in the first fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter, the terror groups.”
This time, referring to the safe zone understanding between Ankara and Washington he said, “The border is holding very well. The ceasefire is holding very well. We’ve been speaking to the Kurds, and they seem to be very satisfied.”
He drew a bright picture for the future of Turkish-American relations. He defined Turkey as a great NATO ally and a strategic partner of the US around the world. He said the economic relationship has tremendous potential and continues to expand. He added that the bilateral trade volume could easily go up from 20 billion to 100 billion dollars which would be great for Turkey and the US. He thanked President Erdoğan for his partnership and cooperation as they worked to build a more stable, peaceful and prosperous Middle East. He praised Turkey’s defense spending. He mentioned Turkey’s contribution to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and its partnership in the destruction of the ISIS caliphate. He said American Foreign Military Sales to Turkey total many billions of dollars, and Turkey supplies component parts to many American defense programs like the F-35. Then he added:
“Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military equipment, such as the S-400, creates some very serious challenges for us, and we are talking about it constantly. We talked about it today. We’re talking about it in the future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to resolve that situation.”
And, in response to a question on Mazlum Kobani he said:
“Well, I had a very good talk with him. We had a very good — recently. And we’re working very closely together, and we’re also working very closely together with your great President. And a lot of things are happening. A lot of very positive developments are happening.”
Throughout his remarks to the press President Erdoğan also underlined the strength of Turkish-American partnership. He took particular care to stress the distinction between the “Kurds” and the PKK/YPG. He avoided any mention the S400s.
An immediate result of the visit has been the blocking by Senator Graham of an “Armenian genocide” resolution which was passed in the House of Representatives by a 405-11 vote. This must have pleased the Turkish side.
In concluding my previous post, I said that the maximum the visit can achieve would be a respite for damage control for the uneasy alliance. That remains my view. The visit has provided an opportunity for the American side to explain first-hand to President Erdoğan Washington’s worries regarding the future of Turkey’s relations with the US, in particular Ankara’s purchase of S400s. After all, frank exchange of views is part of being allies.
Senator Ted Cruz, probably summarizing the gist of Washington’s expectations from Ankara issued the following statement after the White House meeting with President Erdoğan:
“I have always described Turkey as an ally – a deeply problematic ally, but an ally nonetheless, in a very troubled region of the world. I went to the White House today to tell President Erdogan exactly that. While our alliance with Turkey is important to maintaining U.S. national security interests, Turkey’s assault against our Kurdish allies, who have a long history of standing with America against our enemies, is absolutely unacceptable. I also made clear to President Erdogan that so long as Turkey continues to procure or deploy the S-400 air defense system from Russia, the U.S. will not sell F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.”
As President Trump mentioned a number of times during remarks to the press, the ceasefire in northern Syria is holding and that is good. But what happens with the S400s seems to have become an overarching question.