WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Despite strong Congressional opposition to the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington, his discussions on Wednesday with President Donald Trump passed uneventfully, even as it did not appear that any of the outstanding issues between the US and Turkey had been resolved.
Trump held over three hours of meetings with Erdogan, including one attended by five Republican senators, intended to ease Congressional pressure to impose economic sanctions on Turkey.
In the joint press conference held by the two presidents at the end of the day, Trump proclaimed, “We had a wonderful and a very productive meeting,” before announcing that he was a “big fan” of the Turkish president.
Trump began by thanking Erdogan for releasing Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American scientist, whom Ankara had detained on spurious charges following the abortive 2016 coup.
Trump also hailed the US “economic relationship” with Turkey, which “continues to expand and grow,” while he praised Turkey, as a NATO member, for spending nearly 2% of its GDP on defense—a target the alliance set in 2014 to be realized over the next decade.
For his part, Erdogan emphasized what he described as Turkey’s central role in fighting the Islamic State and hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, at a cost of over $40 billion.
However, many statements of the two leaders seemed to ring hollow or pointed to fundamental, unresolved problems.
Trump claimed that the ceasefire negotiated by Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Oct 17 was “moving forward and moving forward at a very rapid clip.”
But the fighting continues and includes attacks on villages inhabited by Christians, whom the Trump administration has particularly promised to protect.
Moreover, the most senior State Department official in northeast Syria, Amb. William Roebuck, has compiled a long report explaining that Turkish-backed militias are carrying out “war crimes and ethnic cleansing.”
Yet, at Wednesday’s press conference, Erdogan essentially announced the next phase in his plan for a massive population transfer that would create an “Arab belt” between Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria and Kurdish-inhabited areas of Turkey.
Erdogan affirmed that “one million people can be repatriated” to the “safe zone” in northern Syria that Turkey is carving out: some 444 kilometers long and 32 kilometers deep.
Those Syrians are overwhelmingly Arab and not originally from that area.
Erdogan also said that another one million Syrians could be moved to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, “so a total of two million refugees can be repatriated.”
“We have shared our projects with President Trump and our several plans for the safe zone,” Erdogan affirmed.
The issue of Turkey’s treatment of Kurds arose several times, most extensively when Kurdistan 24’s Rahim Rashidi raised the issue with Trump and Erdogan, asking Trump what US policy was toward the Kurds and asking Erdogan whether he could not envisage a relationship with Syrian Kurds, like Turkey has with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Trump replied first. “We’ve had a great relationship with the Kurds,” he stated. “We fought with them very successfully against ISIS.”
Trump also vouched for Erdogan, saying, “I think the President has a great relationship with the Kurds.” Noting that Turkey has a large Kurdish population, Trump added, “They’re happy and they’re taken care of, including healthcare” and “education and other things.”
Erdogan then spoke, drawing a distinction as he had done earlier, between the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which he called an “offshoot of the terrorist organization, PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party)” and Kurds more generally.
“Just as we have no problems with our brothers and sisters in the northern part of Iraq, where we enjoy great relations, we have no problems, similarly, [with] our brothers and sisters in the northern part of Syria,” he said.
Neither Trump nor Erdogan made any mention of the refugees generated by Turkey’s cross-border offensive: some 16,000 residents of northern Syria have fled to the Kurdistan Region, with more arriving every day.
Erdogan also claimed that his AKP (Justice and Development Party) includes “more than 50 MPs of Kurdish ethnicity in the Turkish parliament,” as he repeated, “we don’t have problems with Kurds, but we have problems with terrorists.”
Yet that does not explain the repression of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which finished fourth in the June 2015 elections, winning 81 seats. The head of the party, Selahattin Demirtaş, has been imprisoned since 2016, and ten other HDP members are also in jail.
For Washington, the biggest issue, perhaps, in its relations with Ankara is Turkey’s purchase of the advanced Russian air-defense missile system, the S-400.
Senior Defense Department officials have repeatedly said that Turkey cannot have both the S-400 and the F-35, America’s most modern combat aircraft. Ankara was removed from the F-35 program earlier this year, after it took possession of the S-400.
Indeed, on Monday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper affirmed that he had been “very clear” in his “last meeting with [Turkish] Defense Minister Akar in Brussels” as “I said once again, ‘You can't have the S-400 and continue with the F-35.’”
“It’s too much” of a “threat to the F-35”—and “all of our NATO allies agree with that—particularly those who are purchasing or trying to have the F-35,” Esper continued.
On Wednesday, Trump described Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 as a serious challenge. “We talked about it today. We're talking about it in the future,” he continued, before explaining, “We've asked our Secretary of State and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and our respective national security advisors to immediately work on resolving the S-400 issue.”
Of course, one wonders why the Pentagon is not also involved in those discussions.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now a Senior Fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24 that “neither president” had really scored any “concrete wins,” beyond the release of Serkan Golge.
“Erdogan’s key goal in his Washington visit,” Erdemir continued, “was to meet Republican senators through Trump’s facilitation” to prevent the Senate from voting for sanctions on Turkey by a majority that was so large, Trump could not veto it (if legislation passes by less than 2/3, a president can block it; but if the vote is greater, he cannot.)
“Time will tell whether the Turkish president has managed to convince his Republican critics to give him a free pass on his long list of transgressions,” Erdemir suggested, as he warned “in the absence of a veto-proof majority,” if Trump continues “to shield Erdogan from significant US sanctions, he will only embolden his sense of impunity.”