President Donald Trump invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to come to Washington Wednesday to demonstrate his dealmaking prowess. Instead, the meeting is only going to further erode the already strained relations between the two countries. With Erdogan adept at speaking Trump’s language and the administration having no clear strategy for handling Turkey, the only deal Trump is going to get is a raw one.
The visit was announced just days after Trump’s infamous Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan, after which the U.S. president declared he had pulled off a masterful piece of diplomacy by having Turkish troops replace American forces fighting the Islamic State militant group in Syria, a theater of war Trump had long wanted to leave. The White House visit was to be both a victory lap and an opportunity to rebuild a teetering relationship via this newly established goodwill.
In fact, though, Trump merely cleared the way for Turkey to pursue a long-sought goal that had been thwarted by Trump’s predecessors: to move into Syria to eradicate Syrian Kurdish militias, which were a key American partner in reining in ISIS but seen by Ankara as an extension of its arch-enemy, the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. After widespread anger at Trump over the withdrawal and the Turkish invasion that it abetted — including from many in his own party — the Oval Office parley has now been recast as an opportunity to show that Trump is in control of the situation and can elicit positive results from Erdogan.
The changes in tone from Washington led Erdogan to vacillate on whether to come to Washington, claiming he was too offended by Trump’s subsequent letter and tweets berating him over his assault on Syria followed by a vote of censure and threat of sanctions in Congress. But in the end, Erdogan likely believes he can use this visit to persuade Trump to disregard mounting calls from Congress to hold Turkey accountable for its bad behavior.
In part, that is because the Turkish president is skilled at presenting his own objectives as aligned with those of the United States. He gave Trump, who had made a campaign pledge to curtail endless wars, an opportunity to end the U.S. presence in Syria while likely promising to guard against the resurgence of ISIS. He also didn’t hesitate to threaten, yet again, to attack Syrian forces working with the United States, putting U.S. soldiers at risk. So Trump gave the order to withdraw.
Erdogan’s approach of misrepresenting Turkish objectives as aligned with U.S. interests is likely to continue in the Oval Office. Turkish media have been spreading the narrative that Turkey is committed to helping in the fight against terrorism. As evidence of this, they cite Turkey’s recent apprehensions of family members of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS head killed by the U.S. last month, and deportation of other ISIS fighters. Yet the timing of this operation is suspicious: After Ankara pleaded to having no knowledge that al-Baghdadi was hiding out in Turkish-controlled Syrian territory, within days of the U.S. raid they were able to find all these members of his network. Touting these contrived accomplishments, Erdogan will try to convince Trump that his Syria decision was the right one and that the sanctions being contemplated by Congress are unnecessary.
Trump buying into this narrative would be damaging. Yet there is a good chance that he will, particularly since it would help him reframe the decision to withdraw as successful. After the two leaders spoke again last week, Trump tweeted that Turkey “captured numerous ISIS fighters” and discussed the “eradication of terrorism” and “ending of hostilities with the Kurds.” If Trump repeats Turkish talking points at the White House, it would prove to Erdogan that the United States cannot, or will not, stand up to Turkey, even when its own interests are at risk.
Further emboldened, Erdogan will most likely continue on his course of using jihadist Syrian forces to attack civilians in Syria and planning for ethnic cleansing in the region — both potential war crimes — while nurturing a relationship with Moscow that the U.S. dislikes, particularly by purchasing more Russian weapons. Turkey could drift even further away from the United States and its other NATO allies.
Yet too combative a response from Trump could well have the same effect. If Trump takes the line conveyed in his letter and some of his tweets — seeking to constrain Turkey’s worst activities in Syria through threats of sanctions and economic demise — the prickly and prideful Erdogan will only lash out in anger. The Turkish leader is not beyond spiting the United States, say by threatening to kick U.S. forces out of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
After all, when Erdogan arrives at the White House, he will be coming with a record of undermining and opposing the United States and getting away with it. In particular, by purchasing a Russian anti-missile system, the S-400, long opposed by the United States because it poses a threat to NATO air defenses and, therefore, U.S. national security. To date, the repercussions for Turkey have been minimal.
Similarly, Turkey has not yet been punished for the involvement of a state-owned bank, Halkbank, in helping Iran evade sanctions on its energy sector. More than 18 months after U.S. courts found Halkbank officials guilty, no penalty has been levied against the financial institution. Instead, a convicted banker was appointed to run Turkey’s stock exchange after his release.
Since Trump won office, speculation abounded about whether the president would treat Erdogan with the deference he has appeared to show to other autocratic leaders — Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Victor Orban or Xi Jingping of China — or with the disdain he displayed toward Islamist movements — not just ISIS and Hezbollah, but also Iran and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
After almost three years, it appears to be neither. Instead, Trump seems to regard Erdogan with the wary respect accorded a worthy opponent. Erdogan is someone, Trump seems to believe, with whom he can play hardball.
But there’s only one issue on which Trump has scored a victory. In 2017, Turkey imprisoned a U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson, on charges of complicity in the attempt to overthrow Erdogan two years earlier. In 2018, after months of unsuccessful negotiations, Trump pushed back on Turkey hard. He sanctioned officials and put tariffs on certain imports to force Brunson’s release. That meager record does not bode well for Wednesday’s meeting.
Both leaders believe they will benefit from a warm and cordial White House visit. But while Trump is hoping to demonstrate his dealmaking savvy and foresight in exiting Syria, only Erdogan will leave the meeting having gained anything. For the United States, the outcome is likely to be an even more adversarial and uncooperative Turkey.