Independent and cutting-edge analysis on Turkey and its neighborhood
Prospects for the Trump-Erdogan Meeting in Washington DC

President Trump has invited President Erdogan of Turkey to visit him at the White House on Wednesday, November 13th. Trump’s tweet confirming the meeting was very amicable stating that Trump “just had a very good call with President Erdogan. He informed me that they have captured numerous ISIS fighters… Also talked about their Border with Syria, the eradication of terrorism, the ending of hostilities with the Kurds, and many other topics. Look forward to seeing President Erdogan next Wednesday, November 13th at the #WhiteHouse!”[1]The President’s tweet had quite a different tone from the 17 October 2019 letter in which Trump told Erdogan regarding Syria that “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.” President Erdogan indicated that he had put Trump’s letter in the trash can.[2]

President Erdogan will be coming to DC, a town embroiled in an impeachment frenzy with open impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee beginning the very same day as Erdogan’s visit.

What should President Erdogan expect? What is the best approach to this meeting? 

Leave the Trump Letter in the Trash Can Back Home

That is water under the bridge. Let bygones be bygones. Start afresh. Try to make a good deal. Trump will want to distract attention away from the impeachment hearings. He will also be distracted by the hearings. The most desirable deal is for the US to provide Turkey with the Patriots and for Turkey to keep the Russian S-400 packed in the crates, which can then possibly lead to Turkey’s reinstatement to the F-35 program. Good for Trump, good for Turkey. At the same time, Turkey should avoid going forward with the Russian S-35 fighter deal, which could provoke US CAATSA sanctions and undo any positive outcomes from the DC meeting with Trump. 

In Syria, Turkey Must Face Facts Concerning American Public and Media Opinion About the Syrian Kurds

There are two diametrically opposed versions of reality – Turkey perceives the Syrian Kurdish YPG as a Marxist-Leninist organization, directly connected to the terrorist PKK in Turkey (this is validated by the YPG’s inclusion on the US State Department terrorist list), while in the US, Congressional and military leadership, as well as media and public opinion appear to view the Syrian Kurds/YPG/Mazloum as allies of the US in the fight against ISIS, and have given the Syrian Kurds credit for capturing al-Baghdadi. American media criticize Turkey for attacking the Kurds who are “American allies”. American military leaders express concern for the safety of the Syrian Kurds. As hard as Turkey may try, and it should not give up, it will in the short-term not be able to disabuse American leaders, the media, and public opinion from their positive opinion of the Syrian Kurds. Indeed, the US may even continue to work together with the Syrian Defense Forces in Syria. In the meantime, however, Turkey has achieved its vital objective of establishing a safe zone in Syria, and preventing the development of a YPG/Syrian Kurdish statelet in Syria. Both US Secretary of State Pompeo and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have been fairly conciliatory following Turkey’s actions in Syria showing sympathy for Turkey having suffered terrorist attacks, its refugee burden, and legitimate security concerns. Turkey and the US must come to grips with the reality that there are simply no short-term solutions to the situation in Syria. Trump wants to stop “endless wars” yet while he withdraws troops from Syria, he also puts troops and armament back into Syria, to the Deir Ez-Zor area, to protect the oil fields. To further complicate matters, Trump views the conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds comparable to “two kids in a lot, you have to let them fight and then pull them apart.”[3]This over-simplistic approach is not conducive to developing a long-term solution to the crisis in Syria.

Turkey’s Leadership Should Not Get Over-Excited About Congressional Resolutions 

The House of Representatives passed two resolutions related to Turkey on Turkey’s Republic Day, 29 October, outrageous timing. This is like passing sanctions against France on Bastille Day or against the UK on the Queen’s birthday. This is shameful treatment of a NATO Ally. These resolutions were, in one sense, institutional pushback by Congress against the Trump Administration’s perceived errors in foreign policy in dealing with Turkey. In another sense, they were symbolic actions sending a message to Turkey. On Armenia, the Turkish leadership should understand that congress people in both parties likely acted based on constituent pressure, and that this is decidedly not the action of the entire US government. On sanctions, the House Resolution is not a law (just the action of one house of Congress) and the Senate is unlikely to pass a companion sanctions bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no commitment to allow the companion Senate sanctions bill to come to the Senate floor stating, “I'm aware there is some appetite on both sides of the aisle to quickly reach for the toolbox of sanctions… [But] we don't want to further drive a NATO ally into the arms of the Russians.”[4]At the end of the day, even if the sanctions legislation did pass both houses of Congress and became law, it would undoubtedly contain a Presidential national security waiver provision. In any case, Trump would likely veto either or both of these bills if they came to his desk and in the atmosphere of bipartisan dysfunction, it is highly unlikely that two-thirds of both houses of Congress would override the President’s veto in this fraught political atmosphere. After this coming week, with impeachment picking up ground in the House, bipartisan cooperation, as we saw in the large votes on the two House resolutions on Armenia and Turkey sanctions, is virtually over. Turkey needs to understand Congress in the context of the separation of powers. The House resolutions will remain where they are right now – in the trash can as well. A good meeting between Trump and Erdogan will defuse the impetus towards further Congressional actions against Turkey. Senator Lindsey Graham (who introduced the Senate sanctions bill with a Democratic colleague) will likely not do anything to undermine the outcome of the Trump-Erdogan meeting. 

Final Take-Away

Turkey-US Relations need a good meeting between Trump and Erdogan - no bumps or glitches. The ceasefire in Syria needs to hold. Turkey must also seek to take action on Turkish-backed militias in Syria to prevent atrocities, as have been alleged, as these actions by Turkish-backed proxies will be blamed on Turkey. Turkey’s leaders should keep matters in perspective and not overreact to the excesses of what the Congress or media are saying or doing on Turkey. The long plan is what counts. Erdogan needs to leave impeachment besotted DC with a good outcome for Turkish-US Relations. This is definitely achievable. Let’s hope for a good outcome. At the end of the day, Turkey and the US need each other.

[1]Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, November 6, 2019, 11:15 p.m. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1192173801502588928

[2]“Turkey's Erdogan 'threw Trump's Syria letter in bin',” BBC, 17 October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50080737

[3]Philip Rucker and Jenna Johnson, “Trump on Turks and Kurds: ‘Like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight’,” The Washington Post, 18 October 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-on-turks-and-kurds-like-two-kids-in-a-lot-youve-got-to-let-them-fight/2019/10/17/bf37283c-f0eb-11e9-b648-76bcf86eb67e_story.html

[4]“McConnell's Syria resolution puts him at odds with Trump, Graham and Democrats,” CBS News, 22 October 2019,  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mcconnells-syria-resolution-puts-him-at-odds-with-trump-graham-and-democrats/

CONTRIBUTOR
Mark Meirowitz
Mark Meirowitz

Dr. Mark Meirowitz is an Associate Professor at SUNY Maritime College, New York.

This issue was published in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Turkey Office.
From the Desk of the Editor TPQ’s Fall 2019 issue, published in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, titled Populism and the Age of Upheaval, examines the rise of populism and its impact on the international order – from governance issues to the environment to gender ideology. Since 2016, the world has been monitoring and trying to forecast the turnout of a series of events that started with...
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