Amid Tensions, Trump-Erdogan Meeting Changes Little

CFR In Brief by Steven A. Cook
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)

Are there any indications of a summit breakthrough on contentious issues such as Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system?

Newswise — None whatsoever. President Donald J. Trump said Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is a “serious challenge” and that talks will continue over how to resolve the matter. It is clear that the two sides are not close on the issue. As long as dialogue continues, though, Trump will likely be able to hold off Congress, where some lawmakers are pressing for sanctions against Turkey for going ahead with the purchase.

Did the two sides reach any new agreements related to Turkey’s incursion in northern Syria and commitment to fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State?

Trump seemed to endorse the Turkish incursion, known as Operation Peace Spring, stating repeatedly that the conflict there has been going on for “hundreds of years.” He was also clear in his assertion that Turkey fights terrorism just like the United States. Despite his comments, questions remain about Turkey’s coordination with extremist groups in Syria. The leading elements of its invasion of Syria are in part composed of extremist groups. What Turkey calls the Syrian National Army is made up of militias that were once called the Free Syrian Army. Among them are extremist groups tied to al-Qaeda affiliates. This was a major reason why the Pentagon balked when Turkey offered these groups to join the fight against the Islamic State.

What was the response to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main requests, including the extradition of accused coup leader Fethullah Gulen and cooperation on a crackdown against Syrian Kurds?

 Erdogan once again asked for Gulen’s extradition from the United States, a clear indication that he has not made any progress on the issue with Trump. On Syria, the U.S. president did not criticize Turkey for apparent human rights violations against U.S. allies in Syria or the displacement of almost two hundred thousand people since the Turkish invasion began on October 9.

What kind of response did Erdogan receive from members of Congress during this trip?

In recent days, members of the House of Representatives have met with Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who plays in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and is a prominent supporter of Gulen. Republican senators who joined the meeting with Trump and Erdogan are among Turkey’s critics in the Senate. It seems likely that the “frank discussions” that Trump referenced indeed took place during this meeting. It is important to note that Erdogan appeared confident that the Senate will not take up the Armenian genocide resolution that passed overwhelmingly in the House last month.

Given the major differences on core issues, why did Trump and Erdogan have this meeting?

It is hard to know. The Turkish press has reported that Erdogan did not ask for the meeting. That said, Erdogan was likely keen for it to happen given Trump’s penchant for making Turkey’s case on topics such as the northern Syria incursion or the S-400 purchase—Trump is now suggesting Turkey could remain in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program despite the deal with Russia. That plays well at home for Erdogan. If there is ultimately a deal on any of these issues, Erdogan can claim victory. If there isn’t, Erdogan can still mine political gold given the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey.

As for the Trump administration, the timing of the meeting is curious given that even Republican members of Congress have broken with the president on Turkey.


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