The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An embattled Trump welcomes an embittered Erdogan

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slated to visit President Trump at the White House on Wednesday. For Trump, it may be a welcome diversion. Erdogan’s visit, after all, coincides with the launch of the first public hearings in the House’s impeachment inquiry into the president. The two leaders share a distrust of the free press (though the American iteration of the press is far freer), a weaponized contempt for the “deep state” in their countries (though the Turkish iteration has a far more substantive history), and a platform of illiberal nationalism, anchored in rage against enemies at home and abroad.

But these are also dire times for the U.S.-Turkish relationship. The Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress are furious over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian antiaircraft missile system, and wrangling over that deal will feature prominently in discussions this week. There’s also the crisis posed by Turkey’s incursions into northeastern Syria — an invasion, indeed, that Trump allowed but which has enraged much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment and defense community.

On the Hill, lawmakers urged the administration to rescind Trump’s invitation to the Turkish president. Others called for tougher sanctions on Turkey. Their collective anger was on full display when the House voted last month to recognize the slaughter of Armenians a century ago in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. That was a symbolic decision that had been staved off for decades by Turkish lobbying and American loyalty to a NATO ally; the passage of the measure spoke volumes of Washington’s low estimation of Ankara.

Erdogan has his own grievances to air, too. He reportedly told Turkish reporters before leaving for the United States that the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Turkish authorities accuse of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt, would top his agenda. He also will press Trump to stall imminent Treasury action against Turkish state lender Halkbank, which is implicated in a sanctions-evading scheme to help Iran that is being investigated by U.S. authorities. Even though he may not receive much satisfaction on either front, Erdogan set out for Washington on a note of confidence.

“We are in agreement with Trump to solve problems and develop our ties despite the foggy weather in our relations,” Erdogan said at a televised news conference in Ankara. But it’s clear that U.S. officials aren’t keen on changing course. “If Turkey doesn’t get rid of the S-400, there will likely be sanctions,” White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien told CBS News on Sunday, referring to the Russian antiaircraft batteries purchased by Erdogan’s government. “Turkey will feel the impact of those sanctions.”

Beyond getting Turkey to ditch the S-400s, the Trump administration will seek a permanent cease-fire in northern Syria, where the incursions by Turkey and its Syrian Arab proxies have caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes amid myriad reports of abuses, summary executions and looting. Recent U.S. military drone footage appeared to document several incidents carried out by Turkish-backed forces that may constitute war crimes.

Turkish officials, though, have long resented American support for a faction of Syrian Kurds they consider a direct extension of an outlawed Kurdish separatist group operating within Turkey’s borders. A nationalist public won’t want to see Erdogan budge too far on Ankara’s position on the Syrian Kurds.

“There’s a slow-motion car crash in the making because neither leader has a domestic audience that supports the meeting to begin with,” Giran Ozcan, the Washington representative of Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party, told Al-Monitor. “So, they will need to get the one up on the other, to salvage their domestic prestige.”

The main bond sustaining the U.S.-Turkey relationship now is the “bromance” between the two leaders. In a private speech to a room of financiers in Miami last week, according to NBC News, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton suggested Trump’s interest in Turkey policy was motivated by personal and financial interests that went against the judgment of his foreign policy advisers. A piece in the New York Times looked at the web of business interests linking Trump and Erdogan’s sons-in-law — one, a senior White House adviser, the other, Turkey’s finance minister — and the conspicuous back channel they have built between the two presidents.

“Trump is replacing formal relations among nations in several cases with family-to-family relationships, or crony-to-crony relationships,” said Eric S. Edelman, a U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the George W. Bush administration, to the Times. “Certainly Erdogan would prefer that kind of relationship as he runs a crony capitalist regime of his own. But it ought to be a matter of concern to all Americans.”

It’s also a problem for Turkey. Erdogan’s “strategy of using Trump as a counterweight against the U.S. foreign policy establishment has made Turkey more vulnerable, not less,” the Turkish columnist Asli Aydintasbas wrote in The Washington Post. “It’s a tactical mistake to bring Turkey into the eye of the storm in Washington and a bigger mistake to reduce a decades-long alliance to a personal relationship with Trump. Not to mention there’s a real risk that Turkey could start attracting some attention in the impeachment saga.”

In a phone call with journalists, Merve Tahiroglu of the Project on Middle East Democracy said that Erdogan’s systematic campaign of domestic repression — which in the past month included dozens of arrests of Turks for simply voicing disapproval of the Syria offensive on social media — can’t be separated from his policies abroad.

“It is really important,” Tahiroglu stressed, that U.S. condemnations of atrocities in Syria are “accompanied by a broader denouncement of Erdogan’s anti-democratic policies at home and the domestic repression, as these are intimately tied to his foreign policy decisions and the bilateral crisis with the U.S. today.”

Trump, never one to extol democracy and human rights abroad, probably will turn a deaf ear to such concerns. In a speech Tuesday, he waved away the opposition to Erdogan’s visit, saying he was happy to meet all world leaders. “Dictators? It’s okay,” said the president. “Come on in.”

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