Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Turkey’s Erdogan scores PR victory in Trump meeting but no policy breakthroughs

One-day visit to US failed to resolve issues of sanctions, missile purchase or Syria

US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the praise of US leader Donald Trump during their meeting on Wednesday, but failed to resolve issues that would ease tension between the two Nato members.

“I’m a big fan,” Mr Trump told a beaming Mr Erdogan after their three-hour meeting at the White House.

He called him a “great president” and the Turkish leader returned the praise, calling Mr Trump “my dear friend”.

But beyond the niceties, there was little to show from the visit in progress on major differences between the US and Turkey, mainly Syria, the Russian S-400 missile purchase, foreign ISIS fighters and Congressional sanctions.

After the meeting, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Turkey was on the wrong trajectory in relations with Washington.

“We need to work hard to make sure they get back on to the proper path and whether it's actions like this [working with Russia in Syria] or other things they've done, the purchase of the S-400, is not the right way forward,” Mr Esper said.

One US official told The National that the White House meeting was contentious, especially with Republican senators who Mr Trump invited to help “clear the air” with Mr Erdogan.

Instead, he pulled out his iPad and showed the group a propaganda video portraying the Kurdish forces as terrorists, Axios reported on Thursday.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tore into Mr Erdogan, Fox News reported.

“You have done something no one thought was possible," Mr Graham said. "You have united the US against Turkey.”

On Thursday Mr Erdogan made it clear that no breakthrough had been reached on the S-400 missile controversy.

Turkey acquired the Russian defence system last summer in defiance of US laws and has kept it despite penalties from the Pentagon, which blocked the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara.

“We can’t dump S-400s and go for Patriots," Mr Erdogan said.

He said he returned a letter that Mr Trump wrote to him in October in which the US president warned him against an incursion into north-east Syria with the words: "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool.”

It was reported last month that Mr Erdogan had thrown the letter into a rubbish bin.

Nicholas Danforth of the German Marshall Fund called the visit “a public relations victory for Mr Erdogan”.

“He garnered some enthusiastic praise from Mr Trump and didn’t aggressively antagonise Washington in the process,” Mr Danforth told The National.

But he said that beyond getting Mr Graham's support in blocking a Senate bill recognising the Armenian genocide, “it is unclear what the visit accomplished".

“The impasse over the S-400s remains unresolved, leaving the US Congress to ultimately decide about sanctions,” Mr Danforth said.

Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, said Mr Erdogan’s visit failed to produce concrete results.

Ms Tol said the missile purchase, US refusal to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for a 2016 coup attempt, and continued co-operation between the US and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are all unresolved.

The YPG fought alongside the US against ISIS as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

But Ms Tol said the White House meeting “gives Mr Erdogan an opportunity to boost his image at home".

“He can go back and tell his base that he did not bend to Washington's wishes, and Turkey's red lines regarding the YPG have been communicated again to the US side," she said.

The Senate delayed a vote on a House sanctions bill blocking arms sales to Turkey until after the visit.

A Congressional source at the Senate foreign relations committee expected the vote to take place before the end of the month.

Updated: November 14, 2019 11:56 PM

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