Seven takeaways from Erdogan's visit with Trump

(Edits)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump met at the White House on Wednesday. 

The two leaders, in an unusual meeting with Republican senators known to be critical of Erdoğan, discussed a long list of issues that have led to escalated tensions between the two NATO allies, including Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, Ankara’s decision to acquire Russian S-400 air defence missiles, looming U.S. sanctions against Turkey and a motion to recognise the Armenian genocide.

Erdoğan's much-anticipated visit to the United States could be summed in seven points:

1. Visit duration: Erdoğan's trip lasted less than 30 hours and ended with a visit to the Turkish mosque in Maryland. Turkish president, who had stayed in the United States for three to five days during previous visits, has stayed for a short period of time. Erdoğan only visited the White House since he has no other friends in Washington anymore, and he had to face one of the biggest protests organised against a foreign leader in the capital. He did not come to grief in these 30 hours. There were no surprise questions asked in public at least and he did not have to deal with the questions regarding media freedom or human rights violations in Turkey.

2. Historical coincidence: Erdoğan visited the White House, and Trump welcomed him. The visit was overshadowed by the first day of public impeachment hearings against Trump. Trump spent the day with Erdoğan trying to give the impression that he was too busy to deal with what he calls the witch-hunt against him.

3. Unsolved problems: Trump has held out several carrots to Erdoğan to make him back down on his decision to buy Russian S-400 missiles. The U.S. President talked of boosting trade with Turkey to $100 billion. 

The White House has promised to improve bilateral diplomatic and trade relations if Erdoğan does not activate the S-400s. But no solution appears to have been reached and, on the contrary, Erdoğan said on the plane back to Turkey that he would not give up the S-400s.

There were not many success stories from the meeting. 

For example, Trump said both leaders had instructed their diplomats to start work on resolving problems arising from the S-400s. Of course, this statement means nothing. The authorities of the two countries have been trying to solve the S-400 problem for the last two years.

4. Senators: We do not yet fully know what was discussed by five Republican senators, Erdoğan and Trump at the Oval Office, though there have been some leaks. Erdoğan appeared very self-confident in pictures of the meeting and acted as if he were chairing it. Many said Trump brought in the senators to give them the job of being hard on Erdoğan rather than tackling the Turkish president himself. 

Even though senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has talked of how tough he was with Turkey’s strongman, right after the meeting he blocked the Armenian genocide recognition bill in the Senate, and gifted Erdoğan perhaps the only one tangible victory of his visit.

5. Halkbank case: We do not know what happened between the two parties regarding the indictment against Turkish state-run Halkbank, even though Erdoğan said they discussed the case. 

6. Erdoğan's few but powerful allies: Thanks to Trump and Republican ranking Senator Mitch McConnell's efforts, anything that could push Turkey toward Russia has so far been avoided. Trump in the White House and McConnell in the Senate continued to do their best to please Erdoğan.

For example, the five senators – all outspoken critics of Turkey – who met Erdoğan, all said relations with Turkey should not be further weakened. It appears that Senate majority leader is on board with Trump on treating Turkey and Erdoğan gently. 

7. The good news from the Senate to Erdoğan: Trump and the Senate leader have already blocked the sanction packages, one of which even targets Erdoğan personally. In Washington, where Erdoğan does not have lots of friends, the Turkish president sticks to Trump, his only friend, but the world's most powerful friend, and we can say this friendship was enough for Erdoğan.

Trump first blocked U.S. sanctions on Turkey, then gave the green light to the Turkish operation in northern Syria, then gave a very good, trouble-free welcome to Erdoğan, who cannot go to European capitals.

Regarding the S-400 crisis and the issues over northern Syria, the two parties did not take any major steps, but White House negotiations saved the day and were more than enough for Erdoğan. 

It was a useful visit for the domestic political plans of the leaders, but not for the interests of the two countries.

The promise to turn a new page regarding relations between the two countries, announced by the Turkish presidential spokesman, was totally empty. None of the institutional problems was solved. There is a deep trust issue between militaries. But Trump is a unique opportunity for Erdoğan, and the Turkish president seems to be exploiting it fully. In 2020, Erdoğan's favourite candidate for the U.S. elections should clearly be Trump.

Erdoğan has put all his eggs into the Trump basket, but so far this gamble has brought results.

 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.