Ankara, Turkey – As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to his suite at Washington’s Willard Hotel after a lengthy meeting with Donald Trump and US senators on Wednesday, he may have felt his US trip had been a success, despite presenting no concrete agreements.
“Erdogan could have lost but there’s not much he could have won,” said Selim Sazak, research director at Ankara consultancy TUM Strategy. “There was a chance of a major embarrassment for him or backtracking. I don’t think he won but not having lost is a major victory in a way.
“If I was Erdogan, I couldn’t be happier now.”
The Turkish president and his wife Emine arrived in Washington facing a list of long-standing disputes with the US political establishment.
Topping that list was the military operation Turkey launched in northeast Syria last month and Ankara’s purchase of Russian missiles over the summer.
Both issues have seen the US Congress prepare sanctions against NATO ally Turkey – sanctions that Trump has so far held off on implementing.
“This visit should be considered another episode in the ongoing negotiations between Turkey and the United States at the leadership level, which aim to postpone crises rather than provide concrete solutions to the long-standing problems between the two countries,” said Selin Nasi, a researcher and analyst at Bosphorus University.
Last month saw Turkish troops and their Syrian allies target the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a cross-border operation precipitated by Trump’s decision to pull back US troops from the frontier. That led to bipartisan support for sanctions against Ankara in Congress.
The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is considered a “terrorist” group by Ankara and several Western nations for its violent campaign for autonomy that has killed tens of thousands over the past decades.
The YPG fighters partnered with the US in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Syria.
In the US, an uproar followed over the attack on “the Kurds” and a resolution in the House of Representatives called for sanctions.
The bill followed the tabling of sanctions in July after Turkey took delivery of the Russian S-400 air defence system. The arrival of the missiles also led to Turkey being kicked off the F-35 stealth fighter project, which it helped develop.
Both issues were tackled head-on during Erdogan’s White House visit.
The president used his meeting with US senators, including Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer who has been highly outspoken in criticising Turkey’s operation against the SDF, to stress that Turkey was not attacking Kurds but the YPG forces in northeast Syria.
In a televised discussion with the senators that Hurriyet, Turkey’s best-selling newspaper, described as a “class”, Erdogan stressed that Turkey had taken in 350,000 Kurdish refugees from Syria as well as emphasising his own political party’s Kurdish membership and support.
He underlined that Turkey was fighting “terrorists” rather than “Kurds” in Syria.
On the S-400s, Trump said both leaders had asked their ministers to find a way to resolve the standoff. “I think it will work out fine,” he told journalists.
There were several other issues the leaders agreed on: the need for Europe to share more of the burden on Syrian refugees and dealing with captured ISIL foreign fighters as well as plans to quadruple bilateral trade between Turkey and the US to $100bn.
“Pro-Erdogan people are saying among themselves that Erdogan is the only Turkish leader who was able to stand up to an American president,” said Ahmet Evin, a veteran political scientist at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre.
“Erdogan certainly has the rhetoric to rally the broad masses around the flag.”
The Turkish president was also able to use the meeting to press his case for the resettlement of up to 2 million refugees currently being hosted by Turkey in northeast Syria and called for the international community to help shoulder the cost.
However, some burning issues were not discussed publicly, most noticeably the current court case in New York against Turkey’s state-run Halkbank.
The lender faces a multimillion-dollar fine over its alleged role in money laundering and helping Iran evade US sanctions. Erdogan has previously lobbied Trump to help resolve the dispute.
“With regards to Halkbank, Trump can’t do anything because it’s a federal court case in New York,” Evin said. “I don’t think Erdogan or his entourage have any idea of the limitations of presidential power in the United States.”
There was also little mention of Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan’s who lives in Pennsylvania and is accused of ordering a coup attempt in Turkey three years ago. Ankara has long called for his extradition. Gulen, who heads a global organisation that includes educational and business ventures in the US, denies the accusations.
Thursday’s newspaper headlines in Turkey reflected an overwhelmingly positive reception for the summit with outlets such as Cumhuriyet and Sozcu, which are not under the control of government supporters, reporting favourably on the outcome.
“Both sides seemed intent on not breaking things, which is a remarkable achievement considering they were walking on eggshells,” said Sazak.
“Despite the acrimony, they want to keep the relationship in some form and don’t want to break it up. Washington and Ankara both chose not to escalate.”
Nasi, however, pointed to Ankara’s reliance on the strong personal relationship between Erdogan and Trump as a risk.
As the presidents’ meeting was taking place, Congress was holding impeachment hearings against Trump.
“Ankara has been relying too much on President Trump’s initiative for the resolution of thorny issues,” Nasi said. “Yet Trump’s political priority is to maintain his presidency and secure another four years at the Oval Office.”
She added: “Trump is not omnipotent in delivering Turkey’s demands. Given the overall negative attitude towards Turkey on Capitol Hill, President Trump will not be able to do much against possible veto-proof sanctions…
“Overall, this visit will provide a photo opportunity for leaders, help them buy time and postpone the resolution of several multi-layer conflicts between the two countries.”