Trump hails 'long friendship' with Erdogan as US Congress increases pressure for sanctions

Three-hour meeting at White House tries to ease tension between Nato members

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., November 13, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner?
Powered by automated translation

TurkIsh President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday had a different welcome to that on his last visit to Washington, with protests outside the White House and tough questions from US politicians.

Demonstrators decried Mr Erdogan's human rights record and called for Turkey to leave Syria, chanting and holding placards outside US President Donald Trump's residence.

Inside, uncertainty about Turkish-US relations clouded a three-hour meeting between the  leaders.

Differences on Syria, Ankara acquiring a Russian S-400 missile defence system and a lawsuit against Turkish state banking giant Halkbank were on the table.

An incentive package including a $100 billion (Dh367.3bn) trade deal between the countries and a hold on Congressional sanctions were expected to be raised by Mr Trump, The Washington Post reported.

But a US official told The National that he did not anticipate a breakthrough.

Before the meeting, Mr Trump praised his long friendship with Mr Erdogan, saying they "understand each other very well".

He said the US-brokered ceasefire in Syria reached on October 17 was "holding up very well".

But clashes have continued between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria.

The US President thanked Mr Erdogan for the job he was doing, and defended his decision to withdraw troops from the Turkish-Syrian border area.

But he said said the US was keeping oil that was being guarded by troops he left in the region.

"We are keeping the oil," Mr Trump said. "We have the oil. The oil is secure. We left troops behind only for the oil."

Mr Erdogan said he looked forward to the meeting with the US President.

“I don’t feel the need to come up with longer statements here,” he said

In an attempt to help Mr Erdogan with pressure from Congress, Mr Trump planned a meeting between the Turkish leader and small group of Republican senators, CNN reported.

Ankara is facing mounting criticism over its incursion into Syria last month, and has been the target of several sanctions bills in Congress.

But a US official said Mr Trump was driving his own policy with Turkey and ignoring high-ranking defence and diplomatic advisers on the need for pressure on Mr Erdogan.

"The state of US-Turkish relations is in free-fall but as long as Erdogan holds Trump close to him on a personal level, neither leader is too much worried," Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Centre for New American Security, told The National. 

Mr Heras did not see a major breakthrough coming from the White House summit.

“The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not bother Turkey too much about issues concerning the Syrian-Turkish border areas,” he said.

Instead the US administration “will try to get Ankara not to expand the aperture of Turkish operations in a manner that would put the stability of the Syrian Democratic Forces in jeopardy".

A US official said on Tuesday that the relationship between the US and the Kurdish-led SDF was needed and would continue.

Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also did not anticipate a major breakthrough from the meeting.

“The best we can hope for is some movement towards compromise,” Mr Stein said.

He said it was unlikely that Turkey would give up the S-400 system.

“They spent $2.5bn on a weapon," Mr Stein said. "Would you eat that cost?”

If no breakthrough is reached, sanctions pressure will continue after the visit when the Senate is expected to vote on the House bill to block arms sales to Turkey.