WASHINGTON — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Washington on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House on Wednesday morning, despite strong bipartisan criticism of the visit.
Erdogan is expected to receive a warm welcome from Trump when he reaches the White House. Elsewhere in Washington, however, the reception for him has been cold.
Wednesday's meeting will take place at the same time as the House holds its first public hearings as part of the impeachment process against Trump — a coincidence that will no doubt lead to a “split screen” situation in media coverage.
Democratic members of the House of Representatives will begin presenting a case against Trump regarding his attempts to get the government of Ukraine to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. At the same time, Trump will be with Erdogan, discussing the situation in Syria and more broadly in the Middle East.
Turkey and the United States are long-standing allies: Both countries are members of NATO and Turkey hosts a strategic U.S. military base on its soil. But in recent years there have been growing tensions in the relationship. Some of those tensions concern Erdogan’s repression of the opposition in Turkey and his use of antidemocratic measures to promote his agenda.
Members of Congress have accused the Turkish president of ruling autocratically, supporting terror groups in the Middle East and having overly friendly relations with Iran.
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At the same time, there are also disagreements between the two countries in the fields of foreign policy and national security.
The tensions with Turkey were on display in Congress, where there has been significant bipartisan pushback against Erdogan’s visit. Earlier this week, a group of Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Trump calling on him to cancel Erdogan’s invitation to the White House. The letter, which was led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, expressed frustration with both Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy agenda.
“President Erdogan’s decision to invade northern Syria on October 9 has had disastrous consequences on U.S. national security,” the members wrote. The invasion they were referring to followed a phone call between Trump and Erdogan last month, during which the U.S. president heard from Erdogan about his military plans and did not take any action to stop it. That phone call was followed by a surprising announcement from Trump that he was pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria and leaving the Kurdish Syrian forces, who have been close allies of the U.S. in the war against ISIS, to stand alone against the Turkish military.
The members noted in their letter that during the Turkish invasion, “Turkish forces have killed civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a critical U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS, and displaced over one thousand people from their homes in northern Syria.” They also wrote that Erdogan’s policy has “created deep divisions in the NATO alliance.”
Regarding the domestic situation in Turkey, the members wrote that “President Erdogan has overseen a systematic rollback of democratic institutions in Turkey, concentrating all political power in his person, persecuting political opponents and peaceful protestors, and imprisoning journalists in shocking numbers. His imprisonment of innocent American citizens and local staff from the U.S. Embassy is especially egregious.”
Trump was not impressed by the calls to cancel the visit. His stated policy toward Turkey has gone through several twists and turns in the past two months, but at no point was he leaning toward disinviting Erdogan.
Following the Turkish invasion into northern Syria, Trump’s responses ranged from praising Turkey for fighting terrorism and saying that the Kurds were “not angels,” to threatening sanctions against Turkey and promising to “destroy the Turkish economy.” Eventually, however, Erdogan agreed to a cease-fire on terms that were favorable to Turkey, and the plans for his visit to Washington moved along without any significant pushback from the White House. Trump said on Tuesday during a speech in New York that he was fine with hosting dictators in the White House if it serves U.S. interests: “Anybody, dictators? Come on in,” he stated.
But despite Trump’s embrace, Erdogan has reasons for concern when it comes to his current standing in Washington. Trump’s support for Turkey has been one of the very few and rare issues on which members of his own party have spoken out and criticized the president. When Erdogan began his invasion into Syria, Republican senators who are usually very loyal to Trump, including Lindsey Graham, accused the president of making a bad decision, hurting an American ally (the Kurds) and empowering Erdogan’s worst tendencies.
Sen. Marco Rubio, another Republican who usually doesn’t criticize Trump, warned on Tuesday about the impact that Erdogan’s visit could have on the Middle East. Rubio tweeted that Erdogan was coming to Washington with a “wish list” that includes four items, all of them problematic in his view.
The first issue on the list was sanctions that the United States is threatening to place on Turkey in retaliation for its decision to purchase the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia. The Turkish-Russian deal has created anger and concern in Washington, but Erdogan hopes to convince Trump not to move forward with sanctions. In addition, Erdogan will ask Trump to extradite one of his chief political rivals, Fethullah Gülen, to Turkey. Gülen lives in the United States and has been accused by Erdogan of organizing a coup against him. Erdogan has previously tried to recruit people close to Trump to get Gülen extradited to Turkey.
Rubio mentioned two other issues he thinks will be on Erdogan’s agenda: Pressuring the United States to stop joint patrols with the Kurdish forces in Syria; and threatening to take action against the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Gen. Mazloum Abdi. He added that other nations in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, will be “closely following” the Trump-Erdogan interaction. If Trump accepts Erdogan’s demands, Rubio warned, “they will conclude they can get away with buying weapons from Russia or allowing China military bases.”
On the Democratic side of the aisle, senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Ed Markey of Massachusetts presented a bill condemning Turkey for its human rights violations, including the arrests of thousands of Erdogan’s critics and political opponents.
Wyden and Markey introduced the bill in a joint press conference with basketball player Enes Kanter of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Kanter, a Turkish citizen, has not been able to visit Turkey for years because of criticism he has voiced against Erdogan. Kanter’s current team is located within Markey’s state, while his previous team, the Portland Trail Blazers, is located in Wyden’s state.
At the press conference, Kanter said: “People know my story because I play in the NBA. But there are thousands and thousands of stories of people out there that are way worse than mine.”
“Today, Ron Wyden and I stood with Enes Kanter, who tirelessly fights for human rights in Turkey. Tomorrow, President Trump will stand with President Erdogan in the White House. It is Enes’ bravery that reflects American values, not Trump’s eagerness to cozy up with dictators,” said Markey after the press conference
The level of disillusion with Erdogan within Congress is so high that last month, for the first time ever, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide. This was something Turkey’s extensive lobbying efforts in Washington have successfully prevented for decades.
One lobbyist who worked to convince Congress to pass the resolution, and who asked not to be identified, told Haaretz this week that “this resolution passed thanks to Erdogan. Several organizations have been fighting for years to pass it in Congress, but if it wasn’t for Erdogan’s provocations it would never have succeeded.”
Several groups that oppose Erdogan’s policies plan to hold demonstrations on Wednesday: one in front of the White House, and one in front of the Turkish Embassy. In May 2017, during Erdogan’s first visit to Washington during the Trump presidency, the Turkish leader’s security detail violently attacked protesters who were holding a peaceful demonstration against Erdogan near the Turkish ambassador’s residence. The fact that the protesters, many of them American citizens, were attacked by the bodyguards of a foreign leader on U.S. soil made international headlines at the time.
The way both Erdogan’s security detail and the local authorities in Washington respond to demonstrations against Erdogan on Wednesday will be an important test. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned Erdogan ahead of the protests that “it is imperative that all representatives of the Turkish government respect the United States’ laws, notably the right to peacefully protest. The American people will not tolerate visitors disregarding our laws.”
On Wednesday, when Trump is with Erdogan in the Oval Office and the demonstrators gather across the street, the effect of that warning will be tested.