Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be feted Wednesday at the White House despite his attacks on a longtime U.S. ally, his purchase of military equipment from Russia and calls from lawmakers in both parties to punish him.
President Donald Trump and top aides have ignored bipartisan calls to cancel Erdogan’s visit, which is expected to include a joint press conference on the same day public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry begin.
Though largely united against the Democratic impeachment effort, Trump and many congressional Republicans are at odds over what to do after Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to attack Kurdish forces.
Several Republicans were among 17 House members who signed a letter from Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York, calling on Trump to rescind Erdogan’s invitation.
Those 17 lawmakers said the Turkish leader’s “calamitous actions” followed a “long list of disconcerting steps under his leadership.” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming also wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, urging him to bar from the United States any members of Erdogan’s security detail who were caught on camera last year physically engaging protestors near the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
Erdogan considered canceling the trip after the House late last month approved a measure that would sanction senior Turkish officials and prohibit the sale of U.S.-made military equipment for use by any units involved in the Kurdish operation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected in the coming weeks to approve its own Turkey sanctions.
Over 175 Republicans voted for the House measure, a stinging rebuke of Trump. The Senate panel’s legislation is expected to receive bipartisan support both in committee and on the floor — if it gets debate time and a vote, that is.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Oct. 31 used floor remarks to urge his colleagues to mull whether sanctioning Ankara would be the “best solution.”
“We should think carefully about what specific effect we want sanctions to have, how Turkey will respond to them and how Russia and others may explore growing tensions between Washington and Ankara,” the Kentucky Republican said.
“There’s bipartisan support to take action against Turkey, that’s going to happen,” the Maryland Democrat told CNN on Thursday. “And I regret the fact that the visit’s taking place.”
Other Democrats have been more critical.
“Frankly, it is confounding that President Trump is rolling out the welcome mat to an autocrat whose recent actions have threatened our allies, our partners,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the same day on the floor.
The New York Democrat called Trump’s October decision to remove American troops from northern Syria a “shameful betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish partners” that has “thrown our efforts to defeat ISIS into chaos.”
The White House has sent mixed messages about Erdogan’s visit, which comes as the House Intelligence Committee holds its first public impeachment hearing. Witnesses will be discussing Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Democrats at the same time he meets with a leader whom many Republican and Democratic leaders call a dictator increasingly at odds with American interests and values.
Trump tweeted last week that he looked forward to seeing Erdogan and that they had spoken about Syria, eradicating terrorism and ending hostilities with the Kurds.
“He informed me that they have captured numerous ISIS fighters that were reported to have escaped,” Trump wrote.
But one of his top advisers, Kellyanne Conway, was more circumspect when asked about Erdogan’s visit.
“The president has made very clear what he thinks about Turkey … and the Syrian situation. And so … I will let the president move forward with his bilateral meetings whenever and wherever they take place,” she said before changing the subject to domestic policies she said Congress is not addressing, including prescription drug prices and infrastructure funding.
‘Back on track’
Some foreign policy analysts say no matter what lawmakers or Trump think of Erdogan and his tactics, Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance, and global strategic needs are more important.
“We need to start realigning ourselves for the big power competition against Russia, against China, against Iran,” said Luke Coffey of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser on Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said efforts launched under President Barack Obama and continued by Trump to to fight the Islamic State were “upended” by Trump’s Oct. 6 telephone conversation with Erdogan. That’s when Trump — who later asserted that his Turkish counterpart said he planned to attack Syria’s Kurds with or without U.S. troops still on the ground — says he decided to remove forces.
“[The] bottom line is in light of everything that’s happened, it’s really very difficult to see how the U.S. can move forward in any sort of constructive way with this long-standing agenda [of] stabilizing areas that had been liberated from ISIS,” Yacoubian said.
To do just that, Erdogan turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Trump should try Wednesday to pull Erdogan back from Putin’s sphere, analysts say.
“This rapprochement between Erdogan and Putin goes against the natural grain of history. And the U.S. and other Western allies need to work more closely together, and then with Turkey, to figure out how we’re going to patch this up and start moving forward,” Coffey said.