How Erdogan Played Trump (Again)

Turkey’s recalcitrant president won a White House platform to spout his views. The U.S. president got little in return.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan take part in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 13.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan take part in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 13. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Standing next to U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House’s East Room after a coveted Oval Office meeting on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got a rare opportunity to address the American public and millions of international viewers.

It wasn’t clear that Trump got anything out of it at all.

Despite Erdogan’s clear flouting of Western conventions—buying Russian military equipment, jailing journalists, launching a bloody invasion of northeastern Syria, and allegedly allowing his Syrian Arab proxies to commit war crimes unchecked—Trump dedicated most of his remarks to praising his Turkish counterpart.

“Turkey, as everyone knows, is a great NATO ally and a strategic partner of the United States around the world,” Trump said, thanking Erdogan for his efforts to uphold a cease-fire in northeastern Syria—though, in fact, the fighting has never actually ceased—and for Turkey’s “vital contributions” to operations in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State. (In fact, Turkey played no significant role in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. special operations raid just miles from Turkey’s border with Iraq.) 

“I’m a big fan of the president,” Trump said.

Trump did not mention the accusations of horrific war crimes and human rights abuses levied at Turkey’s Syrian Arab proxies during the incursion, including using white phosphorus-loaded munitions against civilians, executing prisoners, and targeting women and children.

Erdogan, meanwhile, spent most of his time in front of the cameras blasting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia—the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which were largely responsible for the demise of the Islamic State—blaming the group for a bomb in the Syrian town of Tal Abyad this month that killed 13 civilians. Turkey views the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. 

The press conference, which followed an Oval Office meeting, is just the latest example of Trump bending to Erdogan’s wishes, just a month after the U.S. president withdrew troops from Turkey’s border with Syria, paving the way for a Turkish attack on the YPG.

“Erdogan must be happy about the fact that Trump provided him a platform from the White House to defen[d] himself while his [government] is constantly grilled by the [international] media,” Ragip Soylu, a Turkish journalist, wrote on Twitter. “This is a PR win for Erdogan. World TV channels just broadcasted his remarks uninterruptedly for 15 minutes.”

The Oval Office meeting, which also included a group of high-profile senators including Lindsey Graham, could have been an opportunity for the two leaders to hash out an agreement on a myriad of issues, including Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, which threatens U.S. fighter jets, and a potential $100 billion trade deal. Yet no agreement was reached on either issue.

“We are talking about it constantly. We talked about it today. We are talking about it in the future. Hopefully we’ll be able to resolve that situation,” Trump said of the S-400 purchase, adding that the leaders have asked their deputies to “immediately work on resolving the S-400 issue.”

The administration has floated a “workaround” that would involve Turkey agreeing to not activate the S-400, which arrived in Turkey this summer, potentially paving the way for Washington to readmit Ankara to the F-35 fighter jet program. 

But experts say Erdogan has once again pulled a fast one on Trump on the S-400 issue. Merely agreeing not to activate the S-400 is hardly a concession and could easily be reversed, said Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Sure, you could turn it off, you could not field it, you could park it in a garage, but the confidence level that they wouldn’t roll it out six months from now or a year from now would be basically zero,” Karako said.

The worry is that Turkey will use the S-400, which was designed to track the most sophisticated U.S. fighter jets, to acquire key information about how the F-35 works when it is in stealth mode. Such insights would quickly make their way to Moscow, which is integrally involved in training the Turkish armed forces on how to operate the missile system. Ahead of the purchase, Turkey sent personnel to Russia to begin training. 

“Short of loading them up onto a barge and shipping them to New Mexico,” where the U.S. government could disassemble and inspect the missile systems, “the idea of trusting that the streams won’t mix could very well be a fool’s errand,” Karako said.

After the first S-400 systems arrived in Turkey this summer, the U.S. Defense Department officially removed Turkey from the F-35 program, noting that Ankara would lose its production work on the jet by March 2020. But U.S. officials have left the door open to Turkey returning to the program if they find a way to address the S-400 issue. 

The two systems “should not be co-located,” Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of U.S. European Command, said in October. “There’s a decision that Turkey could make, and we’ll continue to press forward. But as we speak, they’re an important NATO ally, and the [military-to-military] relationship from the U.S. and NATO perspective remains strong.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper reiterated his concerns to his Turkish counterpart last month.

“I’ve been very clear in my last meeting with Defense Minister [Hulusi] Akar,” Esper told reporters on Monday. “I said once again, ‘You can’t have the S-400 and continue with the F-35.’ And so it’s too much of—I think—the threat to the F-35.”

Delivery of the Russian system this summer to Turkey also triggers harsh sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, aimed at countries that purchase Russian defense equipment. But Trump has delayed imposing those sanctions, despite protestations from lawmakers.

Any agreement on a workaround would likely provoke outrage among lawmakers, who have pushed for consequences since Ankara made clear that it would buy the Russian missile system.

Erdogan had many reasons to purchase the S-400, even though the United States has offered the Raytheon-built Patriot missile system as an alternative, Karako said. The primary one is political—buying the S-400 is viewed as a “tribute” to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another is technical—the S-400’s radar is 360 degrees, whereas the more expensive Patriot’s is only 180. And finally, Erdogan, who was attacked by his own air force in 2016 using U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, wants a system that is designed to shoot down Western aircraft.

Trump has blamed former President Barack Obama for the dispute, claiming that Obama’s administration refused to sell Erdogan the Patriot. But this characterization is not entirely accurate. Turkey actually passed over the Patriot twice before the most recent offer, which included better terms on both pricing and co-production, and the State Department officially killed the deal this summer. Both times, the deals fell apart because Ankara insisted on a transfer of the missile technology, something U.S. officials declined to do.

Still, Erdogan continues to dangle a Patriot purchase over Trump, though it’s far from clear the discussions will go anywhere.

“They are still playing footsie with us on Patriot,” Karako said. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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