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Seeking to restore relations on Capitol Hill, Erdogan to visit Trump in Washington

With US-Turkey ties in disarray, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has confirmed his Nov. 13 meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, where he may seek to win over allies in Congress.
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC15E2597F00

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed he will visit Washington on Nov. 13 following an overnight phone call with US President Donald Trump.

The announcement ended speculation the Turkish leader might cancel the trip after the US House of Representatives passed legislation recognizing the Ottoman Empire’s mass killing of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as genocide, a move that was highly offensive to Turkish nationalist sentiments.

Now, as members of Congress have introduced a myriad of sanctions packages that would target Turkish officials and the broader economy, Erdogan’s visit will likely focus on restoring damaged US-Turkey relations following Ankara's military incursion into Syria and the acquisition of Russian-made defense systems that pose security risks to NATO military equipment in Turkey.

“The important aspect of the summit is whether or not Erdogan is able to meet some of the influential [senators] who may still have some sympathies for Turkey,” Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst at Global Source Partners, told Al-Monitor. “He needs to persuade them that sanctions are completely counterproductive.”

Yesilada noted that Trump and Erdogan remain on good terms, as evidenced by the US leader’s initial approval for Ankara’s incursion into northeast Syria following an Oct. 6 phone call with his Turkish counterpart. Though Trump agreed to withdraw US troops from Turkey’s border area in the region, greenlighting Operation Peace Spring, the decision has roiled some Washington officials who have since sought to impose delayed sanctions for Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, among other penalties.

In effort to sway sentiments in Washington, Yesilada said Erdogan “needs to be extremely careful and much more tactful than has proven in the past.”

The Turkish leader could employ some gestures or compromises to facilitate his goals, Yesilada continued, such as releasing Metin Topuz, a US consulate employee imprisoned in Turkey for more than two years on terror-related charges. Postponing the activation of the S-400s or imposing an indefinite delay on future deliveries of the missile system, as a Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate implied on Monday, would serve similar purposes.

“[Erdogan] needs to persuade a small number of senators,” Yesilada said. “I’m fairly sure a sanctions law of sorts will be passed in the Senate eventually and will be vetoed by Trump,” so the Turkish leader will need to win over enough senators to prevent an override of the president’s veto powers.

Proposed US sanctions packages on Turkey include provisions that would invoke the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act for Ankara’s S-400 acquisition. In response to the Syrian incursion, the House also passed a bipartisan measure to prevent weapons transfers to Turkey that could be used in Operation Peace Spring. In addition, the bill would require the Treasury Department to estimate the personal wealth of Erdogan and his relatives.

The Turkish state-owned Halkbank is facing a separate set of sanctions for facilitating financial transactions that helped Iranian entities skirt US sanctions. But sources familiar with the case, which is underway in New York, said White House pressure was unlikely to impact court proceedings by the US Justice Department.

Politico reports a key Senate panel will not pursue legislation sanctioning Turkey until Erdogan leaves Washington. Still, the trip is bound to stir controversy as both Turkish and Washington officials have accused one another of breaking a cease-fire agreement in northeast Syria.

“While we hold these talks, those who promised us that the YPG … would withdraw from [the safe zone] within 120 hours have not achieved this,” Erdogan said at a press event Thursday, using the acronym for the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, which Ankara considers a security threat and who US officials promised would pull back from Turkish border areas under the cease-fire agreement.

Speaking on Wednesday, Erdogan said Kurdish forces continue targeting Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces in the proposed safe zone, stating 144 Syrian fighters and 10 Turkish soldiers had been killed since Operation Peace Spring began on Oct. 9. Observers estimate the incursion has also displace 200,000 people in the region.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators plans to issue a letter urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take action against Turkey if it violates the cease-fire, citing reports Turkey-backed troops had been active outside the area.

“On several occasions, President Trump has threatened to ‘destroy Turkey’s economy’ should Turkey violate its obligations,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Lindsey Graham. “In keeping with this position, we ask that the Administration take swift measures to enforce the October 17 agreement with tough economic sanctions.”

The developments come as Erdogan revealed Thursday that the wife of slain Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in Turkish custody. Though Asma Fawzi Muhammad al-Qubaysi had been in detention since June 2018, when she was apprehended during a police raid in southern Turkey, news of her detention broke this week, shortly after Turkish forces detained the IS leader’s older sister in Syria.

The revelations have given rise to questions over why al-Qubaysi’s detention was not made public earlier, but the news could be a display of Ankara’s dedication to the fight against IS ahead of Erdogan’s Washington visit, said Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “Erdogan's Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East.”

During his visit, Cagaptay said Erdogan would not only face challenges in mollifying Congress but could also be met with large street protests following the Syrian incursion and would need avoid repeating confrontations similar to those that occurred during his last DC visit.

In what became known as the Sheridan Circle incident, Erdogan’s security guards clashed openly with protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s Washington residence, damaging Turkey’s image in Washington, perhaps “irreversibly,” Cagaptay said. On Nov. 13, tensions will once again be high both in the streets and on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers’ attitudes toward Turkey have dived since the melee and have been further aggravated since the Syrian incursion.

“I have tracked US-Turkish relations for over two decades,” Cagaptay told Al-Monitor. “I have never seen this much anger against Turkey in Washington. It’s just insane.”

As impeachment proceedings continue against Trump, lawmakers scrutinizing the US leader’s foreign ties may also come to view his close relationship with Erdogan negatively. Still, Cagaptay noted, the Trump-Erdogan relationship “is the only part of the US-Turkish relationship that works now,” stating bilateral agreements would most likely take place between the two leaders.

US-Turkey relations are “like a cart that’s moving on just one wheel, and that wheel is the Erdogan-Trump part of the relationship,” Cagaptay told Al-Monitor. He added, “The trip will be considered successful if it doesn’t add another layer of discontent and disagreement to US-Turkish ties.”

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