By Steve Herman
There was no indication of any breakthrough following talks Wednesday between the leaders of Turkey and United States at a time when their relationship is at a low ebb.
Donald Trump and Recip Tayyip Erdogan described their discussions at the White House as productive and sincere.
“Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military weapons, such as the S-400, creates some very serious challenges for us,” Trump acknowledged at a joint news conference, standing alongside Erdogan.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to resolve that situation,” he added.
Purchase violates US act
The Turkish purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Moscow violates the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which prohibits major purchases of Russian military hardware.
That also prompted the United States to eject its fellow NATO ally from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
Referring to the S-400 and F-35 issues, Erdogan said, “We can only surmount the hurdles that we experience through dialogue.”
The Turkish leader also suggested that his military could purchase the American Patriot missile defense system if the price was right.
Officials of both countries said additional high-level discussions were planned to try to resolve the critical matter.
Erdogan recently discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin buying Su-57 and Su-35 fighter jets from Moscow if he was not able to get the American aircraft, according to media reports.
Such a move could endanger Turkey’s membership in the U.S.-led NATO defense alliance.
Trump, at Wednesday’s news conference, made no reference to that, hailing Turkey as a great NATO partner.
Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of congressmen sent Trump a letter requesting that he cancel his meeting with the Turkish president because of Erdogan’s “disastrous” actions in Syria and purchase of the S-400 system.
“Given this situation, we believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the United States,” the lawmakers wrote.
Just before Erdogan arrived at the White House, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland called it “shameful” for Trump to host Erdogan, accusing the U.S. president of again “turning a blind eye to the actions of foreign leaders who have amassed power and seek to rule as autocrats, subverting democracy in their countries and exploiting divisions and ethnic conflicts to promote their own legitimacy.”
That sentiment was echoed by Nancy Soderberg, a former deputy national security adviser and adviser to the nonpartisan Foreign Policy for America organization.
“Instead, we should suspend Turkey from NATO for engaging in ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in Syria, prompting more than 180,000 civilians to flee. We should be condemning, not feting, the dictatorial Erdogan, who is also targeting political opponents, minorities and NGOs at home,” Soderberg said.
‘Trump was right’
Foreign policy analyst Dario Cristiani, IAI/GMF fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said, however, “Trump was right in meeting Erdogan.”
Cristiani told VOA that despite Erdogan’s growing more and authoritarian and nationalistic, “Turkey remains a major NATO ally and a fundamental country for the geopolitical balances in many areas of the world. As such, talking to Turkey remains crucial, although the pressure on democracy and human rights should also remain significant.”
Five Republican senators joined Trump and Erdogan in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon.
“The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civics lesson with our Turkish friends. And there’s a pony in there somewhere if we can find it,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters (referencing a punch line from a Ronald Reagan joke about an optimistic farm boy searching in a pile of manure).
“And I think we will,” Trump responded.
Treatment of Kurds
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said that in addition to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, American lawmakers were also concerned about Erdogan’s treatment of the Kurds, elements of whom the Turkish government considers terrorists.
Some of the Kurdish armed groups are considered allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State group inside Syria.
In an interview with VOA’s Kurdish service, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces, Mustafa Bali, called for the United States not to sacrifice, for its economic interests, the Kurds, Christians, and other ethnic and religious groups inside Syrian territory.
“President Trump should fulfill his moral obligations and prevent the ethnic cleansing and demographic engineering that [has been] carried out by Erdogan since his forces started the occupation in Syria,” Bali said, alleging Turkey has been violating the cease-fire and expands the territory outside the so-called “safe zone.”
Erdogan, at the news conference, blamed Kurdish terrorists for continuing to kill Turkish soldiers and civilians. He also said he returned an October 9 letter Trump had sent him, in which the U.S. president had asked the Turkish leader not to be “a tough guy” and “a fool” by launching a military offensive in Syria.
The discussions between Trump and Erdogan were held amid the first day of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry the House is conducting against the U.S. president.
At the news conference, Trump said, “I haven’t watched for one minute,” calling the process “a sham that shouldn’t be allowed.”