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Erdogan meets Trump in Washington

What happened: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington DC yesterday. At a press conference with US President Donald Trump the two leaders spoke affectionately about each other. Trump said he and Erdogan are “very good friends”, while Erdogan called Trump his “dear friend”. But warm personal relations failed to produce any concrete agreement on vital bilateral issues.

  • A statement issued after the meeting acknowledged that no progress was made to address the implications of Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defence system, which led to Turkey’s suspension from the US-led F35 fighter programme.
  • Trump expressed his desire to expand trade with Turkey: “We think we could be doing $100 billion … right now we’re doing about $20 billion.”
  • Lindsey Graham, who was invited to the meeting at the White House along with other Republican senators, blocked a recent resolution recognising the Armenian genocide, saying:  “I just met with President Erdoğan and President Trump about the problems we face in Syria by the military incursion by Turkey. I do hope that Turkey and Armenia can come together and deal with this problem.”

Context: US lawmakers have expressed strong opposition to President Erdogan since the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria, which was given the green light by Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops.

  • US troops remain in eastern Syria, notwithstanding Trump’s withdrawal announcement in October, with around 500-600 troops remaining there, according to US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.
  • But there is some confusion about their exact role, with President Trump saying yesterday that the US presence in Syria is “only for the oil”. Esper, in contrast, said: “Our mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
  • Fighting has mostly subsided in northeast Syria, with a mixture of Turkish and Turkish-backed rebels, Syrian and Russian forces patrolling the border, although there are reports of fighting between the SDF and Turkish-backed SNA personnel around the town of Tall Tamr in the last 24 hours.

Looking ahead: Trump has consistently had difficulty translating warm personal relations with authoritarian leaders into material benefits for US foreign policy. Despite striking up a good rapport with Erdogan, he was unable to prevent a Turkish invasion of Syria last month, and Turkey’s insistence on continuing with the purchase of the S-400 air defence system has caused immense problems for US-Turkey and NATO-Turkey relations.