Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the U.S. this week * His stay in Washington was memorable in the sense that rarely has there been such an odd spectacle. While Donald Trump treated his counterpart with cordiality and friendship, characterizing him as “highly respected” and “a good friend” with whom he hopes to reach an agreement to increase trade between the two nations from $20 billion to $100 billion annually, discomfort and repudiation were more than evident in the U.S. Congress.
There was no hesitation in condemning the Turkish leader’s recent policies, not just by the Democratic Party but by both sides. Trump’s decision on Oct. 9 to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, opening the door for Erdogan to invade this region and crush the Kurds who have been U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State, was received with astonishment and outrage among the majority of members of Congress. These members were also certainly angered by Erdogan’s purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, in violation of the norms that govern NATO members, including Turkey.
All of this, added to the image of a populist dictator that Erdogan has constructed over the past 17 years as the leader of his country, has resulted in a clear lack of sympathy in Congress for the Turkish president. According to Democratic Sen. Edward Markey, the record with respect to human rights in Turkey is unacceptable. Since the failed coup in 2015, at least 80,000 Turkish citizens have been arrested, and more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations have been closed because Turkey alleges that these organizations are terrorist networks.
For this reason, in contrast to how congenial Trump was toward Erdogan, on Oct. 29, the House of Representatives, in an act aimed at demonstrating its disapproval of the Turkish president, passed a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide carried out by the Turks in the second decade of the last century. It was a crushing vote, with 405 in favor and 11 opposing. And there were even more proposed resolutions: a vote to sanction Turkey for buying the Russian missile system, as well as sanctions ending the sale of weapons to the Turks that could be used in Syria, and sanctions on high-ranking Turkish officials involved in the offensive against the Kurds. All initiatives were approved with 403 votes in favor and 16 opposing. It’s also notable that, among Republicans, the vote indicated the same sentiment, with 176 in favor and 15 opposing.
However, the probability that these initiatives will pass is almost nil, not only because of opposition from Trump, but also because of powerful Republican senators who, although they are critical of Erdogan’s policies — especially Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell — are not inclined to bring these proposals to the Senate because of the possible damage they would do to Trump, who is facing a difficult moment as as the impeachment issue develops.
As Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, expressed in The Washington Post, Erdogan’s visit to the U.S. “was a huge win for Erdogan ... because he projected power at home and got a major audience in the U.S., where he was able to reiterate some of his key talking points, such as the fact that the YPG, which represents the majority of units protecting the Kurds, is a terrorist entity.”**
The obvious question concerns Trump’s flattery and tolerance of Erdogan, even when Trump's most loyal Republican supporters firmly oppose him in this matter. Will there be issues related to the rapport between two populist rulers eager for power? Or will there be more involved personal business or perhaps agreements to protect private interests that are not so clean? This is the kind of speculation that inevitably arises when things appear incongruent in terms of the major geostrategic interests of the U.S. that concern even Trump’s fellow Republicans.
*Editor’s note: The Turkish president visited the U.S. on Nov. 13.
**Editor’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be verified.