Turkey’s Erdoğan to focus on S-400 talks in Washington visit

A range of bitter disagreements are on the agenda for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two-day visit to Washington starting on Wednesday, with Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons and the country’s military operation in northern Syria set to be key issues.

The purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles will be top of the list of issues discussed, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, citing a top aide of Erdoğan’s who said it was vital for Turkey to have “multiple air and missile defence systems”.

U.S. President Donald Trump has gone against the grain in Washington with his tolerant stance to the S-400s’ arrival in July, which kicked off demands from U.S. lawmakers to sanction Turkey.

As well as holding back on imposing legally mandated sanctions for buying arms from Russia, Trump has discussed selling U.S.-built Patriot missiles to Turkey and hinted at the possibility of reversing Turkey’s suspension from the programme to build F-35 fighter jets.

“When we expressed our desire to buy the Patriots, the U.S. set a condition for us not to purchase the S-400s,” Bloomberg quoted the Director of Communications for Erdoğan’s Presidency, Fahrettin Altun, as saying.

“I’m confident that Erdoğan and Trump will have an honest discussion on this,” he said. “I believe the two leaders can find a solution that’s acceptable and can be implemented.”

But Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told CBS this week that sanctions over the S-400 purchase were still in the pipeline if Turkey does not get rid of the Russian systems.

If an agreement allowing Turkey to buy Patriots while still holding S-400s is reached, it would not only contradict years of warnings from U.S. and NATO officials about the threat of security leaks posed by Russian-built hardware, but would also raise hackles in Congress.

Turkey’s recent military operation against Kurdish-led forces that spearheaded the U.S.-backed coalition against Islamic State sparked outrage among American lawmakers, who saw Trump’s tacit approval of the Turkish offensive as a betrayal of valuable partners.

Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces paved the way for the launch of a Turkish cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces on Oct. 9. Less than two weeks later, the U.S. president lauded a deal struck with Ankara to halt the operation, but Congress has been less forgiving, and the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to sanction Turkey over its incursion on Oct. 29. The Senate must now approve the measures.

For his part, Erdoğan has complained that the United States has failed to keep to its side of the deal and ensure the removal of Kurdish fighters from what he calls a safe zone carved out in the operation.

Analysts told the Voice of America the Turkish president could seek tacit approval from Trump for a resumption of the offensive.

Erdoğan has found a sympathetic partner in Trump, who has spoken of the Turkish president as a friend and a “hell of a leader”.

Despite a history of unpleasant incidents in previous visits – Erdoğan’s security detail rushed past U.S. police to beat protesters in 2017 – the Turkish president can expect a red carpet welcome from Trump, who “may view the Erdoğan meeting on Wednesday as counterprogramming against public impeachment hearings,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson said.

Despite the pair’s close personal relationship, analysts view the widespread animosity to Turkey in Congress as a likely barrier to further big concessions for Turkey.

The anti-Turkish sentiment came to the fore after last month’s military operation, but has been brewing for years over a series of disputes with little room for compromise.

Among these is Turkey’s imprisonment of U.S. nationals and consulate workers, whom the Turkish government has accused of links to the Gülen religious movement that it blames for organising the coup attempt in 2016.

The detention of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, led to a diplomatic row last year and ultimately sparked a currency crisis in Turkey after Trump ordered targeted sanctions against two Turkish ministers. Brunson was released in October, but U.S. consular workers still face charges in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan will bring the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the movement’s leader, back to the agenda during his meeting with Trump, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Turkey considers Gülen, who has lived in the United States since 1999, to be the leader of a terrorist organisation, and has pursued a global campaign to chase down his followers.

Turkish officials say they have delivered proof of Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt to the United States, but the extradition process has not progressed in U.S. courts.