US President Donald Trump described Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as “a very good friend” and said the tentative ceasefire in northeastern Syria was “holding very well,” before inviting several Republican senators who have been critical of Turkey to join him at a White House meeting with the Turkish leader on Wednesday, according to The Washington Post.
“We’re having a very good discussion,” Trump told reporters as Senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, James E. Risch, Rick Scott and Joni Ernst sat on couches before him and Erdoğan in the Oval Office.
“The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civics lesson with our Turkish friends,” said Graham, who last month called on Trump to “stand up to Erdogan” and called him a “thug.”
Erdoğan’s visit comes amid smoldering tensions over Turkey’s offensive against US-allied Syrian Kurds after Trump announced last month he would withdraw US troops from the region, a move that has engendered bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.
But Trump rebuffed lawmakers who had called on him to cancel the invitation, saying Erdoğan has lived up to an Oct. 17 agreement negotiated with Vice President Mike Pence to limit Turkey’s incursion into Syria and allow it to create a long-coveted buffer zone at least 20 miles deep inside Syria. Turkey’s military operations have displaced an estimated 100,000 people in northern Syria from their homes, according to the United Nations.
“I want to thank the president for the job they’ve done,” Trump told reporters earlier Wednesday as he welcomed Erdoğan to the White House. He added that the Syrian Kurds, longtime partners with the United States in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the region, “seem very satisfied” with the ceasefire deal.
“The president and I are very good friends. We have been for a long time — almost from Day 1,” Trump said. “I understand the problems that they’ve had — including many people from Turkey being killed, in the area that we’re talking about. And he has to do something about that also. It’s not a one-way street.”
The two leaders were expected to discuss the security situation in the region as well as efforts to put relations on a better track after Turkey purchased a sophisticated Russian missile defense system, the S-400. US law mandates sanctions for such purchases from an “adversary,” and the administration has already cut Turkey’s participation in the international consortium building the new F-35 fighter jet.
Senior administration officials said that an offer to circumvent those punishments and also implement a new $100 billion trade deal — both of which Trump had offered Erdoğan last month in a failed effort to prevent the Turkish military operation in Syria — were still possible if Turkey complies with the ceasefire agreement and the situation in northeastern Syria stabilizes.
“We think we can bring trade up very quickly,” Trump said. Erdoğan, in brief remarks through an interpreter, thanked Trump but did not offer details of his goals of the meeting, citing a joint news conference with the two leaders later in the day.
Graham, a Trump confidant, initially had criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw all US forces from Syria — about 1,000 troops — as “the biggest mistake of his presidency.” But he later congratulated the president on the ceasefire deal and Trump’s subsequent agreement to leave about 600 troops in northeastern Syria.
Ernst and Scott said in advance of the meeting that they planned to confront Erdogan on Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile system.
“I want to make sure he understands that we’re gonna have to implement sanctions,” said Scott, a vocal critic of Erdoğan. “The president doesn’t have a choice. And that’s not gonna be good for Turkey.”
Trump has held off on imposing congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase, while canceling its participation in the F-35 program.
Administration officials, citing Turkey’s importance as a NATO and regional ally, have said Trump would propose a workaround that would allow Turkey to keep the S-400s as long as it does not deploy them, and purchase F-35s. “I project that we will work something out,” Trump said at the meeting with the senators.