“Our president is maintaining a powerful dialogue with Trump,” Ömer Çelik, the chief spokesman for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), told us. He characterized both men as “direct” talkers. “A conversation between two straightforward people continues even during a crisis,” he said.
Those straightforward conversations have also included Trump telling Erdoğan “Don’t be a fool!” in a colorfully blunt letter dated the day the incursion into northeastern Syria started; and Erdoğan’s dismissal of the missive (“There’s no point to dwell on this letter,” he told reporters after he reportedly threw it away). But on Syria in early October they seemed to have some mutual interests; Erdoğan wanted U.S. troops out of the way, and Trump wanted U.S. troops out altogether.
Read: Why is Turkey in NATO anyway?
So at the end of a fateful phone call that month, and at Erdoğan’s insistence, Trump agreed to remove some Special Forces from two outposts near the Turkish border without consulting America’s Kurdish partners. That sudden move allowed Erdoğan to push Kurdish forces from a buffer zone along the Turkish border, for now. But picking America’s NATO ally over its local partner was never going to be enough to make up for what the Turks see as the original sin, committed in the Obama administration, of supporting Kurdish armed groups against ISIS in the first place. Where the U.S. saw capable fighters, willing to sacrifice in large numbers to help defeat a terrorist organization that posed a global threat, Turkey saw the Syrian branch of its own country’s long-boiling Kurdish insurgency, led by the PKK, which is itself listed as a terrorist group by the United States. “The weapons which the terrorist organization uses against us are given to them by our ally,” Çelik said. Erdoğan would prefer Trump stop supporting the Syrian Kurdish fighters altogether.
But he won’t get that. There are some things personal chemistry just can’t fix. “Even when Trump decides something, he sometimes cannot implement it,” Kılıç Kanat, the D.C.-based research director at SETA, a pro-Turkish-government think tank, told us. At the same time, not only is there “total confusion and lack of clarity” about U.S. objectives in Syria, he said, but “Congress is ready to stop any of Trump’s overtures to Erdoğan in the next two weeks.”
Some congressional leaders, in fact, tried to stop the White House visit altogether, with a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 17 lawmakers urging Trump to cancel. The meeting is still happening, but lawmakers did at least manage to heighten the discomfort: The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution to recognize the Ottoman Turks’ mass killing of Armenians in World War I as a genocide—something Turkey’s advocates in Washington have fought for years. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a co-sponsor of a bill that would sanction Turkey for its Syria incursion, said in a speech yesterday that Trump was “rewarding” Erdoğan for “thumbing his nose at the United States” with “a coveted White House visit.”