Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got an earful from a handful of GOP senators during a White House meeting this week. 

Republican senators said they raised concerns about Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria against Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-allied rebel group, while also objecting to Ankara’s reliance on a Russian military system.

Two GOP senators who attended the meeting described Erdoğan as “defensive” as the lawmakers raised their concerns in the Oval Office meeting, which was also attended by President Trump. 

Trump, according to senators, largely hung back and let the lawmakers take the lead with the Turkish president. 

“It’s up to Turkey now, there’s a win-win awaiting them,” Graham told reporters. “I hope Turkey understands that most of us want to salvage this relationship, but there’s some things we can’t allow to happen.” 

Asked about Erdoğan’s response to senators, Graham added that the Turkish leader was “very defensive.” 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) characterized the meeting as a “spirited discussion,” but called the face-to-face “very therapeutic.” 

“I told him, told President Erdoğan that Turkey was a long, longtime friend of ours and has been a great ally. Certainly, they’re a NATO partner with us. And unfortunately, of course, the relationship has soured a bit in recent years, and it would be in everyone’s best interest to get it back on track,” he said. 

Trump and Erdoğan met on Wednesday afternoon with Graham, Risch and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.). 

Senators repeatedly brought up Turkey’s use of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which has triggered the threat of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Turkey bought the defense system over U.S. objections.

Senators view the Russian system as a threat to the F-35, and urged Erdoğan to drop his use of the Russian system. 

“The most important thing is to say that they can’t buy the S-400 without getting sanctions. And what I wanted to do is be clear that I think everybody would like to have a good relationship with Turkey, but he can’t be heading in the direction of Russia and think we’re not going to have sanctions,” Scott said about the meeting. 

Risch added that Erdoğan left the meeting with a “very, very clear picture” that he will not be able to both keep the S-400 and get use of the U.S.’s F-35s.

“We had a detailed discussion of that. At the end of the day, as all of you know, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is required to sign off on any weaponry that is exported, and I told him what I’ve told them all along, and that is that I am not signing off on any F-35s out of the country to Turkey while they have the S-400 missiles,” Risch said. 

Asked about Erdoğan’s reaction to the demand, Ernst said the Turkish leader “kept going back to, ‘so you want me to sever ties with Russia?’” 

“And I said, no, we all have very complicated relationships, I’m not asking you to sever ties with Russia I am asking that you get rid of the S-400,” Ernst continued, adding that Turkey’s decision to use the Russian system was a “bad move on their part.” 

The meeting comes as tensions are running high on Capitol Hill after Trump’s decision to pull back U.S. troops in northern Syria and Turkey’s subsequent military incursion.

The House has already passed new sanctions against Turkey, as well as a resolution formally opposing Trump’s strategy. 

Lawmakers opposed Trump’s strategy over concerns that it would bolster ISIS and endanger the Kurds, who worked with the United States to fight ISIS. 

At one point during the meeting Erdoğan gave Turkey credit for the defeat of ISIS, according to Graham, who said he took issue with the statement 

“President Erdoğan said that Turkey bore the brunt of the battle against ISIS. That really infuriated me because it was the Kurds and the SDF forces,” Graham said. “I got into a bit of a contest with the president when he claimed that it was Turkey who took down ISIS. No, it wasn’t.” 

Cruz, according to Graham, recounted how he was on a trip in Asia during Trump’s decision to pull out troops from Northern Syria and Turkey’s subsequent incursion, and told Erdoğan that it created a “real chill in the air” among U.S. allies. 

Allies were questioning “if you abandoned the Kurds, will you abandon us?” Cruz told Erdoğan, according to Graham. 

Erdoğan, according to senators, at one point showed them a video that he characterized as being “terrorist attacks” carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group that is designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.

“Propaganda is maybe a word that we wouldn’t use diplomatically. We would call it more a video that showed visually a point he was trying to make and that is his country has been subject to terrorist attacks,” Risch said. 

Ernst, however, told reporters that it was “very much a propaganda video.” 

“While I appreciate President Erdoğan showing us the information,” she said, “we don’t know the origins.”

Tags Donald Trump Jim Risch Joni Ernst Ted Cruz
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