Back against the wall, Erdogan battles to win time

One thing Erdogan was lucky to have avoided was discussion on human rights and rule of law in Turkey.

Did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan return from Washington empty-handed or with his hopes fulfilled? Has anything changed after his partly tense meeting with US President Donald Trump and US senators at the White House?

Erdogan’s extremely brief visit — focused only on talks with his sole protector in the US capital, Trump — came with more losses than gains. There is reason to believe Erdogan left Washington with the sense that he is squeezed between the United States and Russia more than ever before.

Some basic takeaways from the meeting are that Erdogan remains dogged by his purchase of the Russian S-400 missile-defence system and is losing influence in Syria. One of the core issues was how Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 jeopardised the F-35 programme in which Ankara is considerably invested.

Erdogan hoped to keep possible increased military cooperation with the United States, including the purchase of Patriot missiles, as a bargaining chip but was told that the US Congress would not be swayed.

In his partly stormy meeting with Republican senators — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Jim Risch of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida — this was made clear.

Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Erdogan that he would effectively block Turkey from receiving any US F-35 fighter jets, which it helped develop in partnership with NATO, the New York Times reported.

The White House meeting was carefully choreographed by Trump. The US president strategically took a back seat while sensitive issues were discussed, allowing his party’s influential senators to confront Erdogan, who didn’t like what he was hearing.

That said, hours after the meeting, Erdogan received a takeaway carrot for his trip home when Graham blocked a bill recognising the Armenian genocide. That shows the Congress will be the institution continuing to hang the sword of Damocles over Erdogan’s head.

Second, the visit marks an end to Erdogan’s years-long ambitions for regime change in Syria. It is over.

There were two clear indications of this: First, in a related meeting in Washington, James Jeffrey, US special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), said the so-called Syria Small Group, which met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would proceed with the constitutional process aimed at securing a “non-military solution” in Syria.

This group consists of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Jordan, France and Egypt. Turkey will not only continue to be pushed out of talks on Syria’s reconstruction, it will face growing pressure to retreat from Syrian soil.

Russia, which shares the goal of defeating ISIS and is expanding its influence in coordination with the Syrian Army to regain full control of the north, continues to play Erdogan like a fiddle.

Omer Taspinar, of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has, to what I hear, a number of files that can put Erdogan in a tight spot,” ranging from “corruption cases” to details surrounding the alleged coup attempt in 2015.

Erdogan did not come out of his Washington meeting on top. Instead he left playing for time, hoping he can somehow gain leverage regarding US defence cooperation ahead of the NATO meeting in early December.

One thing Erdogan was lucky to have avoided, however, was discussion on human rights and rule of law in Turkey. The lack of pushback to his tactics will likely embolden him to continue his furious crackdown on opposition and dissent at home.

Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018. 

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.