With impeachment hearings underway in the House, President Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday to address simmering tensions between the U.S. and its longtime NATO ally. Trump misled the media before the negotiations even began. Sitting next to a notably reserved Erdoğan in the Oval Office, Trump told reporters that a “ceasefire” agreement negotiated by his administration after Turkey’s invasion of the Rojava autonomous region in northeast Syria was “holding very well.” He added that the Kurds “seem to be very satisfied” with the agreement.
Kurds are a distinct ethnic group from the Middle East, but as he later clarified, Trump was not referring to the ethnic group. By “Kurds,” Trump meant the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of pro-democracy fighters led by a left-wing Kurdish militia that is the U.S.’s closest partner in the fight against ISIS (also known as Daesh). Battles between SDF fighters and Turkey’s proxies continued on Wednesday near the town of Tell Tamer on the edge of the so-called “de-escalation zone” carved out of northeast Syria by the Turkish invasion, according to sources on the ground. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 420 SDF fighters have died since Turkey invaded Rojava, with many casualties occurring after the ceasefire was announced. Activists worldwide consider the SDF and other militias defending Rojava to be freedom fighters, and the SDF is an important U.S. ally. Erdoğan, meanwhile, calls the SDF’s Kurdish elements “terrorists.”
After a phone call with Erdoğan in October, Trump ordered U.S. troops to retreat from key positions in northeast Syria, allowing Turkey to invade Rojava, sparking a war and a humanitarian crisis. ISIS cells launched attacks after Erdoğan’s military operation sparked chaos in the region where the SDF and the U.S. worked together to crush its brutal caliphate. On November 11, three bombs exploded in Qamishli, the de-facto capital of Rojava’s budding regional democracy, killing at least six people and wounding 26 others. ISIS has previously set off bombs in Qamishli but has yet to claim responsibility for the most recent blasts as it normally would. The SDF blamed an anti-Kurdish militant group with suspected ties to Turkish intelligence for that attack, accusing Turkey of attempting to sow ethnic tensions in the highly diverse region. Turkish analysts blamed the SDF for failing to provide proper security, according to reports.
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Turkey’s proxies fighting in Rojava have been accused of terrorizing civilians and a number of war crimes. U.S. officials reportedly captured evidence of possible war crimes on surveillance video. A number of videos have emerged online purporting to show jihadist militiamen looting stores and homes and threatening to execute Kurdish women fighting with the SDF. The militias have been accused of rape and extrajudicial killings, including the brutal murder of a Kurdish civilian woman and politician. Rojava’s experiment with autonomous regional democracy is explicitly a feminist project that has been a target of the Islamic fundamentalists fighting for Erdoğan.
Human rights observers say Turkey’s track record in the region is one of terror and violence. Since Turkish-backed forces took over the Syrian town of Afrin in 2018, the area has experienced forced displacement, kidnappings, “demographic engineering” and other human rights violations, according to a report compiled by the Rojava Information Center. As of October 31, more than 200,000 civilians had been displaced from the “de-escalation” zone, and displacements continue as the SDF confronts Turkey and its militias.
“It’s really important to look at Afrin as an example that has already happened in Serê Kaniyê and Tell Abyad and could happen in any other land that is taken by Turkey and its proxies,” said Robin Fleming with the Rojava Information Center, referring to border towns under Turkish occupation, in an interview with Truthout.
Congress has responded to the crisis in northeast Syria with bipartisan outrage, and both chambers have advanced legislation to hit Turkey with sanctions. Lawmakers in both parties had urged Trump to cancel his meeting with Erdoğan. The president, already facing impeachment in the House for the Ukraine scandal, met with Erdoğan anyway.
Trump and Erdoğan made little mention of the humanitarian crisis in northeast Syria during a press conference after their meeting on Wednesday. A reporter for a far-right news outlet in the U.S. did ask about the fate of Christian minorities in the region — Trump has come under fire from his evangelical supporters for essentially greenlighting the Turkish invasion — and Erdoğan said Turkey has a “plan” for them. The White House invited a few Republican senators to meet with Erdoğan, but few details have emerged about Trump’s meeting with the Turkish autocrat. A chief concern for U.S. leaders is Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system known as S-400, which disqualifies Turkey from participating in the joint development program for the F-35 fighter jet, a lumbering international collaboration costing U.S. taxpayers $1 trillion. Another sticking point is the SDF, Erdoğan’s enemy and an ally to U.S.
Based on statements from the White House and both leaders, it seems that none of these issues were resolved on Wednesday. Erdoğan made no commitments to reverse Turkey’s plans to set up the Russian missiles and continues to partner with Russian forces to patrol the occupied territory in northeast Syria. Turkey manufactures parts for the F-35 program, and the Pentagon is already working to find other suppliers. Erdoğan knows that his relationship with Russia is a bargaining chip, because U.S. leaders fear their traditional ally will move closer to Vladimir Putin and away from the U.S. and Europe.
“We know that there’s issues that we’re dealing with right now, but the goal — my goal here and I think all of our goal here is, at the end of this meeting, we’re in a better position where we’re better allies; where we understand exactly what’s going to happen with the S-400 … so Turkey is heading in the direction of the United States, not heading the direction of Russia,” said Republican Sen. Rick Scott during the White House’s “legislative engagement” with Erdoğan.
During their press conference, Trump and Erdoğan repeatedly emphasized the “friendship” between the U.S. and Turkey — and their personal friendship as well. Erdoğan repeatedly called Trump a “dear friend,” and Trump said Erdoğan is doing a “fantastic job” for the people of Turkey. They touted a $100 billion trade deal that Trump framed as a concrete deliverable, though his diplomats likely see it as an incentive for Turkey to budge on other issues. The trade deal is evidence that the meeting was a big success for Erdoğan, who is facing mounting international scrutiny for inciting violence in Syria as he quibbles with European nations over the placement of refugees from Syria’s civil war.
A meeting at the White House is a powerful bully pulpit, and Erdoğan took full advantage. He defended the invasion as an anti-terror campaign and complained about the failed coup attempt against his government, which Erdoğan used as an excuse to consolidate power for his nationalist party, purge dissidents and jail a record number of journalists. He lashed out at the House of Representatives for voting to sanction Turkey and rebuke its failure to officially acknowledge the Armenian genocide. He boasted about his efforts to fight ISIS, even though his government allowed ISIS fighters to cross from Turkey into Syria for years. He laid out his vision to repatriate more than 3 million refugees into the de-escalation zone in northeast Syria, a plan that has raised fears of ethnic cleansing. Importantly, Erdoğan insisted that the SDF, which worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. to expel ISIS from Syria, is a terrorist group, even as Trump recommits troops to the region to protect oil fields that the SDF and Rojava depend on for revenue.
For Trump, however, the meeting was a welcome distraction from the impeachment proceedings underway in the House, where Democrats are investigating whether he withheld military aid to Ukraine for political gain. While the impeachment inquiry has been framed around an alleged “quid pro quo” with the Ukrainian president, it raises broader concerns about Trump’s ability to pursue U.S. interests abroad without putting his personal interests first. Standing next to Turkey’s strongman president in the White House press room, Trump appeared determined to prove that he can be trusted on foreign policy.
“Are you talking about the witch hunt? Is that what you mean?” Trump replied when asked about the impeachment proceedings. “Is that what you’re talking about? I hear it’s a joke. I haven’t watched. I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the president, which is much more important, as far as I’m concerned.”