(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump said he’s willing to sit down in London this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even though their meeting last month on Syria touched off outrage in Washington.
Trump told reporters on Tuesday in London -- where he’s attending a summit for the 70th anniversary of NATO -- that Turkey was an important U.S. ally, especially in the fight against Islamic State, and was a country the U.S. had good ties with.
“I like Turkey,” Trump said. He added he was not sure if a chat with Erdogan was already planned. The president’s formal schedule does not currently include a meeting with the Turkish leader.
Turkish officials have said they hope for some sort of interaction. But even if they don’t cross paths, the relationship between Erdogan and Trump will be closely watched.
NATO members have voiced concern at Erdogan’s cultivation of ties to Russia and his military offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria, an operation that began after Trump cleared the way by withdrawing American forces.
Senior administration officials in the U.S. said earlier the leaders weren’t planning a formal chat simply because the Turkish president recently visited Washington. But they acknowledged deepening frustration with Ankara, which is pushing forward with the deployment of a Russian-made air-defense system.
Erdogan sought to get ahead of that narrative before he arrived in London for NATO.
“Our relations with Russia and other countries are not alternative to our good relations with our allies but complement them,” he told reporters on Tuesday, describing Turkey as “an indispensable partner of NATO.”
The dust-ups over Syria and the Russian weaponry are only the latest high-stakes foreign policy episodes in which Trump has left allies alarmed by an approach to Erdogan that they regard as accommodating to the point of complicity.
At the Turkish leader’s behest, Trump has explored taking action against a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania and asked aides to examine the impact of U.S. sanctions against a Turkish bank accused of money laundering and fraud. Some Republican lawmakers have groused that the Trump administration did little to punish Turkey after members of Erdogan’s security team attacked protesters during his May 2017 visit to Washington.
“You have the bureaucracy, Congress, foreign policy establishment completely mad at the Turks, but you have a president who does everything the Turks want him to,” said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.
And while Congress is moving to sanction Turkey for deploying the Russian S-400 system, Trump has shown little appetite to penalize the country and has instead blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for pushing Erdogan toward Moscow.
Turkish officials say the threat of U.S. sanctions won’t stop Ankara from fully deploying the S-400, scheduled to be completed in the first half of 2020. That said, the country’s economy is ill-prepared to withstand U.S. retaliation. Last year, a diplomatic spat with Washington accelerated a selloff in the lira, tipping the economy into its first recession in a decade.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to consider legislation next week penalizing Turkey for both Syria and the S-400s. Senators Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump confidant, wrote to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Monday demanding the State Department sanction Turkey under current law.
Trump can little afford further controversy over his conduct of foreign policy with impeachment hearings underway in the House. The danger is particularly acute with Turkey: The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who is a central figure in the impeachment inquiry, once lobbied the White House to reduce sanctions against Halkbank, the Turkish-owned bank accused of running an operation to dodge sanctions against Iran.
Giuliani also sought the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was an Erdogan ally until the two men fell out. Erdogan blames him for an attempted coup in 2016.
Trump has forged a bond with Erdogan even though the Turkish leader has occasionally caused him public discomfort. During his visit to Washington, Erdogan told reporters he had personally returned a letter Trump wrote him warning against the Syria operation. Trump didn’t acknowledge the insult.
Read more: Turkey Begins Testing Missile Radars at Heart of Row With U.S.
If he is seen cozying up to Erdogan again at NATO, Trump may invite more scrutiny from the very Republican lawmakers he’ll need on his side as the impeachment process continues.
The White House still sees value in direct engagement with Turkey, according to a senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the U.S. diplomatic approach to the summit. Officials believe NATO is stronger with Turkey’s cooperation, and engagement can pay dividends as they work through tough issues and seek to hold Ankara to its commitments.
But the shortcomings of the approach are apparent. Foreign policy specialists say Erdogan’s decision to go forward with the S-400 may be rooted in a calculation that he can either wring more concessions from the U.S., or that Trump is unwilling to enforce sanctions.
“There were a lot of carrots offered to Turkey – a free trade pact, Patriot missiles, the F-35 – but he didn’t budge,” said Omer Taspinar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He went back to Turkey and declared the decision on the S-400 was irreversible.”
White House Pressure
Speculation that Trump is unwilling to confront Erdogan is fed by apparent White House pressure on Republican lawmakers.
Senate Republican leaders declined to take up a House-passed bill that would more quickly impose sanctions on Turkey. And the same day Erdogan met with Trump and Republican senators in November, Graham blocked the Senate from adopting a House-passed measure characterizing the Ottoman Empire’s killing of 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century as genocide.
Graham told the news service Axios the White House asked him to block the bill.
Concerns over the president’s approach have only deepened in the aftermath of the Turkish campaign in Syria. Critics say a cease-fire brokered by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence came at the expense of Kurds who helped in the fight against Islamic State, and strengthened the Russian position in Syria.
Erdogan will meet Tuesday with the leaders of the U.K., Germany and France to discuss Syria, where he’s seeking a “safe zone” free of Kurdish militants. He is set to propose a donor conference to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to the area he claims the Kurds have vacated -- a sign he’s looking to make his gains in the country permanent.
At the same time Erdogan is opposing a proposed NATO statement supporting Baltic states because the U.S. has blocked a separate bid to label the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG as a threat to Turkey.
“If our friends in the NATO do not accept those terrorists that we are fighting as terrorists, then sorry, but we will oppose any step that is to be taken there,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.
Failure to understand how seriously Turkey feels about the YPG issue risks undermining the alliance, Gulnur Aybet, who advises Erdogan on foreign affairs, said on Tuesday at an event in London.
“Turkey does not question NATO’s fundamentals," she said. "It questions NATO’s understanding of threats to Turkey.”
(Updates with Turkey comments. An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Erdogan.)
--With assistance from Onur Ant and Jordan Fabian.
To contact the reporters on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, ;Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com, Justin Blum
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