U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on Wednesday amidst tensions over Ankara’s incursion into Syria and its purchase of a Russian air defence system.
They meet a month after Turkey launched an offensive in north-eastern Syria, which was green-lighted by Trump but triggered a furious backlash in the U.S. Congress and calls for tough sanctions.
The White House has made clear that the U.S. goal is to prevent the resurgence of Islamic State, and said Washington had “no intention” of ending its cooperation with Syrian Kurdish forces.
The Kurdish fighters, the main U.S. partners in the campaign to defeat Islamic State, are considered terrorists by Ankara.
Mr Erdogan has criticized both the U.S. and Russia for failing to fulfil their “promises” of clearing Syrian Kurdish militias from Turkey’s border with Syria.
The Turkish president, however, acknowledged the visit was taking place as relations between the NATO allies “are going through a painful process.”
A senior administration official said the U.S. wanted to prevent atrocities in Syria against religious and ethnic minorities such as Christians, Yezidis and Kurds, and that Trump would also address the human rights situation in Turkey.
The official said of the countries’ 70-year alliance: “We are not going to throw it away lightly if there is a way forward.”
Trump is “committed to direct engagement and diplomacy where it is most critical: Erdogan himself,” the official said.
The two leaders have a tough agenda which will include U.S. concerns about Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, which it says compromises the F-35 fighter jet programme.
Turkey, which produces F-35 components, has been suspended from the multinational project.
Erdogan, who previously said neither threats nor sanctions would deter Turkey from meeting its defence needs, has so far refused to give up the Russian system.
Despite the looming sanctions’ threats, which Trump has so far staved off, both leaders are keen to achieve a projected bilateral trade goal of 100 billion dollars.
“It’s fair to say that there are irritants on both sides,” the administration official said, and hinted at the possibility of Turkey’s return to the F-35 programme.
“But to get there, we, as allies, need to resolve this issue of the S-400. One has to move, and then the other has to move,” the official said.
The US has also said Turkey and other countries must prevent a resurgence of Islamic State and are responsible for recapturing any militants who flee captivity.
Turkey, which has said it is not a “hotel” for Islamic State fighters, started repatriating suspected foreign militants to their home countries on Monday.
The first was a U.S. citizen, who remains stranded in a no-man’s land between the Greek and Turkish borders, after Greece refused him entry and Turkey wouldn’t let him back in.
“Whether they are stuck there at the border it doesn’t concern us. We will continue to send them,” said Erdogan, when asked about the man.
On top of Erdogan’s agenda is the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric whom the Turkish government blames for a 2016 coup attempt.
“Despite the foggy weather in our relations, we agree with President Trump on the point of resolving problems,” Erdogan said before leaving for Washington.