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Erdogan's Washington visit: Why the Turkish president is hesitating

A Turkish delegation is scheduled to arrive next week, but officials say that a range of issues from sanctions to the recognition of the Armenian genocide trouble Ankara
US President Donald Trump invited the Turkish president to visit Washington, DC next week (AFP)
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Ankara

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington, scheduled for next week, may be off the table, several Turkish officials have said publicly this week. 

Without going into great detail, the officials have implied that recent developments in the US have put pressure on Ankara to decline US President Donald Trump's invitation for the trip, set to begin on 13 November.

'The administration itself doesn’t recognise the genocide, nor do they support the sanctions. Yet they decided to be silent'

- Turkish official

But Turkish officials, speaking to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, laid out several factors that have put the visit in jeopardy.

Last week, the Turkish government asked the Trump administration to issue a public response to the US House of Representatives after it had recognised the Armenian Genocide and passed a sanctions bill against Turkey. But nothing happened.

“The administration itself doesn’t recognise the genocide, nor do they support the sanctions. Yet they decided to be silent,” one Turkish official said.

Ankara had also expected that, in accordance with the US-Turkey ceasefire deal on northern Syria signed last month, the Trump administration would lobby the Senate to stop further progress on the sanctions bill against Turkey. “It didn’t happen either,” the official said.

Turkish officials also demanded that the administration block Mazloum Abdi, the head of Syrian Democratic Forces, from visiting Washington. Abdi, who is also known as Ferdi Abdi Sahin, is a former commander for the PKK which both Turkey and the US have designated as a terror organisation.

It's not yet clear whether Abdi will definitely visit the capital, but the White House has not made moves to block the trip.

“The American officials know what kind of a terrorist he is, what kind of past atrocities he is responsible for. Yet they don’t want to mess with the Congress which treats him as a hero that defeated IS,” the official added.

One frenemy left

On top of that, there is a broader disagreement over what the two sides will discuss during the visit.

Turkish officials wish to exchange opinions on a wide variety of topics from Syria to possible sanctions on the state-owned Halkbank. 

However, the White House, according to the officials, only wants to negotiate the sale of US-made missiles to prevent Turkey from using Russian ones it already bought. 

“Trump plans to sell Patriots to Turkey in return for Erdogan committing himself not to activate the Russian-made S-400s. In this way, Turkey would continue to receive F-35 jets,” the official said.

Multiple sources earlier told MEE that Trump had been pushing for a similar deal since the summer.

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There are also other considerations. A source in Washington with direct knowledge of US-Turkish relations and discussions told MEE that the US Congress would likely gaslight the visit by issuing a joint letter which could condemn Erdogan’s visit. 

“This could also provoke the US media. They would come down hard on Turkey. For a start, they would talk about the lawsuit against Erdogan’s bodyguards who are accused of violence against the protestors,” the source said.

However, cancelling the visit would come with some real costs for Ankara, namely losing the only friend officials feel they have in Washington: Trump.

With the State Department’s downgraded status, the Pentagon’s frustration with Turkey over the incursion in Syria and anti-Ankara sentiment in the US media, the US president is seen as the only bridge that holds the bilateral relations on track.

And whatever topics might be covered during the trip, progress is only possible if Trump is on board.

Some Turkish observers still think a visit is likely to happen. Hande Firat, Ankara correspondent for Hurriyet daily, wrote in her column that, after convesration with officials, she believed Ankara was leaning towards making the trip.

Erdogan's communications director Fahrettin Altun tweeted on Tuesday that "certain circles in Washington are working hard to make the US-Turkey partnership unworkable".

“We hope a cool-headed approach that understands the true value of alliances will prevail in the end," he wrote. "The decision for the November visit ultimately lies with our president.”

Erdogan said on Tuesday that he would make his decision after talking to Trump over the phone. MEE understands that Turkey requested the call, but it is unclear when it will take place.