- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2019

The looming White House meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will include a large number of thorny, difficult issues — even by President Trump’s standards — such as Syria, the future of NATO, Ankara’s growing closeness with Russia and the state of democracy in Turkey.

The talks Wednesday will proceed despite a bipartisan move in Congress to rescind the invitation to the Turkish leader. Lawmakers have threatened harsh sanctions over the NATO ally’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system and a Turkish military incursion into neighboring Syria targeting U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.

Lawmakers and human rights organizations also have been sounding the alarm on what they say are human rights violations against Kurdish forces in Syria. These fighters were critical to the success of the Pentagon’s fight against the Islamic State group.

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“It is absolutely critical that the White House send a message that these actions and this unlawful behavior on the part of Turkish forces is stopped, and that folks are held accountable for the violations that they’ve caused,” said Margaret Huang, U.S. executive director at Amnesty International.

In the first week of the offensive, at least 218 civilians were killed in northeastern Syria, 18 of whom were children, according to the Kurdish-led administration’s health authority in the region.

“This offensive into northeast Syria has wreaked havoc on the lives of Syrian civilians who have to again leave their homes, even their temporary homes, and are now living in constant fear of indiscriminate bombing abductions and summary killings,” she said.

It’s unlikely Mr. Trump will directly confront Mr. Erdogan on those issues, said Stephen McInerney, an executive director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“President Trump is very likely to give President Erdogan a strong public embrace on Wednesday,” Mr. McInerney predicted on a call with reporters Monday.

“But it’s important that President Erdogan and the Turkish government come away from this visit realizing that that embrace and that willingness to ignore authoritarian repression and human rights abuses inside Turkey does not extend beyond the White House and that many here in Washington have deep concerns with those issues,” he said.

Concerns about the visit aren’t just on the level of international diplomacy. D.C. Metropolitan Police and security forces are bracing for demonstrations across the city that could spark memories of violent clashes between protesters and members of Mr. Erdogan’s security team during his last visit in 2017.

Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham has said the force is gearing up to prevent a repeat of the chaotic, violent scenes outside the Turkish Embassy two years ago. Turkish bodyguards were punching and kicking protesters as Mr. Erdogan departed the Turkish Embassy. D.C. police officers beat back Mr. Erdogan’s security team with batons and nightsticks in an effort to protect the protesters.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry at the time demanded a full investigation into the “lapses of security experienced during our president’s stay in Washington, which were caused by the inability of U.S. authorities to take sufficient precautions at every stage of the official program.”

Several demonstrators who were injured in the attacks two years ago and are suing the Turkish government will attend rallies this week opposing Mr. Erdogan’s two-day visit.

Changing the debate

With anti-Turkey sentiment rising on Capitol Hill and with the general public, the Turks’ main goal should be “to chart a strategic course for the U.S. in Syria,” wrote Birol Baskan, a fellow at the Middle East Institute who was trying to improve Ankara’s sagging reputation.

“What Ankara should realize, however, that such an undertaking will require more than just persuading President Trump, who has his own battles to fight at home,” he said.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, suggested that Turkey pull back its troops from the contested area before the upcoming visit as a way to settle the mass opposition to the trip.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Paul said it “would be good is to see Turkey remove their troops from Syria back beyond the dividing line between Syria and Turkey. That would be, I think, a good step towards showing good faith.”

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed the White House to cancel the trip altogether, and Mr. Erdogan threatened last week to stay home after the House voted to recognize Ankara’s role in the Armenian genocide and pursue sanctions against Turkey.

In a letter to Mr. Trump sent Monday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, wrote that Turkey’s Syria invasion “has had disastrous consequences for U.S. national security, has led to deep divisions in the NATO alliance, and caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground.”

Joining Mr. Engel were more than a dozen bipartisan House members who cited Turkey’s various partnerships with Russia, including the purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, rollbacks of democratic institutions in the country and the imprisonment of American journalists and diplomats as “especially egregious” actions that are cause to call off the trip.

“We believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the United States.”

The two leaders are expected to hold a joint press conference at the White House after their private talks.

The Turkish government said Mr. Erdogan also is scheduled to address a gathering of U.S. business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and meet with American Turkish and Muslim groups.

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