On November 13, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with US President Donald Trump at the White House. For many in Washington, this was a diplomatic win for Mr. Erdoğan. Since Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria on October 9, Ankara has almost singularly worked to protect its own interests in the region at the expense of overall American interests. Operation “Peace Spring” has directly jeopardized the Kurdish-majority and US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which were distracted from overseeing captured Islamic State (IS) fighters, allowing many of them to escape captivity. Ankara’s actions have helped the perception that any actor can act against US interests with impunity. Despite all of this, however, Erdoğan was essentially rewarded with face time at the White House.
President Trump’s motives for receiving Erdoğan are illogical and border on being corrupt. The president’s own former national security adviser said quite plainly that President Trump is embracing President Erdoğan for personal or financial gain. Even if one takes a less conspiratorial approach, it is no secret that President Trump both has an affinity for so-called strongmen like Mr. Erdoğan and is easily swayed by glad-handing and flattery. To be sure, Erdoğan is expected to receive a warm welcome at the White House. President Trump is also reportedly willing to offer Ankara a host of economic incentives to smooth American-Turkish relations.
Surprisingly, President Trump invited Republican lawmakers to a meeting with President Erdoğan. This was unexpected because Erdoğan’s reception on Capitol Hill would be much icier than would be expected at the White House. Erdoğan has sparked an unusual level of bipartisan agreement recently, with his actions in northeastern Syria and his coziness with Russia being irritants for lawmakers in both parties. Just the day before Erdoğan’s visit, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), a stalwart Trump supporter, introduced a resolution criticizing Turkey for its domestic political crackdown and its posture in Syria.
At the outset of Turkey’s military operation in Syria, bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both chambers introduced bills to sanction Ankara until it ceased said operation and withdrew from northeastern Syria. Those bills are being held up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), according to Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), but the latter said that he and others like Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) are continuing to push for votes on sanctions legislation. Even now, members of Congress are signaling their frustration with President Erdoğan ahead of his White House visit. For example, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced S. Res. 409, requesting information about Turkey’s human rights practices in neighboring Syria. If the legislation passes, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Office of the Legal Adviser, will have 30 days to deliver a report to Congress regarding Turkey, its armed forces, and “associated groups and persons.” If the State Department fails to meet that 30-day deadline, then Turkey will lose all US security assistance. The resolution is privileged because it is a “resolution of request” premised upon preexisting legislation—ultimately it must receive a vote.
Furthermore, members of the House and Senate penned letters to Trump and Secretary Pompeo regarding Turkey. Senators Graham and Van Hollen wrote a letter to Secretary Pompeo urging the Trump Administration to verify whether Ankara is upholding the terms of the agreement that it and the United States reached in October regarding northern Syria. On the House side, 17 members signed on to a letter urging President Trump to rescind President Erdoğan’s invitation to meet at the White House. Citing Ankara’s incursion into northern Syria, its cooperation with Russia, and Erdoğan’s domestic challenge to Turkey’s democratic institutions, the House members told the president that, at the present time, it is inappropriate for Erdoğan to be welcomed in Washington.
Congress has grown more and more frustrated with President Erdoğan and his actions that its members view as running counter to US interests. But, as is the nature of US foreign policy, Erdoğan can revel in the fact that, despite what Congress wants, President Trump has embraced him. Given the results of prior interactions, Erdoğan may well walk out of his meetings with even more US concessions.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act. On November 12, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced S. 2832 to allow the United States to support individuals who are arrested or detained in Turkey on politically motivated charges. The bill aims to assist Turkish civil society groups that work to secure the freedom of prisoners of conscience like journalists.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Rep. Andy Levin Visits the West Bank. On November 6, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) tweeted that he had traveled to Susya in the occupied West Bank and he witnessed the disparate treatment that Palestinians and Israelis in illegal settlements receive. According to Jewish Insider, his visit was part of a larger trip to Israel and the occupied territories sponsored by J-Street.
Senate Democrats Demand Urgent Briefing on Administration’s Refugee Directive. On November 6, a group of Senate Democrats wrote to Secretary Pompeo and then-Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security calling for an urgent briefing on the administration’s decision to slash the number of refugees allowed to settle in the United States in the coming year. The administration’s decision sets the cap for the resettling of refugees at 18,000, but that in no way guarantees that the administration will actually settle that number.
Saudi Arabia’s al-Jubeir Meets with Senators Murphy and Feinstein. After Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir met with Secretary Pompeo last week, he held a meeting with Senator Chris Murphy and, according to one observer, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. According to a statement released by Murphy’s office, the two spoke about the recent Riyadh agreement between the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council.
Chairman, Ranking Member of House Foreign Affairs Speak Out on Iraq. On November 7, the chairman and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) issued a joint statement on the protests in Iraq. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) decried the use of violence by Iraq’s security forces against nonviolent protesters around the country.
Senator Sanders Discusses Zionism, Palestinian Rights in New Op-Ed on Anti-Semitism. On November 11, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) penned an op-ed discussing the rise of anti-Semitism and how to combat it. In his piece, the senator recounted how anti-Semitism affected his family and drew parallels to the current climate of fear and incitement that has led to an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes and violence. The senator also made it very clear that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the Israeli government. Furthermore, he plainly stated that “The forces fomenting antisemitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians; the struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom.”
3) Hearings and Briefings
Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs. On November 12, the Hudson Institute hosted Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) in a discussion about US foreign policy. Senator Young is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been vocal on Middle East issues like the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. The conversation was wide-ranging and only briefly touched on topics of import to the Middle East. But, Senator Young made some interesting comments about Saudi Arabia and what he saw there during a congressional delegation visit last September. Young, once a vociferous critic of the Saudi regime, spoke admiringly about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and his desire to “modernize” the kingdom. The senator did condemn Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, but still spoke gratuitously about the progress that it has made in prosecuting the war there. Ultimately, the senator concluded, the Saudis are a necessary and complex partner with which that the United States must stick because the greatest threat and most destabilizing force in the region, he said, is Iran.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Trump Hosts Officials from Egypt, Sudan at the White House. President Trump is trying his hand at mediating a simmering dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam the latter is building. The president hosted officials from the three states on November 6 in an attempt to reach an agreement on the project. Officials later met with Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin for further mediation.
2) Department of Defense
Secretary Esper Hosts Qatari Official, CENTCOM Commander Visits Israel. On November 6, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper welcomed the Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Affairs, Dr. Khalid Al-Attiyah, to the Pentagon. According to the readout from the meeting, the two spoke about infrastructure at the US air base in Al-Udeid, Qatar, as well as the need for further cooperation on issues pertaining to “countering threats to regional economic infrastructure and the free flow of commerce throughout the region.”
Later in the week, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) that oversees US military operations in the Middle East and North Africa traveled to Israel for meetings with officials of the Israeli Defense Forces. Although the Pentagon did not publicize General Kenneth McKenzie’s itinerary in Israel, most observers suspect that his visit—only the second ever made by a CENTCOM commander—was meant to alleviate allies’ concerns about Washington’s posture in the region. Many longtime allies have grown concerned about the United States’ commitment to their security after the decision to withdraw from positions in northeastern Syria and leave the Syrian Democratic Forces to protect themselves against Turkey.
Despite Withdrawal Directive, US to Keep 500-600 Troops in Northeastern Syria. After defense officials and the president’s congressional allies leaned on Mr. Trump to reverse course on the withdrawal from northeastern Syria, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff announced that the military would, in fact, keep between 500 and 600 troops in the area. General Mark Milley made the announcement, saying that troops would remain in parts of northeastern Syria in order to maintain pressure on IS fighters and prevent a reemergence of the group. However, it is notable that, in President Trump’s eyes, troops are to be maintained to “secure the oil” in that part of the country.
3) Department of State
State Department Officials Fan Out Across the Middle East. This week three State Department officials set out for meetings with US partners in the Middle East. Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves as both the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS), traveled to Turkey to hold talks with Turkish and Syrian opposition officials about the situation in northeastern Syria. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker held talks in Israel on US-Israeli relations and regional developments of mutual concern. Though the pair were not there for the same reason, Schenker was joined in Israel by the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, R. Clarke Cooper. Cooper, in part, met with Israeli officials to discuss military-to-military relations and broader defense cooperation. Lastly, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Energy Resources Francis R. Fannon traveled to the United Arab Emirates to participate in a conference focused on regional security and energy cooperation.
Pompeo Phones Iraqi PM, Meets with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister. On November 12, Secretary of State Pompeo spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi about the government’s handling of popular protests in Iraq. With over 300 killed and roughly 15,000 injured, Pompeo made it clear that the Iraqi government’s use of force against protesters is deplorable. Later that day, Pompeo held a lunch meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The two spoke about the need for a “united” Gulf Cooperation Council, which remains split after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain initiated a blockade on Qatar.
4) Central Intelligence Agency, National Counterterrorism Center
CIA Director Haspel Visits Saudi Arabia. On November 7, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Gina Haspel visited with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh. This was Haspel’s first visit since the CIA concluded with high confidence that MbS ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The visit also came one day after the US Justice Department charged two former Twitter employees and one of their accomplices for spying on behalf of the Saudis and specifically MbS. With the US government repeatedly linking the crown prince to illegal acts, it is no surprise that Haspel was not pictured with, and reportedly did not meet, MbS while she was in the kingdom.
Counterterrorism in an Era of Competing Priorities. On November 8, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy held an event with the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Russell Travers. The NCTC is most notable because it maintains the US government’s single “authoritative database of known and suspected terrorists.” Travers was invited to speak about the nature of US counterterrorism priorities as the government’s broader national security strategy elevates other concerns above that of the threat of terrorism. Travers noted that the United States and its security partners have succeeded in the last few years in lessening the frequency of terror attacks by the Islamic State. Despite the progress that has been made combatting groups like IS and al-Qaeda, Travers noted that there are more people who have been radicalized and support these entities than there were before the September 11 attacks. As such, the acting director wants the US government to focus on identifying and preventing all threats of terrorism from the Middle East, which requires the United States to maintain a physical presence there to assist its collection of appropriate intelligence.