U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday lauded his relationship with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan as the leaders started a meeting to overcome mounting differences between the two NATO allies ranging from Syria policy to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
Trump’s warm welcome of the Turkish president comes amid anger in the U.S. Congress about Ankara’s Oct. 9 offensive into Syria to drive out a Kurdish militia, Washington’s main partner in the fight against Islamic State.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, almost from Day 1. We understand each others’ country. We understand where we are coming from,” Trump told Erdogan as they sat next to each other in the Oval Office. “They’re highly respected in their country and in the region,” Trump said of Erdogan and his wife Emine.
In front of the White House, protesters denounced Erdogan’s visit and urged Trump to protect Kurds threatened by Turkey’s incursion in Syria. One sign read, “America Stand With Your Kurdish Allies.”
Trump also said they will be discussing Ankara’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system. Trump also added that the two sides would talk about a potential $100-billion trade deal.
“We’re also talking about the trade deal … Frankly, we’re going to be expanding our trade relationship very significantly,” Trump said.
Despite his warm welcome, the two NATO allies have been at loggerheads for months now and their ties hit a new crisis point last month over Syria, after Erdogan began a cross-border incursion against America’s Kurdish allies and upended the U.S. presence there. The United States has also been livid over Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defense systems.
Turkey shrugged off threats of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Ankara was a manufacturer and buyer. But so far, the United States has not imposed any sanctions.
Turkey’s S-400 purchase infuriated the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives last month passed a sanctions package to punish Turkey over its Syria operation while key members of the Senate, such as Trump ally Republican Lindsey Graham, have vowed to advance it if Ankara endangers Kurds.
The House also voted last month in favor of a non-binding resolution recognizing the killings of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago as a genocide, a symbolic but historic vote denounced by Turkey.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Lisa Lambert, Editing by Franklin Paul and Alistair Bell)