Trump to Sit Down With Turkish President Erdogan Amid Heightened Tensions

White House announced plans to arm Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS despite opposition from Ankara

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan / Getty Images

President Donald Trump will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, D.C. for the first time on Tuesday, one week after the White House announced plans to arm Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State despite fierce opposition from Ankara.

The meeting comes amid strained relations between the two NATO allies. Erdogan is expected to call on the Trump administration to reduce cooperation with the Kurdish YPG and renew demands for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric whom the Turkish president accuses of masterminding last year's failed coup.

The prominent Turkish newspaper Sözcü in an op-ed published Sunday urged Erdogan to evict U.S. troops from the strategic Incirlik Air Base, located 60 miles from the Syrian border in southern Turkey. American forces have used the base to launch airstrikes against ISIS since 2015.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute, predicted Erdogan will threaten to deny the United States access to Incirlik in an attempt to pressure Trump to scale back the American partnership with the YPG. He said Erdogan may also pivot toward closer cooperation with Russia in Syria.

"Erdogan will be shooting himself in the foot if he does either because it would just push the U.S. into the arms of the Syrian Kurds," Rubin told the Washington Free Beacon on Monday. "I don't think we have anything to lose in this meeting. In this visit, all eyes will be on Erdogan."

Discussions between the two leaders will center on how to "deepen our cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms," the White House said in a statement announcing the meeting.

Turkish government officials bristled last week at the Trump administration's decision to distribute weapons and ammunition to Kurdish YPG fighters to assist in the operation to retake Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate.

Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and Europe. Erdogan accused the Trump administration on Wednesday of siding with "terrorist organizations" and urged the White House to reverse the decision.

Rubin said a reversal is unlikely.

"If we were to give into Turkey by either halting our arming of the Syrian Kurds or extraditing Gulen it would cost the United States very deeply—it would be worse than [former president] Obama's ‘red line,'" he said. "If you look at the balance sheet of what Turkey gets us, the balance is not in favor of Turkey."

U.S. military officials have contended the YPG is the only force on the ground capable of forcing ISIS out of Raqqa in the near future. Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters last week that providing arms to the Kurds will "accelerate" the offensive on Raqqa, where the U.S. military estimates about 4,000 ISIS fighters remain.

Though U.S.-Turkish relations may not be at risk in the short-term, Rubin predicted a "real crisis" with NATO should Erdogan seek closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin given that the United States shares classified information with NATO partners.

Trump and Erdogan's meeting comes ahead of the 2017 NATO summit in Brussels scheduled to begin at the end of the month.