On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will welcome Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House. The meeting is significant: U.S.-Turkish relations have been recently strained, and the two increasingly authoritarian leaders will be discussing bilateral relations as well as wider policies in the Middle East.
According to the Trump administration, the two leaders will discuss the ongoing fight against terrorism in the Middle East. Turkey is a critical partner in the fight against ISIS, and the United States depends on the Incirlik airbase in southeast Turkey as a tactical base to fly bombing raids over Iraq and Syria. Turkey has also been a key player in the Syrian crisis since the beginning, and now hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country.
The U.S. relationship with Turkey has been strained lately, however, over the U.S. backing of Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq. Turkey views the militias as extensions of the PKK, a Kurdish liberation organization operating in Turkey that has been designated a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States.
Last week, Trump approved a Pentagon plan to arm the the Syrian Kurds, a move that Turkey vehemently opposes.
“The fight against terrorism should not be lead with another terror organization,” Erdogan said in response. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was even more scathing, telling reporters in London that the decision would have “a negative result for the U.S.” He also described the Kurdish militias as “not humans. They are machines that kill people. They are people that will fight for whichever government gives them money.”
Erdogan is also likely to raise the issue of cleric Fetullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames Gulen for orchestrating Turkey’s failed coup in July 2016, and has repeatedly sought his extradition.
Reportedly, while advising the Trump campaign, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed hypothetical plans to kidnap Gulen from his Pennsylvania home with Turkish government officials and send him to Turkey against his will.
Regardless of the result of their discussion, however, the meeting itself was somewhat of a victory for Erdogan: He did not meet with then-President Obama on his last official visit in March 2016, a chilly reception analysts attributed to the Obama administration’s disapproval of Turkey’s deteriorating human rights standards. This time, however, he’s receiving a warmer welcome from President Trump — despite the fact that the state of Turkish democracy has gotten markedly worse.
Turkey has been under an ongoing state of emergency since the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016. Since then, Turkish authorities have detained over 110,000 people, and arrested nearly 50,000. The arrests have been widespread across areas of Turkish society that Erdogan wishes to control — including academics, judges, military officers, police, and journalists. Turkey shut down 179 media outlets in 2016 and became the world leader in jailing journalists, with over 130 in jail.
Amidst this backdrop, in April, Erdogan claimed victory in a referendum transforming Turkey’s parliamentary democracy to hand him unprecedented power, essentially knocking down Turkey’s few remaining democratic barriers to authoritarianism. International election monitoring organizations deeply criticized the election process and vote, pointing to the ongoing state of emergency and crackdown as tipping the scale.
Shortly after the vote, Erodgan announced this international tour, which has been viewed as a bid for legitimacy for both himself and Turkey’s new system.
While most western leaders have been critical of Erdogan and of the referendum, President Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on the result — a detail which was heavily featured in Turkish state-run media Anadolu Agency’s coverage of Erdogan’s international tour.
It’s part of an ongoing trend for the president, who has made a habit of praising authoritarian leaders abroad. Trump has often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in early April, hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the White House — Sisi’s first visit to the seat of the U.S. presidency since seizing power in a military takeover four years ago.
“We agree on so many things,” Trump saidm sitting beside the Egyptian leader in the Oval Office, as reported by the New York Times. “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Sisi led a military takeover in 2013 that removed democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi from power, has brutally cracked down on the free press and dissidents, and oversaw massacres that killed over a thousand protesters, many of them in the streets of Cairo in broad daylight.
Trump has also extended an invitation to President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, who called Obama a “son of a whore” and has spearheaded a brutal drug war of extrajudicial killings that has left thousands of his own citizens dead.