U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his country’s purchase of a Russian missile defence system was a “very serious challenge” for the United States but that he hoped the NATO allies would be able to resolve that dispute.
After a much anticipated meeting at the White House to address a crisis in relations, Trump said he was “a great fan” of the Turkish leader and that they had a “wonderful and productive” encounter. They did not, however, reveal any major breakthrough on mounting differences, from Syria to the Russian system known as S-400.
Still, Trump’s warm welcome for Erdogan was a sharp contrast to anger in the U.S. Congress over Turkey’s offensive into Syria to drive out a Kurdish militia, Washington’s main partner in the fight against the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Erdogan said that in six months to two years, Turkey could repatriate about 1 million refugees now in Turkey into a safe zone established in northern Syria. The zone was established after Turkey launched a military offensive into Syria on Oct. 9 with the intent of clearing the area of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters seen by Erdogan as a threat.
The Turkish government also hopes to resettle about 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees.
Erdogan says he hopes to attract international donors to assist. He says the 1 million refugees could be repatriated to cities like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, the largest city in eastern Syria.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump brought in five Republican senators to the White House to speak with Erdogan about the Syrian Kurds and the delivery of S-400s, which prompted Washington to remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Turkey was a manufacturer and buyer.
“Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military equipment, such as the S-400, creates some very serious challenges for us and we are talking about it constantly,” Trump told a joint news conference.
“We talked about it today, we’re talking about it in the future, [and] hopefully we’ll be able to resolve that situation.”
Erdogan said the two countries could only overcome their dispute on the S-400s and F-35s through dialogue.
The NATO allies, who boast the two largest armies in the alliance, have been at loggerheads for months now and their ties hit a new crisis point last month when Erdogan began his cross-border incursion against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and upended the U.S. presence there.
Turkey shrugged off threats of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July, but so far, the United States has not imposed any sanctions.
Recognizing Armenian genocide a sore point
In the news conference, Erdogan was critical of the U.S. Congress, particularly of a House of Representatives vote last month in favour 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.
Turkey’s president said his country was “hurt deeply” by the House resolution and that the measure has the potential to cast a “deep shadow over our bilateral relations.”
Erdogan said decision-makers about an event 104 years ago should be historians, not politicians.
Trump also addressed questions about the first of a series of public impeachment hearings held Wednesday, calling the testimonies a “sham” and that the proceedings were being “played as a hoax.”
“I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the [Turkish] president, which is much more important as far as I’m concerned,” Trump told reporters.
The U.S. president also said he will be releasing on Thursday the transcript of a second call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“That this country gets put through this [impeachment], that we have to waste [Erdogan’s] time by even talking about it, thinking about it. I’d much rather focus on peace in the Middle East,” he concluded.