WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will hold his first face-to-face meeting with Turkey’s president Tuesday amid accusations that Trump gave Russian officials classified intelligence from a foreign ally.
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are expected to address the Syrian civil war, refugee crisis and the fight against the Islamic State group, including the U.S. decision to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters despite Turkey’s vehement objections.
But the meeting will take place with a White House still responding to what a senior U.S. official said was disclosure of classified information about an Islamic State group terror threat involving laptop computers on aircraft. Trump shared the threat in a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and U.S. ambassador in the Oval Office last week, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The matter could emerge in Trump’s meeting with Erdoğan. The U.S. is relying on regional allies including Turkey for intelligence-sharing and military assistance as it crafts a Syria policy, particularly as Iran and Russia work to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
Trump launched cruise missiles last month at a Syrian air base after accusing Assad of using chemical weapons. But the president hasn’t outlined a strategy to quell the six-year civil war or usher Assad out of power, which his administration says will be needed to stabilize the Arab country.
Tension was expected already for the Erdoğan talks, after the U.S. announced last week that it would arm Kurdish Syrian militants to help them fight I.S. Turkey has been pressuring the U.S. to drop support for the militants and doesn’t want them spearheading an operation to retake I.S.’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.
Turkey believes the Kurds in Syria are linked to a Turkish Kurdish group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S., the European Union (EU) and Turkey all consider a terrorist organization. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurds as their best battlefield partner on the ground in northern Syria.
Last month, the Turkish military bombed Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, in one case with U.S. forces only about six miles (10 kilometers) away. Erdoğan’s government also has insisted it may attack Syrian Kurdish fighters again. The U.S., whose forces are sometimes embedded with the Kurds, has much to fear.
Trump’s deal-making skills will be put to the test as he tries to assure Erdogan that weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands. Observers, meanwhile, will be closely watching how Trump handles Turkey’s deteriorating human rights situation.
Trump has gone out of his way to foster a good relationship with Erdoğan. After a national referendum last month that strengthened Erdoğan’s presidential powers, European leaders and rights advocates criticized Turkey for moving closer toward autocratic rule. Trump congratulated Erdoğan.
The two presidents will give public statements Tuesday.