Erdogan Invites Trump to Visit Turkey After U.S. Shift on Syria

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has been invited to visit Turkey in 2019 by that country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said on Monday night.

Trump has not yet accepted the offer, Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman said in a statement, but “is open to a potential meeting in the future.”

The invitation was offered less than a week after Trump announced that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria, where they are battling Islamic State alongside a Kurdish force that Erdogan considers an extension of the PKK, an organization that has long fought the Turkish state and is designated a terrorist group by both the U.S. and EU.

During a lengthy phone call on Dec. 14, Trump shocked even those in his inner circle by yielding to a suggestion from Erdogan to pull U.S. forces from the country, where eight years of civil war has forced millions of citizens to flee and established Iran and Russia as protectors of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The president later declared that the U.S. had won the battle against Islamic State, saying that was “my only reason for being there.”

His abrupt shift in the Pentagon’s policy on Syria, which was announced on Twitter, triggered the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and later Brett McGurk, a leading U.S. diplomat. The decision was greeted with criticism from Congress, even among Trump allies like Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Trump said he had a “long and productive” call with Erdogan on Sunday, tweeting that they discussed “the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home.” The two men also discussed expanded trade, Trump said.

Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw forces disappointed the Kurds and left them exposed to the Turkish military. Turkey, a member of NATO, has deployed hundreds of vehicles and troops in areas surrounding a northwestern Syrian town that Ankara has long pushed the U.S. to clear of Kurdish militant groups.

Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have deteriorated in recent years as the Erdogan government turned more authoritarian and the two allies disagreed over many issues, including support for the Kurdish militias in Syria.

Turkey continues to detain a NASA scientist and Turkish employees of the State Department after freeing a detained American pastor earlier this year. Erdogan has been frustrated by the conviction in a U.S. court of a Turkish banker on sanctions-violation charges. And his government has demanded that the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who has been living in the U.S., be extradited.

But last week, the U.S. State Department notified Congress of a proposal to sell the Patriot air and missile defense system to Turkey, a move that may signal a breakthrough with the Ankara government, which had been moving closer to Russia.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.