Relations between President Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have long blown hot and cold. For the moment, they are finding common cause.
ISTANBUL — Relations between President Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were in the worst state anyone could remember 10 months ago, veering toward armed clashes between their armies across the Syrian-Turkish border, while Mr. Trump threatened to annihilate Turkey’s economy.
But these days, as the coronavirus threatens recession and rallies their opponents, both men are under pressure at home, with not many friends abroad, and may feel the need of some friendly comfort. This week, according to the Turkish account, they shared a few jokes during a phone call.
“To be honest, after our conversation tonight, a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said during a television interview afterward on Monday.
Relations between the two leaders have long blown hot and cold.
A Turkish court sentenced a U.S. consulate employee to eight years in prison on a terror-related charge on Thursday, a setback for U.S. officials who have been struggling for three years to exonerate three U.S. employees who they say are being used as political hostages.
But the presidents’ stars have aligned for the moment, with the interests of Turkey and the United States converging on several of the biggest issues that had driven them apart in recent years.
It helps that even when interests diverge, the two men like and understand each other, share a love of strongman politics and have thrust their family members together to nurture potentially mutually beneficial business deals.
In recent months, Mr. Trump has not stood in the way of and even assisted Turkey’s interventions in both Syria and Libya. He thanked Turkey for freeing an American evangelical pastor, even though diplomats accused Turkey of political hostage taking. And the F.B.I. has opened a budding investigation into Mr. Erdogan’s bête noire, the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding a failed coup in 2016 from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Equally important, Mr. Trump has held off imposing sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system, something that has prevented Turkey drifting further away from the West, said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“He saved this relationship,” she said of Mr. Trump. “If not for this strange Trump factor, we really would have been in a Turkey-Russian axis.”
Libya is the latest place where the two men have seemingly reached agreement, with Mr. Trump effectively greenlighting Mr. Erdogan’s military intervention, which has reshaped the conflict.
“We came to some agreements during our call,” Mr. Erdogan said this week about their conversation on Libya, without specifying exactly what these were.
President Trump has shown little interest in Libya and signaled an ambivalence over the outcome of the war.
His administration formally supports the United Nations-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. But Mr. Trump also held a phone call with the Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter, a former C.I.A. asset who opened an offensive against Tripoli last year with the backing of Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
This spring Turkish forces came to the aid of the al-Sarraj government, rescuing it and turning the tide in the war, and there are signs that Washington is not opposed to the Turkish intervention.
Washington has not protested Turkey’s use of American weapons in its operations, for example, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The U.S. Africa Command, based in Europe, is probably also not unhappy to see Russia restrained in Libya, he added.
“What Turkey has done in containing Russia, I believe also suits the U.S. perfectly well,” he said.
For Mr. Erdogan it is a dramatic turnaround in his dealings with the United States. Last fall he was on the verge of going to war in northern Syria against American troops — NATO allies — and was castigating Washington daily for its armed support for the Kurdish forces there.
Turkey had long complained that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, who collaborated with U.S. forces in fighting the Islamic State in Syria, were the same organization that has been mounting an insurgency inside Turkey for three decades.
The Pentagon’s arming and training of the Kurdish forces along Turkey’s southern border represented not only a security threat to Turkey but became an enormous diplomatic dispute with Washington.
That problem has more or less gone away after Mr. Trump pulled American troops away from Syria’s northern border and reduced their footprint to a smaller area in the south of the country.
Mr. Trump’s move set off anguished protests in Congress and even among his own military over what many saw as its betrayal of longstanding Kurdish allies. But the sudden withdrawal cleared the way for Turkey to seize control of a narrow band of territory along the border inside Syria, with Russia moving into the remaining border areas.
Mr. Erdogan barely mentions American support for the Kurdish forces these days, even though it continues.
He has also dropped mention of another thorny issue, the extradition of the Islamic preacher Mr. Gulen, which the United States has refused saying there is lack of evidence. Turkey seems to have accepted an alternative that the F.B.I. is conducting an investigation into Mr. Gulen’s affairs instead.
A new offensive by Russian and Syrian government forces in December and January in Idlib, the last rebel-held province of Syria, then brought a new convergence of interests between Turkey and the United States.
The rapid and ruthless offensive obliterated a swath of towns and villages, sending nearly a million people fleeing toward Turkey’s border in desperate conditions of cold and misery. Turkey, aided by U.S. intelligence and surveillance, sent in troops to stem the advance.
Mr. Erdogan had until then been relying on his own relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to negotiate a series of cease-fires, but the winter offensive was of such a devastating scale that it tipped Turkey firmly into open opposition. A Russian strike on a Turkish military convoy that killed 34 soldiers in February was a decider.
“There was always an illusion that Turkey was in this big power game with Russia,” said Ms. Aydintasbas. “That is all shattered.”
The Russian aggression in Idlib was one of the main drivers that has pushed Turkey into a closer cooperation with the United States, said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “That was a turning point,” he said.
The U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, has been open in his praise for Turkey’s actions in stemming the Russian-Syrian government advance and retaining a parcel of territory for the Syrian opposition. “We strongly support the cease-fire; we strongly support the Turkish military action,” he told a video conference with the Atlantic Council in April.
This shift does not mean that Turkey will turn its back on Russia, analysts said. Turkey is conducting a “balancing act,” Ms. Aydintasbas said.
The biggest thorn of all in the relationship, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system, remains unresolved.
Hit by a serious economic downturn as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Erdogan has also softened his tone in an effort to buy some time for recovery. He did not activate the missile system in April, as had been scheduled. Many analysts suggest he has held off in order to avert U.S. sanctions and even to negotiate a swap deal with the Federal Reserve.
Even if a swap is not successful, easing relations with Washington could at least help with improving the general investment climate, Ms. Aydintasbas said.
“Is there a new phase of cooperation? I think there is a window of opportunity,” Mr. Unluhisarcikli said.
Mr. Erdogan may still want to bring out the S-400 to rally supporters at home nearer elections, or at least show them that he did not waste the $2.5 billion only to keep the system unused, Mr. Unluhisarcikli added.
“The window is that Turkey is not operationalizing the S-400s,” he said. “But if they do, it’s back to square one.”