Erdogan and Trump Form New Bond as Interests Align
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. But their 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.