Ahead of a meeting on Wednesday at the White House with US president Donald Trump, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged that the relationship between the two countries had gone through some “painful” times.
Last month Mr Trump suspended negotiations on a $100bn trade deal and promised to destroy the Turkish economy after Mr Erdogan sent troops into north-east Syria to attack US-allied Kurdish militias. Turkey agreed to halt the offensive a week later but Mr Erdogan still faces the threat of punitive sanctions from US lawmakers who were infuriated by the assault.
Now the Turkish president hopes the two leaders can once again find common ground. “Despite the foggy weather in our relationship, we are agreed on the need to solve our problems and improve our relations,” Mr Erdogan said ahead of the meeting at the Oval Office. “We want to embark upon a new era in security issues for both countries.”
Despite deep antipathy towards Turkey among many in Washington, Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan have cultivated a strong personal relationship based on a shared appreciation for transactional politics. Mr Erdogan is the type of strongman leader that the US president is often said to admire and the two men have had a succession of recent phone calls.
Several of those calls have culminated in diplomatic victories for Mr Erdogan, including, most recently, what Mr Trump’s critics said amounted to a “green light” for Mr Erdogan’s invasion of north-east Syria when the US moved its troops back from the Turkish border.
Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops provoked widespread anger from American politicians, including prominent Republican lawmakers normally aligned with the president, such as Senator Lindsey Graham.
In response, the US House of Representatives last month overwhelmingly passed a bill setting out harsh financial penalties for Turkey, including freezing the assets of senior Turkish officials, banning arms transfers to the country and threatening large Turkish banks with big fines. US senators have sponsored a bill putting forward similar measures.
Mr Erdogan has said that he plans to use Wednesday’s meeting to raise an ongoing US court case against one of Turkey’s largest banks, Halkbank, for alleged money laundering and Iran-sanctions busting. The two men are also expected to discuss Ankara’s decision in July to take delivery of a Russian missile defence system called the S-400.
In private, US officials said that the purchase did qualify as a “significant” transaction with Moscow under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which aims to stymie Russian influence. So far, the Trump administration has refrained from enforcing the sanctions, although many lawmakers are in favour.
According to one state department official, the US is still seeking to convince Turkey, a Nato member, to abandon the system. Turkey should “never have acquired [the missile system] in the first place”, the official said. “There’s still work to get the Turks to walk away.”
Robert O’Brien, White House national security adviser, publicly increased the pressure on Ankara on Sunday: “If Turkey doesn’t get rid of the S-400 . . . there will likely be sanctions,” he told CBS News. Punitive measures could strike a blow to Turkey’s economy, which is still recovering from a currency crisis that wiped almost 30 per cent off the value of the lira last year.
Mr Trump wants Turkey to buy the US-manufactured Patriot missile system and abandon the S-400. But, while Mr Erdogan said last week that Ankara was still open to acquiring the Patriot system “if the conditions are right”, he suggested that the Russian purchase was not up for discussion.
Analysts say that although the often pragmatic Turkish leader may want to strike an agreement with the US, his room for manoeuvre is limited by the need to not anger Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, with whom he has grown increasingly close.
“Erdogan is quite susceptible to Russian pressure in Syria,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr Erdogan’s previous visit to Washington resulted in a fight between his protesters and the Turkish president’s security detail. This time Ms Aydintasbas said that she expected “smiles and cute statements and a handshake to suggest that all is well”.
“The real test will be over the next couple of months,” she said. “Erdogan is reaching the limits of a policy of being able to leverage relations with Russia against his ties with Nato. He’s done that very skilfully until now but it’s getting more and more difficult.”