WASHINGTON/ANKARA: At the 2012 opening of Trump Towers in Istanbul, real estate mogul Donald Trump sang the praises of Tayyip Erdogan, telling a mostly Turkish audience that their leader, prime minister at the time, was "highly respected" around the world.
"He's a good man. He's just representing you very well," Trump said at the ceremony.
Since becoming the US president, Trump has openly complimented Erdogan and his combative ruling style, calling him "a friend" and "hell of a leader."
Such fondness from Trump for the Turkish president, who is due to meet with him at the White House on Wednesday (Nov 13), is seen by many as the only reason why relations between Turkey and the United States have not completely collapsed, having soured severely over their disagreements on a host of issues.
"The two leaders have an affinity for each other as strongman presidents," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, while warning of the deep animosity within the bureaucracies of the two NATO allies.
"The Erdogan-Trump part of the US-Turkey relationship is really the only component of it that is currently working right now," Cagaptay said. "Confidence between government agencies of both countries has eroded and there is considerable anger towards the US in Turkey and vice versa."
Washington and Ankara hit a new crisis point last month over Syria, after Erdogan began a cross-border incursion against America's Kurdish allies and upended the US presence there. Months earlier, the United States was livid over Turkey's purchase of Russian missile defense systems.
Turkey shrugged off threats of US sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Ankara was a manufacturer and buyer. But so far, it has not imposed any sanctions.
The move infuriated the US Congress, whose anger toward Turkey deepened following Ankara's offensive into Syria to drive out the Kurdish militia, Washington's main partner in the fight against Islamic State.
The US House of Representatives last month passed a sanctions package to punish Turkey over its Syria operation while key members of the Senate, including Trump ally Lindsey Graham, have vowed to advance it if Ankara endangers Kurds.
The House has also voted in favor of a non-binding resolution recognizing as genocide the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians 100 years ago, for the first time, angering Ankara. Some lawmakers on Monday asked Trump in a letter to rescind the invitation to Erdogan.
Erdogan has managed to avoid sanctions so far, but on Sunday, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the threat was real. "If Turkey doesn't get rid of the S-400, I mean, there will likely be sanctions. … Turkey will feel the impact of those sanctions," he told CBS News.
WASHINGTON WANTS S-400S ABANDONED
The issues straining the NATO allies stretch well beyond Syria and Russia. While Washington has largely stayed quiet in the face of an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan, it wants Ankara to drop charges against US consular workers prosecuted in Turkey.
For Ankara, its long-standing extradition request for US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who it blames for orchestrating the 2016 failed coup, and US charges on Turkey's state-owned Halkbank for Iran sanctions-busting are also contentious.
"We are of the same opinion with President Trump to solve problems and to improve our relations despite clouds in our bilateral ties," Erdogan told reporters before his flight to Washington.
"We have made significant progress on several issues despite bureaucratic and political sabotage attempts by some remnants of the previous administration."