WASHINGTON — Aboard Air Force One on Thursday, President Obama picked up the secure phone and talked to perhaps his most fickle international ally: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The once-friendly relationship between the two leaders has been strained over the last year. Friction points included Turkey's antagonism of Israel, its crackdown of social media, and the U.S. refusal to extradite a religious leader and opposition figure wanted to stand trial in Turkey.
But with the threat posed by Islamic State militants, the on-again, off-again relationship between Obama and Erdogan is clearly on again. Turkey occupies a strategic position along Syria's northern border, and U.S. officials hope the NATO ally could play a key role in stopping the flow of money and foreign fighters to the group also known as ISIS.
According to a White House summary of Thursday's call, Obama "praised the work Turkish authorities" and others in caring for the influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey. The two leaders talked about the threat posed by the Islamic State, and agreed to "consult closely" in the future, the White House said.
Shortly thereafter, Vice President Joe Biden met with Erdogan in person at the Peninsula Hotel in New York, where world leaders are meeting this week for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
"Congratulations on the election, old friend," Biden said, smiling broadly and commending Erdogan on being elevated from prime minister. They posed for a photo op, after which they met privately.
It was a remarkable turnabout in U.S.-Turkish relations, considering that just two months ago Erdogan complained publicly that Obama never spoke to him any more. The two had gone nearly six months without so much as a phone call.
Then last month, when Erdogan won election as Turkey's first popularly elected president, Obama sent a low-level delegation — consisting solely of the charges d'affaires in Ankara — to the inauguration. Turkish media interpreted it as a snub.
So why the sudden turnabout?
"It's fairly straightforward: The administration is pulling every lever to encourage Turkey to do more to counter ISIS," said Steven Cook, a Turkish expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"There is something to be said for appealing to Erdogan's sense of importance," Cook said. "Had President Obama not come to the conclusion that ISIS was a major threat, I'm not sure this charm offensive would be happening."