Understanding Turkey’s restrained reaction to Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide

Turkey’s reaction to United States President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide on Saturday was expected to be swift and harsh. Instead, Ankara has responded with a surprising amount of restraint.

In a statement released on the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on Saturday, Biden became the first U.S. president in four decades to use the term “genocide” to describe the events in 1915.  

“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden said in his statement

Exactly a year before, Biden pledged to include recognising the Genocide as part of his human-rights focused foreign policy. By acknowledging the massacres of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide, he has now fulfilled a promise made to Armenian-American voters that was abandoned by predecessors who promised similarly. 

For years, Turkey has warned Washington against recognising the Armenian Genocide or else it would risk harm to their so-called “strategic partnership.” Ahead of Biden’s announcement, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned any recognition would only hurt ties and decried Biden’s statement as “populist” when it was ultimately announced. 

“We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past,” Cavusoglu wrote on his Twitter account. “Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice.”

Ibrahim Kalin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top foreign aide, lamented that Biden took an “irresponsible and unprincipled” position by ignoring Turkey’s calls for a joint historical commission to investigate the 1915 atrocities. 

None of these statements were nearly as volcanic as expected, given Turkey’s decades of warnings that recognising the Armenian Genocide would irreparably damage relations with Wahington. The staunchly pro-Erdogan editorial columns of Turkish newspapers close to the state have been generally silent. Official Turkish statements have been focused on their usual accusations against the “Armenian lobby” for vilifying Turkey and manipulating American politicians. Even firebrand allies of Erdogan, including Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, simply called Biden’s statement “scandalous” and rejected genocide accusations. 

In Washington, Turkey’s ambassador Hasan Murat Mercan, who arrived in Washington as part of a diplomatic reshuffling last year, has not directly commented, either. The ambassador’s Twitter feed was dominated on Saturday by reposts of other statements against Biden’s statement, including a denunciation from former ambassador Namik Tan. No threat to recall Mercan was made, but the U.S ambassador in Ankara David Satterfield was summoned by the foreign ministry on Sunday. State-run Anadolu Agency reported that officials stressed to Satterfield that Biden’s decision created "an unrepairable wound.” 

Erdogan himself has been perhaps the most surprising in his silence. A leader known for his bombastic rhetoric and his unflinching willingness those who cross him, the president has held his tongue on any remarks about Biden’s choice. Instead, the presidency only highlighted his own message to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul where he expressed “condolences” for the victims of the genocide’s descendants without using the term.

Erdogan’s silence so far is on the surface surprising but it may explain the measured remarks from his government and assorted allies. Merve Tahiroglu, program coordinator for the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy (POMED) in Washington D.C credits the Biden administration’s careful rollout of the president’s acknowledgement for eliciting from Turkey a less apoplectic than expected reaction. 

"It was really well-phrased in that it was very careful not to cast blame on the Turkish government," Tahiroglu said during a panel discussion held after Biden made his announcement. She drew particular attention to the statement’s reference to the Ottoman authorities in 1915 as a way to center blame on authorities and keep it in the past while acknowledging the Armenian Genocide.

Turkey does acknowledge the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago, but has refused to label it as a genocide. Frequently authorities and their mouthpieces would deflect by bringing up the deaths of Muslim Turks during the First World War or by disputing the wide scholarly consensus that the genocide was deliberately carried out by Ottoman officials. 

For many decades, Turkey has effectively twisted the arms of U.S presidents into continuing non-recognition of the genocide, undercutting their own campaign promises to do so. President Barack Obama, who Biden served a vice president under, notably disappointed many Armenian Americans by breaking his promise to acknowledge the Genocide in deference to Ankara. 

Former President Donald Trump, who was close to Erdogan during his term, never promised to end the U.S policy of non-recognition. His administration declined in December 2019 to endorse a bipartisan resolution to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide as official policy to not offend Turkey. 

Turkey’s star though has dramatically fallen in Washington in recent years, owing to Erdogan’s aggressively anti-U.S rhetoric and his direct undermining of American interests. The protection afforded to Turkey by President Trump and the weakening of its once formidable lobbying machine has reduced the number of levers Ankara had to prevent the Genocide from being recognised. Since Biden’s election in November, Erdogan has been keen to reduce tension with Biden, but was refused even a phone call until just a day before the announcement.  

Dr. Steven Cook, an expert on Turkey at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, remarked in the same panel that the winds under the Biden administration have shifted against Ankara. In particular, he noted the accumulated frustration over the years in Congress at Turkey as contributing to the decision to overturn its veto on any recognition. 

“In ten years, Turkey has not given any reason to not recognise the Armenian Genocide,” said Cook. He added that previous arguments that made the U.S think twice about recognising it, namely that it would undermine a critical partnership with Turkey, carry less weight than before.

“The way in which the Turks have conducted its foreign policy, the way in which it has undermined the U.S at critical moments, hasn’t given anyone any reason not to do this.”

Faced with serious economic challenges and low approval ratings, Erdogan can ill-afford to over-react against the U.S. The value of the Turkish lira has remained sensitive to fluctuations in the bilateral relations since 2018, and Erdogan may be keen to keep the lid of tensions here. 

At the same time, the Biden administration has sought to carry out the president’s desire to reinvigorate the U.S’ championing of human rights worldwide, but at the same time as carrying out sensitive diplomacy with rights abusers. 

A day before Biden ended the U.S’ non-recogniton of the Armenian Genocide, he had his first phone call with Erdogan. Biden reportedly gave Erdogan advanced notice of his plans though no mention was made of these plans or even the topic in either the Turkish or American readouts of the call. 

This is not the first time Biden provided a heads up on U.S human rights actions. Before sanctioning Saudi officials involved in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden provided advanced warning to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman of his plans. The Saudi response to Biden’s subsequent move was a condemnation but no serious action to undermine their partnership. 

Tahiroglu suggests that by providing Erdogan with both an advanced warning and a promise to meet in June on the sidelines of a scheduled NATO summit, Biden demonstrated his respect to his Turkish counterpart and a signal that relations could still improve.

“"What's important is that he said they will have the meeting in June, so that is a message to Ankara that there is still some time to help improve ties," she explained.

"I hope the Turkish side will understand this message and use it to change behavior or policies over the next month or so to improve ties."

 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.