US President Joe Biden formally recognized as genocide the 1915 crimes committed against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire, bringing relations between Turkey and the US to a historic low. Although this blow to Turkey’s dealings with the US could have a long-term impact, it is believed that Ankara’s response will be limited and mostly rhetorical. Turkey cannot afford to downgrade its ties with the US any further, as this would have a devastating effect on the country’s fragile economy.
On April 24, a day known as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, Biden became the first US President to acknowledge the 1914-15 Ottoman crimes against Armenians and the first US leader to use the term of genocide. While previous administrations carefully avoided the term in order to maintain good and functional relations with Turkey – a strategic NATO ally, Biden’s decision should not come as a surprise. US-Turkey relations have greatly deteriorated in the last several years over a long list of issues.
The relationship became increasingly antagonistic after Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles S-400 – which pose serious threat to NATO jets, its controversial actions against Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its involvement in regional conflicts in Syria, Libya, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Washington has also been heavily concerned over Turkish energy ties with Iran, resulting in a US federal indictment of a Turkish state bank for allegedly helping Iran dodge sanctions.
The relationship became increasingly antagonistic after Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles S-400 – which pose serious threat to NATO jets.
On the other hand, Turkey has been deeply upset by the US military aid to the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it perceives as a terrorist organization and its principal national security threat.
It is also quite telling that Biden had not called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for three months after taking office until the day before the announcement, indicating the deep fracture in US-Turkey ties.
Mario Del Pero, Professor of International History at SciencesPo in Paris, observes that acknowledging the Armenian genocide nowadays has a primarily symbolic value, and the salience of symbolism in international politics cannot be underestimated. Del Pero believes Biden’s recognition of the genocide conveys the message that this administration cares about fundamental human rights and promotes principled foreign policy.
Biden’s announcement has, predictably, angered Turkey’s leadership as well as ordinary Turks, uniting them in their rage against the US’ stance over this highly contentious matter for Turkey. The Turkish government has been firmly against the US labelling the mass killing of Armenians as genocide, and Ankara played down the US accusations, stating that there are no historical or legal grounds for the classification. Erdogan called on President Biden to “reverse this wrong step immediately,” and stated that Turkish ties with the US had fallen to an extreme low in the wake of Biden’s April 24 announcement, adding “insult to injury.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted that Turkey “will not take lessons from anyone on our history.”
While it is evident that US-Turkey relations have suffered another serious setback, it is too early to assess the full impact of Biden’s decision.
Although Erdogan warned that Turkey “will have no choice but to implement practices that are required of the new level to which our relations have receded,” he did not clarify the potential measures Turkey may take. However, many demonstrators gathered outside the US Consulate in Istanbul after Biden’s announcement and shouted anti-American slogans, calling on the Turkish authorities to end American presence in the country and use of Incirlik Air Base.
Turkey has so far, always taken punitive measures against countries that recognized the genocide.
While the harsh statements expressed by Turkish officials could be translated as a move to please the angry domestic crowds as well as some nationalistic elements in the army, it is also true that Turkey has so far, always taken punitive measures against countries that recognized the genocide. Yet it is not clear how it will respond in this particular case, and whether this will include the introduction of sanctions and perhaps force the US military out of Incirlik Air Base. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the European Parliament has recognized the Armenian massacre as genocide on five different occasions, as well as 32 other countries, including 11 of Turkey’s NATO allies.
According to Karol Wasilewski, a Turkey analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Ankara can’t afford to take such a strong response to President Biden’s statement as it may further destabilize the country’s economy. Moreover, “there are so many problems in relations between the US and Turkey that Biden’s statement – which was crafted very carefully so as the Turks would have a diplomatic way out of it – does not even qualify to top three,” Wasilewski told Inside Arabia.
Francesco Siccardi, Senior Program Manager at Carnegie Europe, also believes that no bold, dramatic moves should be expected from Turkey, as that would further aggravate the state of Turkey’s relations with the West. More specifically, Siccardi told Inside Arabia, access restrictions to Incirlik are not in the cards, nor is there any serious talk or prospect of Turkey leaving NATO, although it has taken steps in the past few years to decouple itself a bit from the organization.
So, while the chances are slim that the genocide issue will have any short-term impact on Turkey’s foreign policy orientation, Tozun Bahcheli, Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, said that further estrangement from the US and other Western countries in the long-term cannot be ruled out. Speaking to Inside Arabia, he added that: “Turkey has pursued an increasingly independent foreign policy course in recent years,” and he expected this to continue.
Furthermore, Turkey has leverage in the dispute. According to Del Pero, that is always the case in the asymmetrical relationship between the United States and its lesser allies (something scholars call the “tyranny of the weak”). “Military facilities, intelligence cooperation, backchannels of communication: there are many areas – overt and covert, open and gray – that inform the partnership between Ankara and Washington, and that makes Turkey such an important ally for the US. In case of an escalation of the crisis between the two, expect Erdogan to make full use of all the tools at his disposal,” he told Inside Arabia.
“Further deterioration of Turkey-US relations . . . may force Turkey to look for other defense partners.”
Yet, according to Wasilewski, further deterioration of Turkey-US relations – especially if followed by more American sanctions impacting the defense sector – may force Turkey to look for other defense partners, possibly outside NATO, and thus weaken another link between Turkey and its Western partners. This is especially true if Turkey decides to make moves on other fronts, such as Libya, Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, or Nagorno-Karabakh.
But, in Siccardi’s view, this would have a limited effect and be primarily aimed at domestic consumption, as part of Erdogan’s rally-around-the-flag strategies to boost his own popularity. However, Siccardi and Wasilewski both observe that Turkey is entering in a period of “normalization” of its foreign policy and Turkey’s trajectory in this phase is one of appeasement with its Brussels counterparts.
Therefore, Bahcheli does not expect that other EU members will automatically follow the lead of the US in any criticism or downgrading of relations with Turkey. After all, US-EU interests are not always identical and major EU states, such as Germany, appreciate that Turkey harbors nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, thus sparing other European countries from the unwelcome prospect of having huge numbers of those refugees entering Europe, should Turkey pressure them into leaving.
With the Turkish economy in tatters and Erdogan’s popularity sinking, Siccardi, thinks that the priority for President Erdogan is to build a more constructive relationship with his new American counterpart. As a result, Bahcheli thinks that Turkey’s responses to President Biden’s declaration of the Armenian genocide will be limited and mostly rhetorical, but not seriously consequential.
Erdogan has been forging a very aggressive – and often controversial – foreign policy, aimed at capitalizing on the geopolitical importance of Turkey and exploiting all the opportunities the fluid regional scenario offers. Still, Del Pero is convinced that Turkey needs the US and, more importantly, the United States has the tools to punish Ankara, harshly if needed, as we have seen in the past two years with the crisis of the Turkish currency. In the end, the recent discord suggests that the two sides often play a “game of chicken,” knowing they need each other and that all the alternatives to their partnership are worse or unrealistic.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.