Biden's Armenian genocide recognition: A new crisis in US-Turkey ties?

Biden's Armenian genocide recognition: A new crisis in US-Turkey ties?
Analysis: Biden's decision to recognise the Armenian genocide could further strain already tense ties between Turkey and the US.
6 min read
26 April, 2021
US President Joe Biden recognised the Armenian genocide on Saturday. [Getty]
For the past two decades, US-Turkey ties have strained every year in April over official US statements to commemorate the mass killing of Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden recognised the Armenian genocide, fulfilling a campaign promise and taking a step his predecessors had avoided through carefully calibrated White House statements.

"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, becoming the first US president to use the term in an annual message.

While Ronald Reagan had referred to the Armenian genocide during a 1981 statement on the Holocaust, it was not followed by any official recognition.

Declarations by the White House on 24 April - Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day - underwent a change during Barack Obama's presidency. In 2008, during his election campaign, Obama said that the Armenian genocide was not an "allegation" or "point of view", but a "widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," promising to recognise the genocide.

After becoming president, however, he refrained from using the term in his 24 April annual speech, while at the same time contending that his views on the killings had not changed. Instead, he referenced 'Meds Yeghern', or 'Great Calamity', to refer to the killings, the name used by Armenia in official declarations. The Trump administration had also used the term in its commemoration speeches.

US President Joe Biden has recognised the Armenian genocide, fulfilling a campaign promise and taking a step his predecessors had avoided

Strained ties

In 2019, both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives passed resolutions with broad support that recognised the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as "genocide". With Biden's official recognition, it is likely that differing interests in US-Turkey ties, which have often been tense in recent years, will further intensify.

On Friday, 23 April, Biden held his much-anticipated first phone call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to tell him he intended to recognise the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The three-month delay in official communication was widely seen as a snub to Erdogan, who enjoyed close ties with Trump.

Read more: Biden and the Eastern Mediterranean: Greek
optimism, Turkish caution

Some experts argue that this new stance by the Biden administration indicates that Turkey is no longer an indispensable ally. Tensions in ties have grown over Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Ankara's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system.

Moreover, regressions in the areas of human rights and democracy in Turkey have contributed to the Biden administration's negative outlook towards Erdogan. As a result, restrictions that had once limited former US presidents from using the term 'genocide' appeared to finally loosen. 

Turkey's reaction

Ankara has predictably condemned Biden's statement on the Armenian genocide, summoning the US ambassador and saying the decision has left a "deep wound" in US-Turkey relations.

A Turkish foreign ministry statement said Biden's announcement was a "grave mistake", while Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu tweeted: "Words cannot change or rewrite history. We don't have lessons to take from anyone on our history".

Tensions in ties have grown over Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Ankara's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system

Turkish political parties, along with various popular organisations and the media, have also rallied around the declaration and demanded a serious political response from the Turkish government.

Some in Turkey, such as the Head of the Grand National Assembly Mustafa Şentop, argue that the recognition is just symbolic and has no legal basis. Others, however, such as former Turkey Ambassador to the US Namik Tan, have speculated over legal ramifications, including a demand for compensation.

Some observers have suggested that Ankara could strengthen ties with Russia, or even close the Incirlik air base to operations outside of NATO and prevent the passage of US ships from the Black Sea. Others, meanwhile, predict that Erdogan could capitalise on anti-American sentiment to boost his public image, which has fluctuated in recent years. 

Ankara's reaction could also be more muted. Since December, Turkey has worked to enact political changes in order to start a new chapter in US and EU ties following Biden's election, and strong statements may suffice in the short-term future. Nevertheless, several areas of potential disagreement remain. 

Read more: What's driving the thaw in Egypt-Turkey relations?

Friction points

Ankara and Washington have long had conflicting interests on regional issues, especially in the Syrian conflict and US support for Syrian Kurdish armed groups. If Turkey wants to give a firm response to Biden's announcement, the possible closure of the Incirlik and Kurecik bases could be considered.

The issue of closing these bases has been raised many times in previous years, especially during heightened tensions over Syria's war. The Kurecik military base was initially established by the United States to counter Russia, and especially Iran, and has highly advanced missile defence systems and radars. 

Although tensions in the Mediterranean have eased somewhat recently, Biden and US government officials have repeatedly supported Greek and Cypriot positions on energy resources. In the coming months, not only is the US military presence in the region, especially Greece, expected to increase, but the US government's support for Athens and Nicosia's positions on regional tensions will likely be reinforced. The US military currently operates in multiple bases in Greece and if Incirlik is closed the country could be used as an alternative location for a new US military base in the region.

A new crisis in Turkish-American relations could push Ankara closer to Russia and China, which would be contrary to US interests

Economy and defence

Turkey has invested heavily in its drone industry in recent years, and Turkey's exclusion from the F-35 project after accepting delivery of the Russian S-400 air defence system will likely see continued promotion of the sector. The Nagorno-Karabakh war demonstrated the advantages of Turkish drones and created interest from multiple countries in acquiring the technology. 

One route to return to the F-35 program would be abandoning Russia's missile defence system and taking up the US Patriot missile defence system, which Washington offered last year, but the future of security ties is uncertain.

Read more: Why Turkey wants Biden to salvage the
Iran nuclear deal

In economic terms, Turkey is one of the largest customers of American Liquefied natural gas (LNG). A continuing crisis in relations between the two countries could force Ankara to increase gas imports from other sources and reduce the US share in Turkey's natural gas sector.

US-Turkey trade jumped from $10 billion in 2009 to $20 billion in 2019, with the Trump administration setting a lofty target of $100 billion following a trade deal in 2019. Any escalation in US-Turkey tensions could impact these relations and further damage Turkey's embattled economy, which has seen the lira drop to record lows in recent weeks. 

A new crisis in Turkish-American relations, if not managed in the short term, could push Ankara closer to Russia and China, Washington's two main foreign policy priorities, and this could worry the Biden administration.

Omid Shokri is a Washington-based analyst who focuses on energy diplomacy, US energy policy, Iran-Turkey relations, and Iran-Russia relations. He holds a PhD in International Relations and is currently serving as a Visiting Research Scholar in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA). 

Follow him on Twitter: @ushukrik