In a statement, President Joe Biden officially recognized the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, modern-day Turkey, as genocide. This could be a potential breaking point in the U.S.’s relationship with Turkey. Yet, the recognition was more than just giving lip service to the horrible events that transpired two decades before the Holocaust. 

The president’s statement follows through on his campaign promise to formally acknowledge the systematic deportation and killing of between one to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide.

The United States now joins 30 countries that recognize the genocide against the Armenian people.
The Armenian genocide was perpetrated early in the 20th century by the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey. (Wikipedia)

On the 106th anniversary of the start of the Armenian massacre, Biden said, “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.”

“Today, as we mourn what was lost, let us also turn our eyes to the future… toward the world that we wish to build for our children. A world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security.” 

“Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world,” Biden added.

American presidents have danced around the Armenian issue. Thus far, they had been wary of recognizing the genocide since it is such a sore spot with Turkey, which had been a staunch NATO ally.

Erdogan’s Actions Have Many in Washington Questioning Whether Turkey Is Still an Ally

For the past decade, the U.S. relationship with Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been on a steadily downward spiral. 

Among other issues, Erdogan has pursued a closer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is despite the two countries being at odds over several different flashpoints.

Furthermore, Erdogan’s vision of Turkey as a world power and independent, assertive nation has a dark underside. His human rights record is dismal. He has repressed domestic opposition, replaced elected municipal governments, forced elections to be rerun, and silenced the press. Prior to the November election, Biden had called him an autocrat. 

Back in July, writer Lela Gilbert described Erdogan’s human rights record as “reflect[ing] his vision of a glorious, Neo-Ottoman Empire.”

The Problem of the S-400
S-400 air defense systems.

But perhaps the breaking point in the U.S.-Turkish relation was the very controversial purchase by Ankara of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Despite the U.S. trying to dissuade Turkey, Erdogan went ahead with the purchase. In response, the U.S. kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program. Of particular concern was that the S-400 radars would be operated by Russian contractors. This would allow Russia to build detailed signatures of NATO planes, including the F-35. Therefore, this would make it easier for Russia to target NATO aircraft in the future. 

The Turkish move was especially perplexing since Turkey will lose jobs and income as parts of the F-35 would have been manufactured in the country. Furthermore, F-35s would have provided Turkey with far greater air defense than two batteries of S-400s can. 

Turkey reportedly tested the radars against American-built F-16s. And Erdogan even publicly espoused the idea of pushing through more purchases of S-400s. 

Besides the S-400, Turkey has continually acted against U.S. interests in Syria by attacking the SDF. Further, it has taken provocative action against Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. And it has gotten involved in regional conflicts in Libyan and the Caucasus.

Biden’s Move Received Bipartisan Support

Biden received bipartisan high marks. Senator Bob Melendez (D-NJ) from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Republican senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole called the move long overdue. 

President Biden had made four trips to Turkey as vice president. He had less than stellar views on Erdogan in the past. Last year, he told the New York Times that “I’ve spent a lot of time with him. He is an autocrat. He’s the President of Turkey and a lot more. What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership.”

Further, Varuzhan Nersesyan, Armenia’s ambassador to the U.S.,  said in an interview with the Hill that “By recognizing the genocide the U.S. proves that it stands on the side of justice and right cause.” 

“On the other hand, genocide recognition sends a message that the U.S. has moral leadership in these matters,” he added.

Turkey Did Not Take the Recognition Kindly

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that the recognition would worsen ties between the two countries. 

“Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties,” Cavusoglu said. “If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs.”

Further, Turkey’s foreign ministry released a statement Saturday that urged Biden to “correct this grave mistake.” 

“We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the U.S. regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on April 24.”

“This statement of the U.S…. will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual friendship and trust,” the foreign ministry added.

Erdogan will also likely undertake polemical rhetoric in the following days.
Presidents Erdogan and Trump. Turkey enjoyed a hands-off approach from the Trump administration. (Reuters)

The Administration Is Determined to Address The Problem of Turkey

Still, in an attempt to strengthen NATO cohesion, Biden has made it clear that he’ll support mediation between NATO allies France, Greece, and Turkey. The relationship between the two European countries and Turkey has been acrimonious for quite some time.

Nonetheless, Turkey can’t have it both ways. It can’t sit on the fence and claim (as it has done), that it doesn’t want to choose between the West and Russia and then use NATO to protect it from the Russians. 

The fact is, the U.S. and Turkey aren’t strategic partners anymore. They haven’t been for several years. This is why the U.S. is looking to move some of its bases from Turkey to Jordan. Turkey’s economy has much more to lose in a clean break from the U.S. than Washington does. 

The State Department will have some deft maneuvering to do with Erdogan. Under him, Turkey has chartered its own independent and assertive course of action. But that independence comes at a cost and the situation cannot return to where it was a decade ago.

Erdogan has an election coming up in 2023 and could find himself ousted. Yet, in the meantime, things are changing with NATO, the U.S., and Turkey and the Biden administration has made it clear that the hands-off approach that Turkey enjoyed during the Trump administration is a thing of the past. 

The genocide statement is just the beginning.