Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will finally get his first chance to talk to US President Joe Biden – albeit with plenty of other world leaders – during the virtual climate summit on 22-23 April. The next day, however, could mark a new low point in Turkey-US relations as Biden may officially recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16 on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. In the event, Biden would become the first US president to recognize the systematic killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 onwards in modern-day Turkey as a “genocide,” a step already taken by the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2019.
Like many previous candidates, Biden pledged to recognize the genocide during his presidential campaign. Vice President Kamala Harris comes from California, where there is a large Armenian-American community, and was the co-sponsor of a Senate resolution to recognize the genocide in 2019. A bipartisan coalition of nearly 40 lawmakers led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) signed a letter urging President Biden to officially recognize the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide. Not only is anti-Erdogan feeling in Washington intense – especially in Congress – but also the previous willingness to make concessions to Erdogan because of Turkey’s NATO membership seems to have now disappeared.
The Erdogan regime’s anti-Americanism runs parallel to a desire to be praised, or at least recognized, by the most powerful country in the world – and courtesy calls, by telephone or in person, play an important role in Turkish culture, including politics. The suspicion in Ankara is that Biden’s failure to follow his predecessors in calling Erdogan soon after his inauguration is either a sign of hostility or, more damagingly to Erdogan’s pride, an indication that he is regarded as unimportant. The longer the delay, the more it is also seen in Ankara as an indication that Biden will recognize the genocide.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey is on tenterhooks for Biden’s decision on the matter. On 20 April, the Communications Directorate at the Turkish Presidency hosted a hastily arranged livestreamed conference on “the events of 1915” in which all the participants were genocide deniers. Later in the day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that any move by Biden to recognize the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide will further harm already strained ties between the NATO allies.
Successive Turkish governments have always vigorously denied any historical role in the Armenian Genocide and recognition by the Biden administration would likely trigger a furious response from not only Erdogan, but across the political spectrum as denial of the genocide is one of the few issues that unites all the mainstream political parties in Turkey; US recognition would likely be as vigorously condemned by Erdogan’s opponents as by his supporters.
However, although the recognition by other countries in the past of the Armenian Genocide has triggered outrage in Turkey, the reaction has tended to have more bark than bite. There have been motions in the Turkish parliament to classify historical events in the offending country as genocides. Companies from the country concerned have also been banned from bidding for Turkish state contracts. But any actual measures are likely to be minor, short-lived, and primarily targeted at domestic public opinion in Turkey. Such restrictions have always been quietly and relatively quickly lifted, usually in a matter of months.
Relations between Turkey and the US have been on a steady downward trajectory for almost ten years. The possible recognition of the Armenian Genocide will exacerbate discomfort amid continuing friction in US-Turkey relations but will not constitute a breaking point.