April 25, 2021


TURKEY: Armenian Genocide recognition will trigger furious (verbal) response

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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  • US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide marks a new low-point in bilateral Turkey-US ties and will trigger a furious verbal response from Ankara.
  • Retaliatory measures, if any, are likely to be short-lived and generally non-material.
  • In the best-case scenario, US-Turkey ties will remain distant, transactional and inherently prone to friction.
  • The trial of Halkbank, scheduled to open on 3 May, will be the next flashpoint. Meanwhile, the exclusion from the F-35 consortium will cost Turkey around USD 9-11bn.

As anticipated, US President Joe Biden’s officially recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16 as an act of genocide in his speech made on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day (24 April). Biden’s move will further strain already tense US-Turkey relations and is likely to trigger a fierce rhetorical response from President Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Biden’s acknowledgement of a genocide albeit largely symbolic, marks a clear departure from decades of carefully calibrated language from the White House and comes at a time when Ankara and Washington are already at loggerheads over a string of issues.

A phone call at last

The much-anticipated first phone call between the two presidents took place on 23 April, more than three months after Biden’s inauguration, a delay that is seen as a cold shoulder to Erdogan, who had enjoyed close ties with former president Donald Trump. While neither the White House statement on the phone call nor the account provided by the Turkish presidency made any mention of the Armenian Genocide recognition, it appears that Biden informed Erdogan about his decision to go ahead with such a designation during the call. According to the US readout, the two leaders agreed to meet on the margins of the NATO summit in June to have a wider conversation about their two countries’ relations.

More bark than bite next

Denial of the genocide is one of the few issues that unites all of the main opposition parties in Turkey and the majority of the Turkish public. Not only will Erdogan be aware that he needs to be seen as responding forcefully to Biden’s decision, but he is likely to welcome the opportunity – not least as a means of distracting the attention of voters from increasing economic hardship and the government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Turkey’s previous reactions to countries that have recognized the genocide suggest that any retaliatory measures are likely to be more bark than bite. There has been speculation that Erdogan could try to retaliate by bringing a motion before the Turkish parliament to classify the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers as a genocide. Ankara could create informal barriers to imports from the US and/or complicate US operations at Turkish military facilities, such as the sprawling Incirlik airbase – although neither of the latter currently seems likely. Indeed, past experience has shown that even when Ankara has announced punitive measures against other countries that have recognized the genocide – such as banning their nationals from bidding for Turkish state contracts – these have been quickly and quietly dropped once the initial furor has faded.

Turkey-US ties set to remain distant, transactional and prone to friction

Erdogan will also be aware that, although defying the US plays well with his nationalist support base, sustained bilateral tensions will deal another blow to Turkey’s already frail economy, especially the still highly vulnerable Turkish Lira. However, given his inability to halt the slide in his popularity by securing a palpable achievement, Erdogan will also be anxious to avoid being seen as meekly bowing to Washington’s will. As a result, Biden’s recognition of the genocide is likely to make Erdogan even more reluctant to make the concessions necessary to repair ties with the US, such as getting rid of the S-400 air defense systems Erdogan’s government has bought from Russia.

In the short-term, the three-day nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in Turkey from 23-25 April reduces the risk of potentially violent protests against Biden’s decision outside the US embassy and other diplomatic facilities in Turkey. However, in the longer term, US-Turkish ties are likely to remain distant and transactional at best – and, given the number of actual and potential points of friction, inherently unstable. The recognition of the Armenian Genocide clearly signals that Washington’s previous willingness to make concessions to Erdogan because of Turkey’s NATO membership is now gone.

Halkbank trial next

Nor is there much time for the dust from the recognition of the Armenian Genocide to settle before another potential flashpoint. On 3 May, the trial of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank is scheduled to open in New York on charges of circumventing US sanctions against Iran. A conviction and a large fine appear inevitable, leaving Erdogan with the choice between the domestic humiliation of paying the fine and the risk of Halkbank being banned from conducting financial transactions through US institutions – something that could cripple the third largest bank in Turkey and have a knock-on effect on the country’s entire financial sector.

Exclusion from F-35 consortium will cost Turkey USD 9-11bn

Last week, Washington has notified Turkey it is officially excluded from the F-35 fighter jet production program. This was a long-awaited decision, following Ankara’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft weapons system, amid fears over its possible use by Moscow to obtain intelligence on the F-35. Various Turkish firms were involved in the production of more than 900 of the F-35’s parts; the exclusion will cost them around USD 9-11bn over the life of the program. Turkey joined the F-35 consortium in 2002 and had planned to buy 100 of the fifth-generation fighters over the life of the program.

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