OSAMA AL-SHARIF April 27, 2021
For decades, US presidents have failed to recognize the 1915 massacres committed by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians as “genocide.” The main reason was geopolitical. Turkey was a key Western ally on the forefront of confronting the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. As a member of NATO, it hosted strategic military bases and presented itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia. In addition, it had made a slow transition from a military dictatorship to a civilian democracy and was quickly emerging as an economic powerhouse.
And, for decades, Turkey and its lobbyists threatened the West that it would not tolerate any attempt to recognize the Armenian massacres as genocide. That would lead to closing down military bases, quitting NATO and shifting toward Russia and China.
But, on Saturday, US President Joe Biden said in a statement marking the annual Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day that, “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.”
Turkey’s reaction was furious. Officials denounced Biden’s statement and the Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador to Ankara. In a statement, the ministry said that Biden’s remarks caused “wounds in ties that will be hard to repair,” and that Turkey “rejected it, found it unacceptable and condemned (it) in the strongest terms.”
Turkey has acknowledged that many Armenians died between 1910 and 1915, but rejected reports that the massacres had cost the lives of 1.5 million and that they amounted to ethnic cleansing. In response to Biden’s announcement, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “we have lived together in peace in this land for centuries; we find peace under the shadow of our crescent and star flag.”
Reports say that Biden called Erdogan on Friday and told him about his imminent decision. It was the first call between the two leaders since Biden entered the White House. It was described by CNN as “tense.”
The question is why did Biden take this decision? The US did little to support Armenia during last year’s military conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. A ceasefire was negotiated by Moscow. Turkey supported Azerbaijan.
Biden’s move is a clear message that his view of Turkey and its president is different from that of his predecessors. Biden’s main foreign policy mantra rests on upholding human rights and furthering democracy — two issues that Erdogan is accused of undermining. More critically, it now appears that the US is downplaying Turkey’s regional role and Erdogan only has himself to blame.
One key issue is Erdogan’s controversial 2017 decision to acquire Russia’s strategic S-400 air defense system despite US and NATO protests. The decision resulted in the halting and later canceling of a deal to supply Turkey with advanced F-35 fighter jets. The purchase of the S-400 by a main NATO ally is said to undermine the alliance’s security and expose its military technology to the Russians.
Erdogan defied then-President Donald Trump and pushed for the delivery of the Russian air defense system even as the US imposed sanctions on Turkey. In March, it was reported that Ankara was considering buying a second regiment of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia, despite US objections. The S-400 — a mobile surface-to-air missile system — is said to pose a risk to the NATO alliance as well as the F-35, America’s most expensive weapons platform. Doubling down, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Ankara’s purchase of the Russian missile defense system was “a done deal.”
The US is not happy with Erdogan’s regional adventures in northern Syria and in Libya, where he has sent mercenaries and weapons to help the Tripoli government. It is certainly worried about Erdogan getting close to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the regime in Tehran. Turkey’s tensions with Greece, a close US ally, have also added to the growing problems.
It now appears that the US is downplaying Turkey’s regional role and Erdogan only has himself to blame.
Furthermore, Erdogan’s ties with the EU have worsened in recent years, as Turkey has shifted to the east and Central Asia. His support of the Muslim Brotherhood has soured his relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Erdogan lost a great deal of his popularity at home due to his clamping down on the free press and political opponents, along with Turkey’s worsening human rights record, a falling currency and declining economic conditions.
In the view of experts, Biden’s move is meant to put pressure on Turkey more than to appease the Armenians. The geopolitical reality is that Turkey still needs the US, while America’s reliance on Ankara is waning. The two leaders are expected to meet at a NATO summit in May. By then, the future of bilateral ties could become clearer.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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